John Hunter was the first surgeon to dissect and examine cadavers to understand the function of the human body. Today he is considered the founder of pathological anatomy and remains among the world's greatest physiologists and surgeons.
John Hunter was born in rural Scotland in 1728. The brother of a suave London surgeon, the young Hunter was uneducated and considered crude by many. But his eclectic interest in the bits and pieces of the human body resulted in numerous contributions of great importance in surgery. By the time of his death in 1793, he had carried out many important studies and experiments in the comparative aspects of biology, anatomy, physiology, and pathology.
When Hunter was 20, his brother William gave him a job assisting in the preparation of dissections for an anatomy course he taught. By his second year in dissection, he had become so skillful that he was given charge of some of the classes in his brother's school. For many winters, he studied anatomy in the dissecting rooms, and later spent two summers learning surgical techniques from William Cheselden (1688-1752) at London's Chelsea Hospital.
He showed such talent there that his brother urged him off to Oxford. But Hunter was no scholar. He never completed a course of studies in any university and never really attempted to become a doctor. Yet his skills eventually launched him into medical prominence. In 1754 he became a surgeon's pupil in St. George's Hospital, and two years later was a house-surgeon.
One of Hunter's eye-opening, and certainly cruel, experiments occurred when he ruptured his Achilles tendon. To analyze the healing process, he cut the tendons of several dogs then killed each animal at different intervals. Hunter learned how bones and tendons mend and how scar tissue formed. His observations laid the foundation for the simple and effective operation for the cure of club feet and other tendon deformities.
The surgeon's most famous experiment was filled with incredible risk. Daring to do what no others would, Hunter infected himself with syphilis in an effort to demonstrate that syphilis and gonorrhea were manifestations of a single disease. His research far surpassed venereal disease; it also opened new doors into the body's ability to heal itself. Hunter was among the first to fully explain the role of inflammation in healing.
Hunter eventually settled into the country, where he kept a lively menagerie and a team of medical students. In the odd world of his own making, he began to expand medical understanding and became a persuasive advocate of investigation and experimentation. He performed a countless number of experiments, more, some say, than "any man engaged in professional practice has ever conducted."
In the early 1700s, Hunter began his own private lectures on the principles and practice of surgeries. He dreaded lecturing, but found himself forced to do so because he was constantly misquoted. He used infinite care in preparing each lecture, but because of his fear of public speaking, they were instructive rather than interesting.
Hunter's tireless pursuit of knowledge was rewarded with numerous honors and positions of responsibility. In 1776 he was named physician extraordinary to King George III; in 1783 he was elected a member of the Royal Society of Medicine and of the Royal Academy of Surgery at Paris; in 1786 he became deputy surgeon-general of the army; and in 1790 he was appointed surgeon-general and inspector-general of hospitals.
In his later years, Hunter suffered many ailments, possibly due to his self-infliction of syphilis. He also had bouts of angina, which flared often with his temper. In 1793 Hunter died from a heart attack after a heated debate with some colleagues.