Biography of John Hunter
John Hunter is considered one of the greatest anatomists of all time and the founder of experimental pathology in England. Hunter put the practice of surgery on a scientific foundation and laid the framework for the twentieth century developments. His saying "Don't think, try the experiment" has inspired generations of modern surgeons.
Growing up on the farm
Hunter, youngest of the ten children of John and Agnes Hunter, - the «Hunters of Hunterstown» - as the small settlement of Long Calderwood, near Glasgow, belonged to the Hunters. The house bears a tablet to the effect that he was born on February 13th, 1728. In his life-time the birthday was kept Februar 14th, on which date one drinks to his memory at the Royel College of Surgeons of England. He was probbaly born so late at night that in the hurry-scurry the midwife failed to notice whether he appeared just before or just after the clock struck 12.
Petted by his mother, John disliked school and hated books. He received his early education at the grammar school in East Kilbride, but preferred to lead an out-of-door life, looking after nests, insects and animals, whilst his brothers got the same education as country gentlemen. After the death of his father in 1741, when he was 13 years of age, he dropped out of school, and the likelihood of future success was slim. He remained at home and during the next six years his activities, although seemingly aimless, nervertheless provided a knowledge of animal economy that formed the basis of his later studies. He recived no formal education during these years. At the age of seventeen he spent some months with a brother-in-law, a timber merchant and carpenter in Glasgow, and we can well believe he tried his hand with tools; his mother noticed that the “lad showed neatness of hands and quickness of perception in anything that regarded mechanism.”
Hunter, the surgeon
In 1748, at the age of 20, John wrote to his older brother William to ask whether he might come to join him in London. William was then a famous obstetrician and becoming established as a teacher of anatomy in London. William agreed to the request, and John arrived in time to assist in preparations for the autumn course of his lectures. William ran private courses in dissection and anatomy in the Great Windmill Street, London, attracting lot of attention
John had an extraordinary talent for such work, and his first preparation, that of a human arm, was excellent. 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 (1688-1752) at Chelsea Hospital. In 1751 he enrolled as an apprentice to John Percivall Pott (1714-1788) at St. Bartholomew’s 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.
In 1753 he was made master of anatomy at Surgeon’s Hall, with the duty of reading the lectures.
From 1754 to 1756 John was house surgeon at St. George’s Hospial, where he received most of his practical training.
The summer of 1754 he was busy studying the routes by which the branches of the olfactory nerve leave the skull, traced the course of the nasopalatine nerve, and the rambling nerve known as the nasal branch of the ophthalnmic division of the fifth. A specimen he dissected to show these nerves exists in the Museum in excellent condition.
John worked hard, liked the companionship of men of his own age, and was fond of the theatre. There can be no doubt that he was an example of the medical student skilfully described by Charles Dickens in Pickwick Papers, 1836, and Albert Smith in Punch, 1841.
No dead language for dead bodies
John was said to be of some embarrassment to his brother because of his inability to express himself and his lack of formal education. In the summer 1755 William therefore persuaded him to enter as a student at St. Mary’s Hall, Oxford, for lessons in elocution and classical languages. But apparently the instruction was of little value and John could not stand the requirements in classic languages. John therefore returned to London at the beginning of the autumn term to continue his duties in the dissecting room.
He wrote of this time: «Jessie Foot accuses me of not understanding the dead languages and I could teach him him that on the dead body which he never knew in any language dead or living».
John Hunter’s 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 the medical artist 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.»
Hunter 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 interst 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.
Comparative anatomist goes to war
Whilst engaged in the routine of dissecting and teaching Hunter developed a taste for comparative anatomy which became an absorbing passion, enhanced by a change of locality. However, as a result of his concentrated work effort, his health began to suffer, and in the spring of 1761 he had some lung trouble which made it necessary for him to seek change of climate. This problem was attributed to the putrid air of the dissecting rooms. 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 forces that set sail on March 29, 1761, from Portsmouth with the intention of capturing Belle-Île-en-Mer (Belleisle), a small island off the French coast near the mouth of the Loire. 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 Treatise on the Blood, Inflammation and Gun-Shot Wounds, his great work published in 1794, the year after his death.
Belleisle, well named, is a pretty island now almost tree-less. It is a plateau of 33 square miles, about 130 feet above sea-level; here and there slopes give access to beautiful tracts of white sand. The coast has many grottoes. The most remarkable is La Grotte de l’Apothicairerie, a sanctuary for sea-birds, and their nests in rows on ledges of the rock are supposed to resemble bottles on the shelves of a pharmacy. A country new to him in flora and fauna, Hunter took advantage of it by observing, collecting, dissecting, experimenting, and preparing and preserving specimens. Hunter had no knowledge of marine zoology until he landed on this charming island, which afforded him access to barnacles, sea-anemones, sea-stars, sea-nettles, sea-cucumbers, sea-squirts, sea-urchins, squid, huge spider crabs, tunny-fish, and conger eels.
After a sojourn of about a year at Belle-Île-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.
Hunter on eels
While studying and dissecting these animals the idea came into his mind that living creatures could be arranged in a physiological series, but he was puzzled to ascertain the use of strange organs he met with in marine invertebrates. Like the French zoologist and paleontologist Georges-Léopold-Chrétien-Frédéric-Dagobert Cuvier (1769-1832), he had to rely on naked-eye dissection, but dissection, however skilfull, does not enable anatomists to determine the minute structure of soft organs which is the key to function. These difficulties are shown in Hunter’s studies of the reproductive organs of eels. He truly observes “the production of animals out of themselves excites wonder and curiosity.”
In London he got eels every month of the year from a fishmonger and examined the parts he expected to be the ovary with a magnifier but withour result. When he was in Belleisle in the summer of 1761, there was a vast number of conger eels in the sea around the island; he dissected many and satisfied himself that the ruffle-like organs he regarded as ovaries in the common eel were ovaries, but he did not solve the mystery of the propagation of eels. It was not until 1896 the Italian zoologist and anatomist Giovanni Battista Grassi (1854-1925) discovered that eels needed salt water for the development of their reproductive organs and the deep sea is their spawning place. In autumn they migrate to the sea and the dull yellow of their skin changes to silvery glitter; the eyes enlarge, the pectoral fins become black and change in shape, and the ova ripen.
Although Hunter did not get on well with his senior colleagues at Belleisle, he was comfortable on his pay, and enjoyed the opportunities for studying natural history, but in 1762 a British expedition to Portugal was the topic of conversation; he was keen to go, and his brother William helped him with the authorities in London to do so.
Portugal and geology
One of the last episodes of the Seven Years’ War was an attempt on the part of France and Spain to invade Portugal. England decided to support Portugal and an expeditionary force of 7000 men was sent to Lisbon. The outstanding feature of this almost forgotten campaign was the use, for the first time, of light cavalry which General John Burgoyne (1722–1792, picture) was instrumental in introducing into the British army. Mr. Robert Boyne Home was the surgeon attached to the regiment of light horse. John Hunter, transferred from Belleisle to Portugal, was in charge of a hospital. Hunter landed at Lisbon, July, 1762, and in November of the same year he was at Portalegre, near the Spanish frontier 140 miles from Lisbon. Little is known of his doings in Portugal, and it has been supposed he made additional observations on gunshot wounds; for this there was not much opportunity, but with a force of 7000 men there would be accidents and sickness incidental to a campaign in a foreign country.
In Portugal Hunter made observations on natural history and collected specimens, some of which are preserved in the Museum, but the most important gain was an inspiration to study geology. The hill on which Portalegre is built stands on a remarkable plateau called Alemtejo (spelt Alentejo in 1763). In an extraordinary tract published about 50 years after Hunter’s death, under the title Observations and Reflections on Geology he refers to the extensive plateau called Alentejo, which shows evident signs of its surface being covered by the sea, and refers to the enormous heaps of granite so frequent on the plain.The tract not only contains remarkable observations on geology, but some ideas on the distributions of animals in relation to the antiquity of the world inconsistent with the creation as described. He abstained from publishing it on the advice of his friends.
The Peace of Paris was signed in 1763, and Hunter returned to London a staff surgeon and deputy purveyor on half pay in the early summer, not to rejoin the Covent Garden establishment, but to set up in practice in Golden Square. At this time his life had been influenced in an important manner by the affairs of Portugal, for Robert Boyne Home became a friend. Hunter on his return to England got engaged to Home’s daughter Anne. It was a long engagement, for they were not married until 1771. Mrs. Hunter’s younger brother, Everard Home (1756-1832), became Hunter’s house-pupil, then his assistant, and finally executor.
His half pay, probably half a guinea a day, helped to pay his rent. He opened a room for dissecting, made teaching preparations, and while waiting for patients, taught human anatomy for capital and comparative anatomy for interest. The classes were neither large nor lucrative, for he was not a good lecturer.
In 1765 Hunter bought a lease of three pieces of land at Earl’s Court, built a house, established a small menagerie, and made observations and experiments:
On gizzards of gulls, hawks and owls,
The heat of lizards, spurs of fowls;
Bones of pigs, air-sacs of eagles,
Moaning dingos, barking beagles;
Sleek oppossums, pricely hedgehogs,
Buffaloes, dormice, wolves and dogs.
Leopards and jackals lived in the den, buffaloes, stallions, sheep, goats, and rams occupied the stables. A mulberry tree furnished leaves for the silkworms and St. John’s wort supplied pollen for the bees. There was a pond for the ducks and geese which laid eggs for the table and for embryological studies. He made observation hive for the bees, discovered that their wax is a secretion, and left som excellent notes on the relation of vegetables to animal fat. With the aid of Jesse Ramsden’s (1734-1800) delicate thermometer he discovered the significance of the terms hot-blooded and cold-blooded animals. He would have been astonished to learn that muscular action is the main source of animal heat! Hunter failed to grasp the importance of measuring the temperature of the body for clinical puposes. Indeed, the value was not appreciated until the middle of the nineteenth century.
During the next four years Hunter made the acquaintance of many leading scientists and naturalists of the day, including John Ellis, the Swedish botanist Daniel Solander (1733-1782), and Matthew Maty (1718-1776). The latter was secirt by John Hunter, who reported it in the Philosphical Transactions of the Royal Society, volume 67.
His descrption 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 on him on February 5, 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 July 7, 1768. On December 9 he was appointed to the post made vacant by the death of Thomas Gataker (died 1869), surgeon to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.
He was later honoured as General inspector of the hospitals and Surgeon-master of the army, as well asvice-precident of the College of London Veterinary Physicians.
Hunter in 1762 described the gubernaculum testis. He was the first to study and classify teeth in a scientific way, in 1771, and in 1778 introduced artificial nutrition with the aid of a flexible tube which was led down into the stomach. He described the adductor canal in 1786.
An infamous experiment
Hunter hypothesized that two diseases could not exist simultaneously in the same organ. Therefore syphilis and gonorrhea were believed to be different symptoms of the same sexual illness. What he really did to prove his point, is the stuff that legend is made of.
According to some historians, Hunter performed his most famous, if not infamous, experiments on venereal disease on himself. In 1767 he used a lancet to make a puncture on his glans and prepuce, having dipped the lancet in a lesion from a prostitute. Unfortunately for Hunter, the patient from whom he had obtained the specimen had both syphilis and gonorrhoa, and this led him and others to believe that they were one and the same disease. A rather unfortunate combination at the time, and one that is said to have resulted in a delay of his marriage since the «cure» took three years.
Contrary to legend, however, there is no proof that Hunter actually inoculated himself with venereal disease. According to other historians, he inoculated an individual with gonorrheal pus, not knowing that the pus also harbored syphilis. When the latter disease developed, Hunter belived that his ideas were correct.
Supporting the more “juicy” legend, however, is the fact that Hunter may hav suffered from syphilis.
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 Charlotte.
On July 22, 1771 John Hunter, aged 43, married Anne Home, aged 29, at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly. They spent their honeymonn at Earl’s Court. The marriage came as a surprise to many, for although he had been a regular visitor to the family home, their interests and tastes differed. Anne was a charming, amiable, and accomplished spinster, who, in due course, gave birth to four children, only two of whom, John Banks and Agnes Margaretta, survived infancy.
During years of marriage she was to endure without complaint a house which overflowed with mummified exotics, skeletons, fossils, cadavers and their dissectors. While she was tall, blonde, sensitive and skilled in the harpsichord, painting and poetry, he was dishevelled, poorly read and preoccupied with the dissecting room and hospital ward. However, she managed to maintain one of the liveliest salons in London, with regular conversaziones and soirées attended by the most sophisticated clientele.
Mrs. Hunter had a brother, Robert Home, an artist, who painted a portrait of Hunter which eventually came into the position of the Royal Society.
Hunter’s life was now ordered to a regular pattern. He arose very early, epsecially in the summer, to have the best daylight for making fine dissections, and to arrange the day’s work for his assistants and pupils. As his fame grew his surgical practice became immense, 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 large private practice was lucrative and illustrious; many of his distinguished patients, such as William Eden, Lord Auckland (1744-1814), became his friends.
Operating for poplietal aneurysm
Hunter first performed his operation for poplietal aneurysm in December 1785 on a 45-year-old coachman. The patient had been symptomatic for 3 years, and the condition of his lower extremity had progressed to severe distal ischemia. Hunter undertook an operation on the patient at St. George’s by placing femoral aretial ligatures within the fascial tunnel formed in the anterior thigh, between the femoral triangle and the opening in the adductor magnus muscle. Six weeks later the individual left the hospital fully ambulatory. Hunter’s success in this endeavour was first outlined by his brother-in-law, Everard Home, in an article in the London Medical Journal (1786):
. . . making an incision on the anterior and inner part of the thigh, rather below its middle . . . The fascia which covers the artery was then laid bare about three inches in length . . . A double ligature was passed behind it, by means of an eyed probe. The doubling of the ligature . . . was cut as to form to separate ligatures. The artery was now tied by these ligatures, but so slightly as to only compress the sides together. A similar application of the ligature was made a little lower. The reason for four ligatures, was to compress such a length of artery as might make up for wantof tightness, it being wished to avoid great pressure on the vessel at any one part. The ends of the ligatures were carried directly out of the wound, the sides of which were now brought together.
The Hunterian collection
Nothing is known of the time Hunter began to collect specimens with the definite object of establishing a comprehensive museum of comparative anatomy. The museum owes its origin to the peculiar conditons under which medical education was carried on in London in the eighteenth century. Schools of anatomy were private ventures. It was necessary for the surgeon who owned and managed the school to illustrate his lectueres with skilfully prepared specimens. Such preparations are more useful than diagrams, wax models, or drawings on blackboard. Hunter made many preparations for his brother, and some exist in the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, but when he returned to London in 1763 he brought with him specimens of natural history from Belleisle and Portugal, and these formed the nucleus of the collection for illustrating comparative anatomy.
In 1783 the lease of the house, 42. Jermyn-Street, which he had acquired from his brother William, expired. 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 was erected. Here he was able to hold meetings of the Luceum Medicum Londinense, a student society that he founded with George Fordyce (1736-1802). 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.
The famous portrait painter and aesthetician Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) lived in the square, and the two men subsequently helped each other to what artists jokingly call immortality – one as subject, the other as painter. Reynold’s famous picture of Hunter is the most cherished possession of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. When Baron Grant furbished up Leicester-square and laid out the garden in 1874, a colossal bust of Hunter was placed on the north-east corner of the square and a bust of Reynolds in another.
It is a fair inference that the specimens were collected to observe teaching puposes directly connected with his lectueres but it grew and widened until it became a museum that could be regarded as a discourse on the human body in relation to the animal kingdom. 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. Gradually its founder’s ideas expanded, and he conceived that it should be an ample illustration of life exhibited in the vast chain of organised beings, living and extinct, by a display of the various structures in which the functions of life are carried on.
Hunter also commissioned artists to paint pictures of unusual subjects, such as North American Indians, Eskimos, dwarfs, and examples of albinism. George Stubbs (1724-1806), the outstanding animal painter and anatomical draftsman, 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 (1732-1818) in 1786.
At the time of his death the museum contained some 14.000 preparations, of which the majority had been prepared by Hunter himself. It was partly destroyed during the bombing of London i the second World War.
On the contagiousness of examples
Hunter’s example of collecting specimens was contagious. Sir William Blizard (1743-1835), Sir Astley Paston Cooper (1768-1841), Heaviside (no data available), and other surgeons formed collections, now dispersed. The care entailed in the maintenance and supervision of such museums is very great. Hunter’s museum nearly perished. His executors, Matthew Baillie and Evarard Home, with sound judgement, retained the services of William Clift (1775-1849), who had been an assistant as well as artist to John Hunter. Clift preserved the specimens from decay by the judicious use of two gallons of spirit occasionally. He had no books, so he read and made extracts from Hunter’s manuscripts. The transcripts were made from some of the notes afterwards destroyed by Evarard Home. They were published by Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892) under the title “Essays and Observations,” in 1861. For seven years Clift received 7s. weekly and meekly as wages. In return for these services he became the first conservator when the government bought the collection and intrusted it to the College of Surgeons in 1800. Clift was conservator till 1842. The museum contains in orderly array, big and little, of every thing Hunter could secure - shrimps and sharks, humming-birds and ostriches, shrews and whales. Of the human kind, dwarfs and giants. Animals now living on the eart was not enough, he must have fossil forms. The fame of Hunter was such that new or rare animals were brought to London for his opinion.
In the dark of the night
British anatomists of the 18th century, like those elsewhere, had to be satisfied with the cadavers of the hanged, but even for this they needed the permission of the authorities. Though hangings were numerous, the many anatomy schools and the surgeons' guilds had an inadequate suppy of bodies; the condemned, the executioners and their assistants all had to be bribed inorder to obtain cadavers.
A simpler method of acquiring study material for the anatomist was body snatching. Paupers were usually buried in communal graves, and their corpses could easily be taken from their coffins. And the surgeons' guilds paid well. London had entire gangs of so-called resurrectionists; at fixed rates, they stole bodies from mortuaries. The famous John and William Hunter were involved in such activities. In 1783, John Hunter bribed an undertaker 500 pounds to obtain the corpse of an Irish giant who had made his name as a circus attraction in London. Many anatomist were after the body, if only to add it to their collection of curiosities, but it ended up in Hunter's hands, in spite of the man's whish to be buried at sea. The unfortunate Irishman's skeleton is still on display in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.
Hunter took a keen interest in monsters, not from curiosity but as part of a great scheme showing the phases of life. The collection of malformations in the museum is the finest and most comprehensive in the world. He was aware of the importance of a knowldge of the developmental stages of animals, and applied himself to study the chick. He studied the goose because its chick is bigger than that of the fowl, He tried the swan but could not get sufficient eggs. He tried to obtain ostrich eggs but only got two in 30 years and made nothing out of them. Although he obtained much first-hand knowledge from this work and some excellent drawings, he discovered little of importance, but left among his notes, awkwardly expressed, Embryology indicates the steps by which higher forms in a group of animals have been evolved from a lower. 30 years after his death von Baer discovered the human ovum and realised that embryology is the key to the knowledge of the human body. The flock of geese for embryologic work was kept at Earl’s Court for 30 years.
In March, 1778, Hunter made this request of his old pupil and friend, Edward Jenner:
When you have a blackbird’s nest – viz., one with four young ones-take one and put it boldly into spirit by the head, extending the wings and legs. Observe when the feathers begin to sprout, then take another, and service it in the same way; then take another and fourth, so as to get a series of the growth of feather; but the last or fourth, must not be so old as the feathers to cover other parts where feathers do not grow. This you will understand better when you come to make the trial.
Jenner carried out these instructions admirably. About 40 years after Hunter’s death Owen found among the MS., transcribed by the faithful Clift, some notes on the situation of feathers:
Although the feathers of birds appear to be an entire and uniform covering they do not arise equally from every part of the body, but only from such parts of the skin as ere least likely to be affected by the motion of the contiguous parts, such as the motion of the limbs. The feathers arise pretty equally on the head where there is no motion; and along the back; on the wings between joint and joint, as also on the thighs and legs, the whole making the bird a partial coat of mail. As they do not arise from every part of the skin equally, they must be proportionally thick set where they do arise. The places of origin of feathers are very observable in a bird that has been plucked; but still more so in young birds just feathering, more especially of such as have little down, and of which the clumps of feathers, from their colour as in the young blackbird, present a great contrast with the skin. In the interstices of the clumps of feathers there are others disposed irregularly, but so sparingly as not to interfere with the motion of the heart.
Hunter named each feather-thicket according to its situation. In 1833 the German ornithologist and entomologist Christian Ludwig Nitsch (1782-1837), unaware of Hunter’s observation, published Pterylographia Avium, a study of the distribution of feathers. He called the thickets, Pterylæ – feather-forests, and the featherless spaces Apteria.
Hunter studied the horse carefully as an anatomist, and as a surgeon. He was thoroughly familiar with equine anatomy, the teeth especially, and left a careful description of the curious guttural pouches, connected with the pharyngeal orifices of the Eustachain tubes, which are often a source of inconvenience to horses; and he discovered the curious conjugal ligament, which connects the heads of the ribs on opposite sides of the spine. Scattered among his “Observations” there are many references to morbid changes in horse and cattle, and in the museum there are specimens illustrating tumour diseases of horses, oxen, sheep, and pigs.
Hunter helped to found the Royal Veterinary College, 1791; he was a vice-president, and with Henry Cline (1750-1827), served on a committee that approved of the appointment of Vian St. Bel as the first professor of the college. Among the first operations performed by St. Bel was one for the removal of “two accessory feet which grew from the fetlocks of the two forelegs.”
Hunter recognized that whales are land mammals modified to live in the water. He dissected them when he got the opportunity and discovered their semicircular canals. When he died in 1793, and for many years aftewards, his skeletons of whales were the only examples existing in a museum in England.
When John White in 1790 returned to England from New South Wales “the nondescript animals of that settlement” – kangaroo, potoroo, tapua roo, and the like were handed to Hunter for investigation. This also gave Hunter the opportunity to study oppssums, which he kept at Earl’s Court. He wrote: “There is something in the mode of propagation in the opossum that deviate from all others.” He kept many alive, “yet never could get them to breed.” John White (ca 1756-1832), Surgeon General to the First Fleet, is eponymously associated with White's Seahorse - Hippocampus whitei.
Fossils and Owen
Belleisle had much the same influence on Hunter that South America had on Darwin, especially in relation to geology, and had unexpected consequences, for few suspected his interest in fossils, although they were often sent to him, especially by Edward Jenner. The discovery of the collection of of fossils is one of the romances of the museum. When Richard Owen, in 1826, started to practise as a surgeon near the College, John Abernethy (1764-1831), concerned at the neglected condition of the museum, induced his old pupil to assist in cataloguing it. In this way Owen became acquainted with Clift and obtained access to the collection. A few years later he married Clift’s daughter, was gradually weaned from medical practice, and devoted himself to comparative anatomy.
While busy with the catalogue Owen unexpectedly found Hunter’s store of fossils, and displayed them in the museum when it was rearranged in 1837. Startled by the number and variety of the specimens he began to work at them seriously. Nothing illustrates more thoroughly the parable of the sower than these fossils. Nearly all this seed sown by Hunter fell on stony ground, but some fell and grew in Owen’s fertile brain. Hunter’s fossils turned Owen’s thoughts to palæontology and he led men to take an interest in animals, huge and weird, that once moved about the earth and then passed into the twilight and silence of the past.
A generous teacher
The difficulties John Hunter had encountered in gaining his own surgical training made him 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 endeavours 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 many who were later to achieve fame in their own right, like John Jones, the American John Morgan (1735-1789), the American William Shippen 1736-1808), William Lynn (died 1837) John Abernethy (1764-1831), the American Philip Syng Physick (1768-1837), Anthony Carlisle (1768-1840), and Sir Astley Paston Cooper (1768-1841). Through them his influence passed to succeeding generations of medical students and surgeons.
Also Edward Jenner was initially his student and became a close friend who first noted that he was suffering from angina. Hunter’s attacks were frequently precipitated by emotional upsets and he predicted correctly that one of these would cause his death.
Death in the afternoon
On October 16, 1793, following a meeting of the board of governors at St. George’s Hospital at which he was angered by some of the discussion, he said nothing, left the room and turned to one of the physicians of the hospital, groaned and dropped dead. Present at the meeting were the Reverend James Clarke, Drs George Pearson (1751-1828), Robertson and Matthew, and Mr. Walker.
The body was taken to his house in Leicester Square in a sedan chair at about 4.45 p.m., and at a later date a postmortem was performed under the supervision of his brother-in-law and executor, Everard Home. The operators were his house pupils, Edward Bradley, Francis Kinlock, Percie Smith and Nicol, assisted by Robert Haynes, the dissecting-room attendant. William Clift, Matthew Baillie (an executor) and David Pitcairn were also present, and the examination confirmed the cause of death as atherosclerosis, involving the arteries of the heart and brain. Although Hunter had publicly expressed his wish that his heart and tendo achillis (which had a hard mass within its body from a previous rupture) be preserved, this was ignored.
Six days later, on October 22, he was buried in St. Martin-in-the-Fields at what was clearly a modest funeral, the burial costing but £6 10s 2d without candles! There was only the hearse and two coaches besides his empty chariot, but then his financial position was parlous and the public at this time deeply concerned with the horrors of the French Revolution – historians might note that it is quite probable that his death coincided with the beheading of Marie Antoinette (born 1755), Queen of France! In the records of burials in the church for the month of October 1793, there is but one entry for October 22, that of John Hunter Esq., but no information regarding vault number.
When it was announced in 1859 that these vaults were to be cleared, several interested persons, including Frank Buckland, one of the greatest authorities in natural history at the time, urged that Hunter’s remains should be reinterred in Westminster Abbey. The verification of the body appears to have been left to Richard Owen, who descended into the vaults of St. Martin-in-the-Fields with Frank Buckland to inspect the coffin.
Through the efforts of John Flint South (1797-1882) Hunter’s body was reburied in Westminster Abbey, and South himself wrote the inscription on the tablet there.
This was accomplished on March 28, 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.
Hunter’s will had been drawn up about three months before his death. It names his wife, nephew and brother-in-law as executors. The family home, Long Calderwood, was left to his son John, but the Earl’s Court estate and part of the contents of the house in Leicester Square were to be sold to repay debts amounting to more than £19,000. Hunter’s pathology museum was to be offered to the government and in 1799, after purchase for £15,000, became the responsibility of the Company of Surgeons. This company dated back to the Company of Barber-Surgeons of London, founded by Henry VIII in 1540. In 1745, the surgeons broke away from the barbers to form a separate Company of Surgeons. The barbers formed the Worshipful Company of Barbers, which exists to this day. In 1800 it became the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and at some time between 1835 and 1845, the name was changed to Royal College of Surgeons of England.
In addition to his wife and children, John Hunter had supported a considerable establishment in his homes and museum, and it appeared that Everard Home must have played a considerable finacial role in both the Funeral arrangements and subsequent care of his sister, Anne Hunter.
After Hunter’s death, Everard Home became custodian of his unpublished notes and manuscripys, a source of data numbering in the thousands of pages. Thirty years later Home burned this material. Various reasons have been given for this unreasonable act, but it late becam apparent that Home had been plagiarizing Hunter’s notes and published them as his own research, particularly in the six-volume Lectures on Comparative Anatomy (1814-1828). To mask the truth, Home felt compelled to burn all the evidence.
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. 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.
Sir Everard Home and Matthew Braillie founded the Hunterian Oration in 1813 and Everard Home was the first orator, 1814.
«My life is in the hands of any rascal who chooses to annoy or tease me.»
[Hunter suffered from angina pectoris. Opposition at a board meeting to the appointment of his successor at St. george’s Hospital so roused his ire that an attack caused his death at the meeting].
Quoted by Arturo Castiglioni in A History of Medicine, Chapter 18.
«All the causes of things cannot be seen, because they appear to depend on circumstances which are unknown, or appear to be accidental.»
Quoted by S. R. Gloyne in John Hunter.
[Pointing out several cadavers to Philip Syng Physick’s father:] «These are the books your son will learn under my direction, the others are fit for very little.»
Quoted by Stephen Paget in John Hunter, Chapter 8.
«I must go and earn this damned guinea or I shall be sure to want it to-morrow.»
Quoted by S. R. Gloyne in John Hunter, Chapter 5.
«Man is born or comes into the world ignorant; but he is furnished with the senses, so as to be impressed with the properties of things; by which means he gradually, of himself, acquires a degree of knowledge. But man goes farther, he has the power of receiving information of things that never impressed his senses; and, if he has that power, it is natural to suppose that one man has the power of communicating his knowledge of things to another, each giving and receiving reciprocally; which we find to be the case.»
Essays and Observations, Volume I, «Introduction to Natural History.»
«Pehaps there is nothing in Nature more pleasing than the study of the human mind, even in its imperfections or depravities; for, although it may be more pleasing to a good mind to contemplate and investigate the application of its powers to good purposes, yet as depravity is an operation of the same mind, it becomes at least equally necessary to investigate, that we may be able to prevent it.» Surgical Observations, Volume I.
«I think your solution is just, but why think? Why not try the experiment?»
Letter to Edward Jenner, August 2, 1775.
«The secretion of gastric juice is increased in proportion to the call for noursihment in the body.»
Observations on Digestion.
«The stomach is more affected from the internal economy of the animal than from external influence, which is the reverse of the brain.»
Principles of Surgery, Chapter V.
«The stomach is the distinguishing part between an animal and a vegetable; for we do not know any vegetable that has a stomach nor any animal without one.»
Principles of Surgery, Chapter V.
«One gentleman said ‘he did not choose to loose any reputation he might have in surgery by giving lectures,’ which was at least modest. Talking of the improvement of the art, one of the surgeons confessed that ‘He did not see where the art could be improved.’ The natural conclusion from this declaration was that such a man would never improve it.» Letter, 1793.
[Hunter was explaining in this letter the ineffectual teaching at St. George’s Hospital, London].
«This last part of surgery, namely, operations, is a reflection on the healing art; it is a tacit acknowledgement of the insufficiency of surgery. It is like an armed savage who attempts to get that by force which a civilized man would get by stratagem.»
Principles of Surgery, Introduction.
«The principles of our art are not less necessary to be understood than the principles of the other sciences.» Principles of Surgery, Chapter I.
«Many wounds ought to be alllowed to scab in which this process is now prevented; and this arises, I believe, from the conceit of surgeons who think themselves possessed of powers superior to nature and therefore have introduced the practice of making sores of all wounds. The mode of assisting the cure of wounds by permitting a scab to form is likewise applicable, in some cases, to that species of accident where the parts have not only been lacerated but deprived of life. . . . This practice is the very best for burns and scalds.» Lectures on the Principles of Surgery.