- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 1, 2006

Wendy Moore’s The Knife Man: The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery (Broadway/Random House, $26, 341 pages)is not for the squeamish. If you can persevere past the lurid passages about vivisection and grave robbing, however, you will come to appreciate the mind of one of the most interesting scientists of the 18th century.

John Hunter (1728-92) believed that anatomy was the basis for all surgery, and he spent a dozen years in the dissecting rooms of his surgeon brother before beginning his own surgical career. He “set out systematically to question every established practice, develop hypotheses to advance better methods, and test by means of rigorous observation, investigation, and experiment whether these methods worked.”

He hired armies of assistants who obtained bodies for him to dissect (the hearts of hanging victims at Tyburn were sometimes still beating when their bodies reached his dissecting table), and he tested his theories on animals before attempting new procedures on people — all in the service of learning how bones developed, whether the mother’s and fetus’s blood supplies were separate, how the parts of the body worked when healthy and what happened when things went wrong.

He was interested in the anatomy of life from plants and insects to giraffes, and he kept a menagerie — alive and dead — to rival the zoo/museum. In fact, his mansion in London was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s imaginary Jekyll-Hyde house, with a front entrance for London’s elite and a rear exit for body parts and who knows what else?

He was shameless in the pursuit of oddities, paying an assistant to shadow the ailing “Irish giant”— a man well over seven feet tall — in order to get his body the minute he died (as it happened, the assistant had to rob the coffin on its way to burial at sea).

John Hunter’s willingness to experiment beggars belief: before his marriage, he infected himself with bacteria from a man with venereal disease in order to prove that gonorrhea progressed to syphilis, a false premise as it turned out.

Fortunately, he recovered. His experiments led him to deduce theories of evolution decades before Darwin made his epic voyage on the Beagle. Writes the author, “Given the general belief that nature was essentially unchangeable and unchanging, human freaks … presented something of a difficulty.

If nature could produce such wild variations in individual beings, was it not conceivable such changes might occur in whole species, too? To Hunter, the production of ‘monsters’ was clear proof of nature’s ability to generate change.”

John Hunter’s bizarre quest for knowledge did not sit well with his more traditional fellow surgeons in London, including his brother. Although John was the man to go to when surgery was needed (he removed an “encysted tumour” from the cheek of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger while the patient clocked the operation at 6 1/2 minutes on the Horse Guards’ clock), he was passed over for promotion at his own hospital. When he died suddenly, his colleagues “voted not to send their condolences to Hunter’s widow” and the family was left virtually penniless.

Ms. Moore is a superior science writer who knows whereof she writes—an end note reveals that “for help in understanding the process of dissection in Hunter’s day,” she sat in on a modern dissection class at Guy’s Hospital in London. She has produced a well-researched, fascinating glimpse into the life of an extraordinary medical pioneer which should appeal to an eclectic audience.

• • •

Until recently, justices of the U.S. Supreme Court were generally strangers to fame. They worked in privacy and relative isolation. Their opinions, even those of great import, were often shrouded in language unintelligible to the layman. The only guarantee of immortality was to write a decision so devastatingly bad that it makes the history texts, as did Chief Justice Roger Taney in the Dred Scott case, insisting in 1857 that slaves had no legal rights.

An exception to this legal anonymity was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., now the subject of an erudite minibiography by University of Virginia scholar G. Edward White, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (Oxford, $17.95, 161 pages, illus.).

Holmes was born into a famous family; his father, of the same name, was a Boston physician renowned for his poems and witty essays. The younger Holmes had just entered Harvard in 1861 when the Civil War broke out, and he along with many classmates rallied to the colors. As an officer in the Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry he was seriously wounded at Ball’s Bluff in 1861, again at Antietam the following year, and finally at Chancellorsville in 1863. He was discharged in 1864 a lieutenant colonel. Years later he remained enough of a romantic to write that his generation was privileged to have been “touched with fire.”

Upon completing his military service Holmes graduated from Harvard Law School and soon became noted as a legal scholar. After a brief period in private practice he was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court on which he served in relative anonymity for 20 years.

In 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Holmes to the U.S. Supreme Court after an interview in which Holmes convinced the president that he was sympathetic to antitrust cases being prosecuted by the Justice Department. Two years later Holmes angered the president when he dissented in a key antitrust judgment, the Northern Securities case.

Over the years, Holmes gained a reputation for seeing a case “to its bottom,” that is, to see its larger legal and historical significance. As Mr. White points out, Holmes also liked to write opinions “that included memorable and original language.” He became noted for his dissenting opinions, in which he was sometimes joined by his closest associate on the court, Justice Louis Brandeis.

In 1919, however, he delivered the majority opinion upholding the conviction of a man named Schenck for distributing pacifist leaflets to army draftees. Rejecting the argument that such activity constituted freedom of expression, Holmes wrote, “The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.” This standard would be long applied by the court in determining limits on freedom of expression.

Holmes was never a flaming radical. Mr. White points out that Justice Holmes did not believe it was his responsibility to invalidate legislation in the absence of “an overwhelming constitutional mandate.”

Interest in Holmes derives in part from his longevity. Who else served his country from the Civil War to the era of Franklin Roosevelt? But Holmes’s personality remains elusive. He had few friends, and virtually no interests outside the law. His marriage in 1872 to the reclusive Fanny Dixwell endured until her death, but there were no children. Holmes enjoyed the company of attractive women; late in life he is said to have remarked at a party, “Ah, to be seventy again!”

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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