(b. Long Calderwood, near East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, Scotland, 23 May 1718; d. London, England, 30 March 1783)
Hunter was the seventh child of John Hunter and his wife, the former Agnes Paul. He received his early education at the grammar school in East Kilbride and at the age of thirteen was sent to the University of Glasgow, with a view to being trained for the church. For four years he studied Greek, logic, natural philosophy, and related subjects. Discovering a dislike of theology, and having become friendly with William Cullen, then commencing medical practice in Hamilton, he became Cullen’s assistant. Hunter always regarded his three years in the Cullen household as the happiest of his life. Cullen advised him to attend classes at the University of Edinburgh, then to spend two or three years in London before returning to Hamilton as full partner in the practice. Accordingly, in October 1739 Hunter was enrolled as a student with Alexander Monro, professor of anatomy at the University of Edinburgh. A year later, on 25 October, he boarded the packet boat at Leith and sailed for London. For several months he stayed with Willaim Smellie, who had settled in London during the previous year and had already built up a thriving obstetrical practice. Hunter then entered the household of James Douglas, anatomist and “man-midwife,” as tutor to his son William George. He was so much influenced by the opportunities of his “darling London” that he decided not to return to the partnership with Cullen but to stay with Douglas and pursue his studies, both medical and classical, under the latter’s able guidance. After Douglas’ death in 1742, Hunter remained in the household as tutor, took his pupil to Paris, and attended Antoine Ferrein’s course of anatomy lectures. So bright were the prospects that Hunter invited his brother James to abandon his legal studies and join him in London to embark upon a medical career; the venture proved too arduous and after a few months James was obliged to return home to Long Calderwood, where he died on 11 April 1745.
In that year, when the Company of Barber-Surgeons separated into its two specialties—the barbers retaining possession of the hall in Monkwell Street—the surgeons were obliged to relax the rules they had hitherto enforced relating to human dissection, classes on which could be held in London only within the precincts of the Company or at the Royal College of Physicians. Hunter immediately advertised in the London Evening Post a course of lectures on anatomy to begin on 13 October 1746, for which he charged four guineas, offering “the opportunity of gentlemen learning the art of dissecting during the whole winter session, in the same manner as at Paris.” The lectures were given at his house in Covent Gardent from 1746 to 1760, in Litchfield Street from 1768 until his death in 1783. They were an immediate success and provided one of his stable sources of income.
Hunter was well aware of the difficulties of gaining a precise knowledge of anatomical structures. Reliable textbooks were few and costly; and the practice of taking notes from the lecturer’s slow dictation was not only tedious but also liable to perpetuate errors, since the notes were often passed from one group of students to the next. In order to minimize these defects, he prepared a series of specimens of gross anatomy as well as such items as corrosion casts, by means of which the ramifications of even the smallest vessels could be demonstrated. Thus over the years he compiled a permanent and accurate picture not only of normal conditions but also of the diseases and accidents current in the mid-eighteenth century. With the facilities provided by such a museum the student could continue his studies throughout the year.
On 6 August 1747 Hunter was admitted to membership in the Company of Surgeons. In the summer of the following year he again visited the Continent and was privileged to discuss anatomical techniques with Bernard Siegfried Albinus. On his return to London he was appointed deputy for Daniel Layard as a surgeon-midwife to the Middlesex Hospital, established two years previously in two houses in Windmill Street. Finding calls upon his time more pressing, he appointed John Symons of Exeter, a former pupil, to help in the school; he was succeeded in 1749 by John Hunter. William Hewson was assistant from 1760 to 1772, when William Cumberland Cruikshank was appointed to this post, becoming a partner two years later. In 1750 Hunter was granted the M.D. by the University of Glasgow; in 1752 he was elected one of the masters of anatomy at Surgeons’ Hall. When he was admitted a licentiate of the College of Physicians in 1756, he applied for and was granted disfranchisement from the Company of Surgeons. In 1767 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1768 George III appointed him professor of anatomy to the Royal Academy. He received many other honors; but perhaps his greatest triumph was to have attended Queen Charlotte during her first pregnancy. On the day of the duke of Cornwall’s birth, 12 August 1762, he wrote to William Cullen: “I am very happy, and have been so for some time. I owe it to you and thank you from my heart for the great honour I now have, and have had for some time, though very few know anything of it—I mean having the sole direction of Her Majesty’s health as a child-bearing lady.”
Hunter now contemplated founding “a perpetual school of Anatomy” in London, for which he offered a grant of £7,000; his books, on which he had spent more than £3,000; and his museum, which was of inestimable value. But his plan failed to gain sufficient support; and after considering whether, with Cullen’s help, it would be more successful in Glasgow, he finally decided to make it a private venture. Accordingly, Hunter commissioned the architect Robert Mylne to draw plans for an anatomy school to be situated in Windmill Street. In a letter to William Cullen in 1768 he remarks that he had spent more thah £6,000 on his new house. “I shall go into it,” he says, “in June and hope to print off my plates of the Gravid Uterus there this summer. I shall have a printing press of my own.”
Hunter had already published several short papers on various subjects; and in 1762 he had brought out his Medical Commentaries, which contained a defense of his attitude to some of his contemporaries, notably Alexander Monro and Percivall Pott. In an age of medical polemics, this particular dissension was aggravated by the comments of Tobias Smollett in his Critical Review (9 , 312). In a supplement to the Medical Commentaries (1764), Hunter wrote,
Anatomists have ever been engaged in contention. And indeed, if a man has not such a degree of enthusiasm, and love of the art, as will make him impatient of unreasonable opposition and of encroachments upon his discoveries and his reputation, he will hardly become considerable in Anatomy or in any branch of natural knowledge [Introduction, p. iii].
The Gravid Uterus, first advertised in 1751 but not published until 1774, was a magnificent series of thirty-four engravings of elephant folio size, most of them from drawings by Jan van Rymsdyck. The printing was undertaken by John Baskerville, and the work was dedicated to the king.
For the last ten years of his life, Hunter suffered from declining health, the cause vaguely described as “wandering gout.” Yet so rigid was his routine that on 20 March 1783 he insisted upon giving his introductory lecture to the course on operative surgery, collapsed during the delivery, and died ten days later. He was buried on 5 April at St. James, Piccadilly, where there is a marble tablet to his memory. He and his brother had become estranged as the result of an argument concerning the priority of discovery of the true nature of the blood supply to the placenta. They were never reconciled, and William Hunter left the property of Long Calderwood to his nephew, Matthew Baillie. The administration of the anatomy school passed to Baillie and Cruikshank. According to the terms of his will, the museum, books, pictures, and his collection of coins—pne of the world’s finest and most valuable—were all eventually sent to the University of Glasgow, where a suitable building was erected to house them, for which purpose he left the sum of £8,000.
During his lifetime Hunter achieved outstanding success both financially and scientifically. His portraits, by Allan Ramasy, Robert Edge Pine, Mason Chamberlin, Johann Zoffany, and Joshua Reynolds, reveal a man of elegance and spirit; the size and quality of this practice and the prosperity of his school are indications of his repute and ability.
Sir Charles Illingworth, The Story of William Hunter (Edinburgh-London, 1967), gives a complete list of Hunter’s works and a complete list of portraits and biographies of him.
Scottish Anatomist, Obstetrician, Surgeon and Physician
Along with his teacher and fellow Lanarkshire Scotsman William Smellie (1697-1763), William Hunter was chiefly responsible for elevating obstetrics to the status of a rule-governed empirical science. Before his time it was generally the disrespected practice of ill-trained and superstitious midwives. He also made important contributions to surgical anatomy, forensic medicine, and cardiology.
Hunter was the seventh of 10 children of John Hunter, a farmer, and Agnes Paul Hunter. After attending grammar school in East Kilbride, Scotland, he entered the University of Glasgow in 1731. He made friends with William Cullen (1710-1790) and became his medical apprentice in 1736. On Cullen's advice, Hunter began anatomical studies under Alexander Monro primus (1697-1767) at the University of Edinburgh in 1739.
Hunter went to London to study obstetrics under Smellie in 1740. The following year he became the protégé of the distinguished obstetrician and anatomist James Douglas. He lived with Douglas, tutored his son William George, and became engaged to his daughter Jane Martha, but she died in 1744 before they could be married. Douglas enabled Hunter to study surgery at St. George's Hospital. On his deathbed in 1742, Douglas asked his wife to ensure that Hunter would have means to study anatomy on the Continent. Hunter spent much of 1743 and 1744 in Paris and Leiden.
In 1746 Hunter began offering the anatomical lectures that were the main source of his income for the rest of his life. They were an immediate success. His reputation as a surgeon and obstetrician also grew quickly and steadily. In 1750 the University of Glasgow awarded him an M.D. In 1762 he became the personal obstetrician and physician to Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III. In 1768 he founded the Anatomical Theatre and Museum, Great Windmill Street, London, where he and his assistants taught anatomy. Known as the Hunterian Medical School after his death, it remained open until 1839.
His articles in the leading medical periodical of its time, Medical Observations and Inquiries by a Society of Physicians in London, contained some of the earliest accurate descriptions of aneurysms, retroverted uterus, osteomalacia (softening of the bones), ovarian cysts, and several other conditions. His posthumously published article in the same journal, "On the Uncertainty of the Signs of Murder in the Case of Bastard Children" (1784), was the first important British contribution toward the medical jurisprudence of infanticide.
Hunter's masterpiece is Anatomia uteri humani gravidi tabulis illustrata (The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus Exhibited in Figures) (1774). This book is among the best anatomical atlases ever produced, not only for its accuracy and detail, but also for its aesthetic qualities. It stands about 27 in (68 cm) high, and each of its 34 life-size copperplate engravings is magnificently executed. Hunter's text for this atlas was edited by Matthew Baillie (1761-1823) and published in 1794 as An Anatomical Description of the Human Gravid Uterus and its Contents.
In the 1750s, having become wealthy through his lectures and his practice, Hunter began collecting art, coins, anatomical and biological specimens, minerals, rare books, manuscripts, scientific instruments, and other valuable objects. His taste and connoisseurship were impeccable. He willed the entire collection and funds for its maintenance to the University of Glasgow, which in 1807 made the collection public with the opening of the Hunterian Museum, the first institution of its kind in Scotland.
Hunter was a nervous, paranoid, and eventually bitter man. He made enemies easily and picked many public quarrels. He was jealous of his younger brother John's greater success as a surgeon. He never married, did not socialize much, and generally spent his life at work. His dedication to the scientific study of anatomy bordered on monomania. Yet he was devoted to his nephew, Matthew Baillie, and the generous terms of his will contributed much toward establishing Baillie's medical career.
ERIC V.D. LUFT
The Scottish anatomist and obstetrician William Hunter (1718-1783) was instrumental in improving the practice of obstetrics and establishing it as a medical discipline.
William Hunter was born on May 23, 1718, near East Kilbride, Lanarkshire. At the age of 13 he entered the University of Glasgow to study theology, but after 5 years there he decided instead to study medicine and became an assistant to William Cullen, a well-known physician. Hunter spent 3 years with Cullen, attended the University of Edinburgh for a year, and in 1740 went to London, where he studied with James Douglas, who encouraged him in anatomy, and William Smellie, from whom he developed his interest in obstetrics. Hunter decided to teach anatomy and opened a series of private lectures on anatomy and surgery in 1746 in London. He was a popular and respected teacher.
While teaching, Hunter was also engaged in obstetrical practice. In 1747 he was appointed assistant to the accoucheur at Middlesex Hospital, and in 1748 he became surgeon-accoucheur at the British Lying-in Hospital. Before Hunter, obstetrics had been the domain of the midwife, but his skill and methods helped elevate the discipline to a respected practice in medicine. In recognition of his achievements he was awarded a medical degree by the University of Glasgow in 1750. His fame led to his appointment as physician extraordinary to Queen Charlotte in 1764 and as professor of anatomy at the newly opened Royal Academy of London 5 years later.
In the mid-1760s Hunter outlined a project for a museum to improve the teaching of medicine, surgery, and anatomy through illustration. This museum was opened in London in 1768 and contained natural-history specimens, medals, and a fine library of rare books as well as anatomical and pathological specimens. Hunter published on many subjects, including fossil elephants, but his most famous work is the handsomely illustrated The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus (1774), which includes accurate descriptions of the parts of the uterus and of the placenta. Together with his brother John Hunter, he also charted the system of the lymphatics. John was a surgeon who achieved greater fame than William, and although the brothers had studied and worked together, they became rivals and were embroiled in many disputes over priority of discovery.
William Hunter died on March 30, 1783. He gave his museum into trusteeship to be given to the University of Glasgow.
The standard biography is by Hunter's contemporary S. F. Simmons, An Account of the Life and Writings of the Late William Hunter, M. D. (1783). An entertaining, recent biography, written in the first person, is Sir Charles Illingworth, The Story of William Hunter (1967). The student should also consult R. Hingston Fox, William Hunter (1901); George C. Peachey, A Memoir of William and John Hunter (1924); and Jane M. Oppenheimer, New Aspects of John and William Hunter (1946).
A. S. Hargreaves