John Hunter by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1786 The Crystal Gallery, Hunterian Museum
Pictures by kind permission of the Royal College of Surgeons of England
John Hunter was born in East Kilbride, Scotland, in 1728, the youngest of ten children in a relatively humble farming family. Attending the local village school, he experienced serious difficulties learning to read and write – he was probably dyslexic – and gave up all formal education when he was 13. After kicking his heels on the farm with no apparent ambition, at the age of 20 he joined his brother William in London in 1748.
Ten years his senior, William had recently opened an anatomy school in Covent Garden. A revolutionary development, the school gave young surgeons and medical students a first opportunity to dissect human corpses for themselves. It was an overnight success. And the secret of that success was a regular supply of fresh bodies dug up from paupers’ graves. Working as his brother’s pupil and assistant, John was entrusted with the task of obtaining the school’s vital teaching material, beginning a relationship with the body-snatchers which would last all his life.
After twelve years working shoulder to shoulder with William, sibling tensions and professional rivalry encouraged Hunter to sign up as a surgeon with the army. He treated casualties at the capture of Belle-Ile and in the campaign in Portugal during the Seven Years War. Investigating the best treatment of gun-shot wounds, he was equally interested in studying the faculty of lizards to detach and regrow their tails. Back in London, Hunter found work in dentistry and applied his knowledge of lizards to performing tooth transplants. Taking healthy front teeth from paupers he transplanted these into the mouths of rich paying patients, popularising the practice.
Building up his clientele, Hunter treated many patients for venereal disease – then ubiquitous in London. Determined to discover whether syphilis and gonorrhoea were the same diseases he inoculated himself with the latter in a flawed self-experiment which may well have delayed his marriage by several years.
Making a name for himself as a surgeon and anatomist, Hunter made post mortems respectable. Fascinated by genetic abnormalities he paid exorbitant sums to the grave-robbers for unusual human specimens and masterminded the theft of the body of Charles Byrne, known as the Irish Giant. Yet he was just as fascinated by animals, rearing a variety of creatures at his farm and prototype research centre in Earls Court, dissecting every species he could obtain and collecting body parts for his burgeoning museum. The first giraffe skin and kangaroo parts to arrive in Britain were given to Hunter and it was for his research as a naturalist that he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Ultimately, Hunter became the most popular and best-paid surgeon in London, treating Georgian celebrities including William Pitt, David Hume, Adam Smith and the young Lord Byron. He conducted post mortems on Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Marquis of Rockingham and Daniel Solander. Hunter pioneered several medical innovations, including his famous popliteal aneurysm operation, but his lasting legacy was his insistence on applying scientific method to surgery. Hunter believed that all medical treatments and surgical procedures should be tried and tested and only proven therapies should be introduced into practice. His revolutionary views were disseminated throughout the UK and America by his adoring pupils and his crusade continues to this day.
Yet Hunter’s life was devoted to an even wider mission. He aimed simply to understand the origins and development of all life on earth. Hunter published some of the earliest theories of pre-Darwinian evolution and was working on these heretical views when he died, of a heart attack in the board room of St George’s Hospital, in 1793.
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