The cutting edge of medicine
THE KNIFE MAN by Wendy Moore Bantam, £18.99, pp. 482, ISBN 0593052099 ✆ £16.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848 In 1767, John Hunter, a 39-year-old surgeon, performed an experiment on venereal disease. In order to prove the hypothesis that gonorrhoea was the same disease as syphilis, he dipped a lancet into a festering venereal sore, and then injected it into a penis. He took careful notes, observing the classic symptoms of gonorrhoea, which then developed into the secondary stage of syphilis. Buboes, ulcers and copper-coloured blotches appeared, which he anointed with mercury. This seemingly proved that syphilis and gonorrhoea were one and the same. But his experiment was fatally flawed. Unwittingly, he had injected from a patient with syphilis, not gonorrhoea. His botched experiment set back the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases for many decades. Even worse, he had ruined his own health. For the penis he injected was almost certainly his own. His symptoms abated after a few months, but the tertiary syphilis infection remained dormant in his system, and it emerged to torment him.
This story is characteristic of John Hunter, who emerges from Wendy Moore’s biography as a larger-than-life mixture of foolhardy, mad child and maverick genius. Virtually uneducated, he was the tenth child of a poor Scottish farmer. But he was also a man of the Enlightenment, driven by unquenchable curiosity. He arrived in London aged 20 to work as assistant to his brother William Hunter, who had set up a private anatomy school in Covent Garden. A dedicated social climber, William had studied at Glasgow University and come south to make his fortune. As a member of the medical elite of physicians, William considered himself too grand to dirty his hands by dissecting bodies. Hence the need for brother John.
John Hunter’s job was to cut up bodies, make ‘preparations’ or slides and procure corpses. The only legal source of bodies was the gallows, but there were never enough of these, and John wasn’t squeamish about buying corpses illegally from Resurrection Men, as grave-robbers were known. Dissecting human bodies, which posh physicians had disdained for centuries, allowed Hunter to make crucial medical breakthroughs. He procured corpses of pregnant women which allowed him to show the development of the foetus, and explore the blood supply to the womb. An enthusiastic vivisectionist, Hunter cheerfully cut up live dogs which he nailed howling to the operating table. He grafted a human tooth onto a cock’s comb and stuck a rooster’s testicle onto a hen’s belly. He yanked teeth out of the mouths of the poor and transplanted them into the orifices of the rich. His simple insight that soldiers’ wounds healed far better if the bullet was left in, rather than cut out as was the usual practice, risking bleeding and infection, transformed army surgery.
Hunter made his money from treating the rich of Georgian London. He spent it on amassing an extraordinary collection of freaks and specimens, as well as a menagerie of animals from the New World which he kept at Earl’s Court. He was a gifted comparative anatomist, and his work on the origin of species anticipates Darwin. He built himself a large house in Leicester Square, where he kept his collection, taught pupils and worked a 19-hour day. At night, Resurrection Men delivered corpses at the back, while his wife entertained London society in the grand front rooms. Hunter’s house in Leicester Square symbolised the duality of Georgian medicine — breaking the law to dissect the bodies of the poor, the better to treat the ailments of the rich. According to Wendy Moore, Hunter and his house gave Stevenson the inspiration for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Moore has written a fast-moving, vivid life which is not for the faint-hearted. There are lurid descriptions of operations. A gall stone is removed by trussing the patient like a chicken, arms tied to legs, pushing the stone through the rectum and then cutting it out of the muscle of perineum near the anus, all without anaesthetic. A blood clot is removed from behind a cabbie’s knee, spurting blood all over the operating table. Wendy Moore has a remarkable tale to tell, and she tells it with vim and gusto.
The Hunterian Museum, which houses John Hunter’s collection of specimens, skeletons and surgical instruments, is at The Royal College of Surgeons, 35-43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3PE. Tel: 020 7869 6560. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10am5pm, admission free.