Hunter, John

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Hunter, John

(b. Long Calderwood, near East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, Scotland, 13 February 1728; d. London, England, 16 October 1793)

surgery, anatomy.

John Hunter, youngest of the ten children of John and Agnes Hunter, received his early education at the grammar school in East Kilbride. After the death of his father, a farmer, in 1741, he remained at home and during the next six years his activities, although seemingly aimless, nevertheless provided a knowledge of animal economy that formed the basis of his later studies.

In 1748 he proposed to join his brother William, who was then becoming established as a teacher of anatomy in London, and arrived in time to assist in preparations for the autumn course of lectures. William found his brother’s aptitudes promising and arranged that he should attend surgical classes at St. George’s and St. Bartholomew’s hospitals. He was also accepted as a pupil of William Cheselden at Chelsea Hospital.

In the summer of 1752, six months after the death of his mother, John Hunter went home to bring his sister Dorothea to London, where she lived until her marriage to the Reverend James Baillie in 1757. To improve his brother’s prospects, William Hunter persuaded him to enter as a student at St. Mary’s Hall, Oxford, in the summer of 1755; but apparently the instruction was of little value in John Hunter’s specialized pursuits and he returned to London at the beginning of the autumn term to continue his duties in the dissecting room.

John Hunter spent eleven years working with his brother in Covent Garden, during which time he made detailed studies of the structure and use of the lymphatic vessels and of the growth, structure, and exfoliation of bone. His first paper, “The State of the Testis in the Foetus and on the Hernia Congenita,” was published in William Hunter’s Medical Commentaries (1762, pp. 75–89), with illustrations by Jan van Rymsdyck. It is in this paper that he names the gubernaculum testis “because it connects the testis with the scrotum, and directs its course in its descent.”

He made numerous preparations from material brought to the dissecting room, obtained at postmortem examination, or from chance supply, such as the grampus caught at the mouth of the Thames in 1759 and conveyed to Westminster Bridge on a barge. His interest in the organ of hearing, particularly in fish, resulted in a fine series of specimens of this intricate structure in the skate and the cod. At this time also he described, and in many cases preserved evidence of, unusual morbid conditions: adhesion of lungs and heart to surrounding tissues, cases of aneuryism, corrosion of the stomach walls by gastric juice.

As a result of such concentrated work, his health began to suffer and, being advised to give up for a time his fascinating but dangerous pursuits, he procured an appointment on the surgical staff of the army. As England was then engaged in the Seven Years’ War, he was ordered to join the expeditionary force that set sail on 29 March 1761 from Portsmouth with the intention of capturing Belle l̊le-en-Mer (Belleisle), a small island off the French coast. Hunter and his colleagues were kept busy treating casualties for months after the island had surrendered, and it was here that he gained much of the experience that he incorporated into his great “Treatise on the Blood, Inflammation and Gun-Shot Wounds,” published in 1794, the year after his death.

After a sojourn of about a year at Belle l̊le-en-Mer, most of the British forces were transferred to Portugal where Hunter further developed his talents in the administration of army medical services. He also availed himself of the opportunity to study the natural history and geology of the country, continued his experiments on the organ of hearing in fish, tested the effects of hibernation on the process of digestion, and collected specimens—notably of the local lizard which has the power of regenerating its tail.

The Peace of Paris was signed in February 1763, and Hunter returned to London in the early summer, not to rejoin the Covent Garden establishment but to set up in practice in Golden Square. During the next four years he continued his experiments and research and made the acquaintance of many leading scientists and naturalists of the day, including John Ellis, Daniel Solander, and Matthew Maty. His description of the anatomy of the amphibious biped Siren lacertina enhanced his application to be elected a fellow of the Royal Society, which honor was accorded him on 5 February 1767. His ambition to gain a senior surgical post in a hospital, however, made it essential to have credentials other than an abundance of experience. So, at the advanced age of forty, Hunter entered as a candidate for the diploma of the Company of Surgeons and was successful at his first attempt on 7 July 1768. On 9 December he was appointed to the post made vacant by the death of Thomas Gataker, surgeon to St. George’s Hospital.

When William Hunter moved from Jermyn Street in 1768, John Hunter took over the property. He already owned an attractive country residence with several acres of ground at Earl’s Court, where he carried out much of his experimental work and made observations on live animals, which included leopards, deer, various birds and fish, and a bull presented to him by Queen Character lotte. It was here that he spent his honeymoon after his marriage at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, on 22 July 1771, to Anne Home, daughter of Robert Boyne Home, army surgeon. She was also the sister of the artist Robert Home, of Mary Home who married Robert Mylne, the architect, and of Everard Home. They had four children, only two of whom, John Banks and Agnes Margaretta, survived infancy.

Hunter’s life was now ordered to a regular pattern. He arose very early, especially in the summer, to have the best daylight for making fine dissections, and to arrange the day’s work for his assistants and pupils. His private practice and hospital duties occupied much of the rest of the day; and the evenings were usually spent in discussing interesting topics with his friends, at meetings of learned societies, or in writing notes upon his cases or subjects of research. His private practice was large, lucrative, and illustrious; many of his distinguished patients, such as William Eden, Lord Auckland, became his friends.

The list of Hunter’s publications is impressive by its content and variety. His “Treatise on the Natural History of the Human Teeth” was printed in two parts, in 1771 and 1778. It was here that he mentioned briefly his experiments in transplantation of tissues, the best known of which is the human tooth fixed into a cock’s comb. His “Treatise on the Venereal Disease” and his “Observations on Certain Parts of the Animal Oeconomy” appeared in 1786. Some of his experimental work was described by Everard Home, as, for example, “An Account of Mr. Hunter’s Method of Performing the Operation for the Cure of Popliteal Aneurism” (Transactions of the Society for the Improvement of Medical and Chirurgical Knowledge [1789]).

The difficulties he had encountered in gaining his own surgical training made Hunter anxious to amend conditions for others. Even in his early days in London he would “talk anatomy” with the resident students in Covent Garden long after classes were over for the day. When he had a house of his own he began to give lectures on applied anatomy and surgery, and many of the leading surgeons and anatomists both in Great Britain and in North America owed their early training and subsequent success to John Hunter’s teaching; his attention to the needs of his patients and his endeavors to devise means not only to cure but to prevent disease could not fail to appeal to the keen student. In the list of his pupils are such well-known names as John Jones, John Morgan, William Shippen, Edward Jenner, William Lynn, John Abernethy, Philip Syng Physick, and Anthony Carlisle; and through them his influence passed to succeeding generations of medical students and surgeons.

Many of Hunter’s plans came to fruition when, in 1783, he purchased a fine house in Leicester Square, as well as the house behind it facing what was then Castle Street. On the intervening land a lecture room, conversazione room, picture gallery, and museum were erected. Here he was able to hold meetings of the Lyceum Medicum Londinense, a student society that he founded with George Fordyce. Each member had to read a paper at one of the weekly meetings on some original piece of research; each year a gold medal was presented for what was considered the best paper.

In the preparation, arrangement, and cataloging of his museum, Hunter had the student in mind. His was not a mere collection of curious objects, though it contained such items; It was an ordered series of specimens, largely self-explanatory, demonstrating those structures in plants and animals having special, autonomous purposes, and those designed for continuation of the species; and having a further section to show the effects of accident or disease. At a time when the scope of surgery was limited, it was of the utmost value for the student to have access to specimens obtained postmortem, which often revealed the extent to which treatment had been successful and how it might be improved.

Instruction was given on how to prepare and mount museum specimens and on the technique of making corrosion casts and models. Hunter also commissioned artists to paint pictures of unusual subjects, such as North American Indians, Eskimos, dwarfs, and examples of albinism. George Stubbs painted for him a rhinoceros, two monkeys, and a yak; the subject for the latter had been brought to England from India by Warren Hastings in 1786.

Recognition of his merit came in many forms. In 1774 he was invited to join the first board of directors of the Royal Humane Society; in 1776 he was appointed surgeon-extraordinary to King George III; in 1783 he was made a member of the Académie Royale de Chirurgie de Paris; and two years later he succeeded David Middleton as deputy surgeon general. The Copley Medal was awarded to him in 1787, an honor that his brother never received; and in the same year he was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society. In 1790, on the death of Robert Adair, he became surgeon general, and his efforts to improve the training and status of the surgeon were extended to the army medical service. In particular, he made it known that promotion could be gained only by merit and experience.

During the last fifteen years of his life, Hunter was constantly troubled with angina. At a meeting of the board of governors held at St. George’s Hospital on 16 October 1793 he suffered a severe attack, collapsed, and died. The funeral was private and the coffin was placed in the vaults of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. When it was announced in 1859 that these vaults were to be cleared, several interested persons, including Frank Buckland, urged that Hunter’s remains should be reinterred in Westminster Abbey. This was accomplished on 28 March 1859, and the memorial brass on the floor of the north aisle is inscribed:

The Royal College of Surgeons of England have placed this tablet over the grave of Hunter, to record their admiration of his genius as a gifted interpreter of the Divine Power and Wisdom at work in the Laws of Organic Life, and their grateful veneration for his services to mankind as the Founder of Scientific Surgery.

John Hunter’s museum, consisting of about 14,000 specimens, was purchased by the government in 1799 and handed over to the care of the Company of Surgeons (reconstituted in the following year as the Royal College of Surgeons). Despite the depletion brought about by time and wartime destruction, several thousand original Hunter specimens can still be seen in the museum specially designed for their display in the Royal College of Surgeons of England.


See S. R. Gloyne, John Hunter (Edinburgh, 1950); Jessie Dobson, John Hunter (London-Edinburgh, 1969); W. R. LeFanu, John Hunter: A List of His Books (London, 1946).

Jessie Dobson

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