Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Knife Man

How could I have never heard of John Hunter?  The father of modern surgery, mentor to the founders of Pennsylvania Hospital and to Edward Jenner, and the inspiration for Dr. Doolittle?  He was a truly remarkable man, and yet even as someone who considers herself fairly aware of scientific pioneers, I had no idea who he was.  Then again, I've spent the past decade working a few blocks from the Mutter Museum and I still haven't managed to walk over there.

Surgeons are currently considered the top of the medical ladder, so it's easy to forget that only 300 years ago, the reverse was true.  Surgery in the pre-germ-theory, pre-anesthetic days was understandably a matter of last resort, and surgeons were only a few steps removed from the days when amputating limbs or excising tumors was a sideline for your neighborhood barber.  Doctors of every type had only a general knowledge of anatomy due to restrictions on dissection, and it was Hunter's skill with dissection that led to his groundbreaking work.

John Hunter was born in Scotland in 1728, the youngest member of a large family.  He didn't learn to read until he was about 10 (Moore suspects that he was dyslexic), and was generally considered unpromising when he moved to London at age 20 to serve as an assistant to his older brother, William.  A society doctor and medical lecturer, William needed someone to handle the less appealing parts of his job, and John proved to have a real talent for dissection.  More than that, he was wiling to steal bodies when necessary and combined a deep intellectual curiosity with meticulous note-taking, leading to major advances in medical treatment.  He was also willing to experiment on himself, notably by *not* operating on his ruptured Achilles tendon (theorizing that with rest and primitive physical therapy it would heal on its own) and by infecting himself with gonorrhea and syphilis in an attempt to determine whether they were two different diseases or two stages of the same disease (I suggest that the more squeamish among you skip that chapter).

Hunter's professional interests leaked into his personal life.  He was happily married to a minor poet from a higher social rank but had a long engagement because of the financial precariousness of his early career.  After they married, Anne carried on salons while John brought specimens and cadavers in through the back entrance (this house apparently inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to give Doctor Jekyll  a similar residence) and operated a menagerie of exotic wild animals.  Hunter was also short-tempered and a poor money manager; when he died of an apparent stroke while arguing with a student, he was deeply in debt and his carefully collected specimens had to be sold.  Many of them now reside in a museum operated by the Royal College of Physicians - a museum which is at the top of my list of places to visit during my next trip to London.