The Knife Man: The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery by Wendy Mo

[3 November 2005]

By Robert R. Calder

Long ago, my late father took me to the Hunter Brothers’ birthplace. The old farmhouse in the country is now a civic museum and has long been surrounded by attractive modern housing. Recognition of the local medical heroes has become official rather than part of oral lore.

William Hunter (1718-1783), John’s older brother, was like other medical pioneers (William Cullen, and the giant of Chemistry Joseph Black) a Glasgow University graduate who’d initially planned a career in the Protestant church. Where Wendy Moore supposes that the Moral Philosophy professor, Francis Hutcheson, inculcated theologically unmarketable views, these men’s move from theology to medicine are more commonly attributed to Hutcheson’s reference to Newtonian observational method, and its kindling enthusiasms for science.

Often cited as crucial to Thomas Jefferson, with a notion of self-evidence founded on looking, rather than conveniently taking-for-granted, Hutcheson denied that all motivation is ultimately selfishness, all laughter Schadenfreude. The recovered wisdom of the ancients wasn’t un-impugnable either—no excuse for not looking and learning.

Without reference to Hutcheson, Wendy Moore’s biography of John Hunter makes his Newtonianism-in-practice plain, though he attended no university. As a boy he’d been averse to formal schooling, he always affected to disdain books, his spelling and grammar and hand scrawl were usually undisciplined. Dyslexia? Some quirks of personal character?

A country boy precociously preoccupied with natural history, his early working life had trained his digital dexterity before William brought him to London as research assistant in his practice as society physician, surgeon, and pioneering research anatomist.

John’s London duties included grave-robbing and other means of acquiring the corpses (hard to obtain legally) he dissected expertly. Ms. Moore, whose prose is populist rather than matching any scholar’s norm, wisely opens the book with demonstration of John’s humanitarian concern. Her subsequent, never sensationalised, often gruesome account of work with corpses, animal carcasses and live beasts would be the grislier without that reminder.

Regulation of entry to the professions of medicine and surgery had been against him from the start, but he knew his worth and did much good and suffered insult and oppression on his way to the top. He died arguing against a reinforcement of restrictions he had had to contend with on his way to the professional top. His adversaries were such medical mafia dons as long condemned his work and deplored its effectiveness. A committed educator, the subsequent work of some of his early pupils granted him the title of grandfather of modern North American medicine.

After his death a dodgy nephew didn’t carry through Hunter’s request that his corpse be dissected. The same reprobate also made off with his uncle’s papers and harvested them for discoveries, which initially made his own name. Hunter had been too productive a researcher to write up all his own work, and it had even ripped off earlier when he was still his older brother’s aide. William remains a considerable enough figure, but if he couldn’t have expected the intellectual and scientific flourishing of his kid brother, and took the early discoveries for flukes. he continued to claim credit for them till John became seriously disaffected.

The ugly stuff’s substantially accounted for by the need for research when anatomical and medical knowledge was slight, and practice dominated by pseudoscientific dogmas founded on undue reverence for the ancients. John Hunter has to be seen as a force both of and in history. Suffering and death were immediate issues, and reform was demanded by the need to reform medical practice.

Ms. Moore’s references to the traditional church dogma Hunter’s research flouted do raise questions about his own personal religious views. She cites little save his deploring the prospects of one young man ceasing to be ‘a Christian’. More study might be given to the theological views his Scottish intellectual contemporaries. They seem to have been liberal, non-literalist and even modernist—unlike English Anglicans whose descendants’ often unreflecting creeds now get credited with, blamed for, war between science and orthodoxy.

Pretty well the sole available route to formal professional qualification was for John enlistment as a navy sawbones—cf. his friend Tobias Smollett’s novel Roderick Random. Overseas he observed how when caught, lizards’ tails detached, and how the tales re-grew. Among speculations this observation fed he was led to consider transplant surgery. Marines who’d been shot and stranded for days were in much better nick than mates of theirs from whose bodies lead shot had been removed promptly. Official refusal to acknowledge phenomena at odds with received medical doctrine is an old but still surviving difficulty. Why did physicians purge and bleed and otherwise discomfort sad folk in their care where you’d reasonably suppose such treatment would finish them off? Hunter’s practice of masterly inaction was a huge heresy. Some of the tale would have deepened my schoolboy interest in the Hunters. Other things would have given me nightmares.

His collection of bones and preserved tissue was a major medical resource, but was pretty well obsessive in his pursuit of carcasses human or otherwise. Once established, he lived in extensive premises, domestic dwelling cum museum of forensic and comparative anatomy. He bought a house on swish Leicester Square and the slum building, which backed on to it, and built a gallery between them as laboratory cum museum. Guess which door the carcasses were brought to.

The domestic-scientific complex survived for R.L. Stevenson to see, and mention in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—whom John Hunter didn’t resemble, His darkness and his brightness (cf. Byron) coexisted. He pursued humane treatment for everybody: the cabby; the young woman who couldn’t afford the corrective boot Hunter prescribed for her son, who became Lord Byron and limped; David Hume, who preferred being told he had terminal inoperable liver cancer, to a nonsense of false expectations; Adam Smith, who travelled south and was relieved of his haemorrhoids.

John Hunter helped people as obscure as he’d been himself, and as famous and positively influential as he became: either in person or by way of innovation and education. The part which pompous theory-bound hacks of establishment rank played in his death seems pungently appropriate to the tale of this dishevelled prodigy. It’s some bloody story.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/knife-man-2005/