Monday, February 27, 2017

A Book Best Read at Halloween!!

Halloween photo is not mine; borrowed from Facebook post of neighbor's daughter!

Starting to read more non-fiction, I happened on a biography by Wendy Moore, "The Knife Man - Blood, Body Snatching and the Birth of Modern Surgery"; it details the life and works of John Hunter.

He was an energetic, charismatic British surgeon of the late 18th Century whose tireless work pioneered the early development of modern surgery as a medical specialty. It was not easy: he started as an apprentice to his credit-grabbing slave driver older brother, William, a shrewd, social climbing physician to the upper classes in London. He worked long hours through the cold winter months dissecting corpses (some of which he took part in stealing from cemeteries). In those days, there was no legal way for student-surgeons to obtain subjects for dissection, so grave robbing was an enormous trade. (If a less affluent person passed away in the winter months in London at that time, there was a very good chance they would end up on the dissecting table. Condemned criminals and their families sometimes sold those bodies, too.  Weird.)

But eventually, John Hunter's efforts paid off for the benefit of medical progress. And Hunter's "single-minded mission was to understand all of nature": human, animal, plant and mineral. He collected the "normal" and the "abnormal".  He was a friend of Captain Cook and most of the other intellectual luminaries of the 18th Century, including Benjamin Franklin; the painter Gainsborough was his neighbor, etc. etc. He kept a private zoo at his country home, to which the Queen contributed.

John Hunter's teaching inspired surgeons all over the world. His work became well known again toward the middle of the 19th Century. He was inspirational to several authors, including works like Dr. Doolittle, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein; the published account of his dissection of a whale influenced portions of Moby Dick. The foundation of Hunter's collection still exists at the Hunterian Museum in London. Hunter contemplated the idea of evolution, 50 years before it became popular.

The book reminded me of "The Devil in the White City", though Hunter did not actually murder his subjects.

Amusing: Hunter's wife was a popular hostess at the time, a socialite who managed to entertain artists, musicians, intellectuals,  nobility, etc. in the same house where her husband dissected humans and animals on any available surface at any time, and kept stinking jars of specimens all over the place; the halls crowded with students at his lectures and young surgeons up to their elbows in gore. Good Times!

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