The eighteenth century had the usual drawbacks of pre-modern times – pestilence, slavery, amputations and dental extractions without anaesthesia – and much else besides. But this self-styled age of enlightenment had one decisive factor in its favour, an irrepressible conviction that reason would prevail and knowledge, zealously pursued, would abolish ignorance. This was a world full of promise, whose wonders, thanks to British naval power, were just waiting to be discovered: an era in which, for example, James Cook, during his three-year circumnavigation of the globe, could fill his ship’s hold with thousands of new and extraordinary specimens of plants and animals.
John Hunter, the tenth son of a struggling Scottish grain merchant, was a true product of that enlightenment, and the main interest of Wendy Moore’s vivid biography is her portrayal of the optimism of those times through the life of this remarkable man. Hunter arrived in London aged twenty, a