Monday, 14 March 2005

The Knife Man – Wendy Moore *****

By all our rule of thumb, judge-a-book-by-its-cover responses, this ought not to have been a good read. It’s too fat, appearing to display classic Brysonitis, and it’s a medical biography, and medicine is rather on the fringe when it comes to popular science (to be honest, early medicine was on the fringe of science full stop). And all those body parts can offend a delicate stomach. But just as Mutants was a delightful surprise, so this life of quite remarkable man dispels all the prejudices and wins through as a cracker of a book.
Of course John Hunter himself, the subject of the book, is part of the reason it’s so good. This 18th century doctor and scientists was extreme enough to be the inspiration behind both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide and Dr Doolittle. He was a frenetic dissector, not above obtaining material by dodgy means. But he wasn’t just a meddling quack – Hunter made a huge study of animal life too and made some impressive pre-Darwinian speculation on the origin of species. What makes him a great subject is the way he teeters between heroic scientist and villain – he is the archetype for all the well-meaning mad scientists Hollywood has given us, from Colin Clive’s Frankenstein on.
However, it would be unfair to give all the credit to Hunter himself. Wendy Moore has done a meticulous job in a book that has clearly required a lot of in-depth research. In itself that’s not necessarily the mark of a good book. Totally unreadable scientific papers can be beautifully researched. But Moore manages to give Hunter’s story all the enthusiasm and verve it deserves. Although occasionally a little dry, her prose is always readable and paints an excellent picture of the dark world of 18th century medicine, lit by flickering pockets of knowledge that Hunter attempted, not always wisely, to increase.
There always has to be a small moan – it’s part of our style. It is still a little over-long. There’s a fine line between “comprehensive” and “excessive”, that the book just about treads. And it has reference numbers through the text which simply doesn’t work in a true popular science title – this isn’t supposed to be an academic treatise – if notes are required (and I accept they often are), there are ways to link them to the text without the irritating, flow-disrupting numbers.
What remains, though, is a book that will stay with you a long time – an excellent first outing by Wendy Moore.
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Review by Jo Reed

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