Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 27 November 2022

Hunter, Johnfree


Hunter, Johnfree

  • Jacob W. Gruber

John Hunter (1728–1793)

by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1786, reworked 1789

reproduced by kind permission of the President and Council of the Royal College of Surgeons of London

Hunter, John (1728–1793), surgeon and anatomist, was born during the night of 13 February 1728, the youngest of ten children of John Hunter (1662/3–1741) and his wife, Agnes Paul (c.1685–1751), in the family holding at Long Calderwood in East Kilbride, a small village near Glasgow. The Hunters were descended from an old Ayrshire family, and through the mother were related to members of the Glasgow middle class, her father being the city treasurer. Of John's siblings only three survived into adulthood. Despite the hopes of his parents, as a boy John disliked—and largely ignored—the classical book education common to children of his class. He preferred the outdoors—sports and the treasures of nature that he could find in his tramps through the countryside. A brief trial as an apprentice cabinet-maker to his brother-in-law in Glasgow failed.

Medical education and early career

Unable to find a vocation in Scotland and still undecided on his future John Hunter moved to London in 1748 to assist his brother William Hunter (1718–1783), already making a career as a teacher of anatomy and an accoucheur. Capitalizing on the need for more surgeons, William, a couple of years before his brother's arrival, had taken over a small anatomical school to serve the needs of a growing number of medical students and the curiosity of an occasional visitor. Rowlandson's well-known and widely circulated cartoon, purportedly of William's anatomy class, with its partially dissected cadavers, observers, and surgical apprentices, catches something of the interest of the participants as some watched and others engaged in the varied dissections in process. It was something of a show, to which William's excellence as a lecturer added content that attracted the occasional onlooker from London's intellectual community.

Beyond the ten-year difference in their ages the brothers were very different in their personalities. William possessed an agreeable public persona which served him well as an anatomical lecturer and man-midwife. He enjoyed the social life of Hanoverian London, initially in the bustle around a changing Covent Garden and then, two years after John joined him, in more substantial quarters on Jermyn Street. Although a Scotsman in a city where anti-Scottish sentiment was strong, his good humour and joie de vivre allowed him entry into both its social and intellectual society. John, on the other hand, with little formal education and a heavy Scottish accent, found his social equals in the coffee houses behind the Great Piazza and the theatres nearby. It was there too that he met those who could procure the bodies always needed for his brother's anatomy demonstrations. The primary locus of his activity, however, was the dissecting room. There he learned the value of precise observation and description and to that his commitment soon became total.

Recognizing John's precocious skill in dissection, his brother adopted him as his assistant and prosector. The position suited John's needs and his temperament. Over the next decade, as William's reputation as a surgical lecturer increased and his anatomy school flourished, John pursued with his usual intensity, although in relative obscurity, a series of novel investigations both alone and in co-operation with his brother; these reflected his particular talents and the promise of future success.

Meanwhile, almost certainly pressed by his brother as well as the promise of the greater rewards due to the practitioner, John took steps to qualify as a surgeon. During the summers of 1749 and 1750, when the heat of London made anatomy impossible, he was a pupil first of the Chelsea Army Hospital's William Cheselden—then at the end of his career as the finest surgical operator in London—and a year later of Percivall Pott, the highly regarded surgeon at St Bartholomew's. From the one he learned the importance of well-trained technique to avoid as much pain to the patient as possible; from the other he learned that in the healing process nature was the surgeon's friend and helper; and from both he learned the Hippocratic injunction to do no unnecessary harm or injury to the patient.

While valuable in setting the tone for Hunter's future as a surgeon, such an episodic and pragmatic course of surgical training did little to qualify him professionally. To that end, in 1754, he entered St George's Hospital as a surgical pupil. Again the situation was apparently unsatisfactory, for in summer 1755 he was induced by his brother to become a student in St Mary Hall, Oxford, where he might obtain the credentials for practice as a physician. The classicist and non-scientific bookishness of the university, where he was expected to learn Greek and Latin along with the traditional medical texts and philosophy, fitted neither his temperament nor, he thought, was it relevant to his goal. He later commented: 'They wanted to make an old woman of me, or that I should stuff Latin and Greek', but, pressing his thumbnail on the table, 'these schemes I cracked like so many vermin as they came before me' (Gloyne, 23). Hunter left after only a few months, returning to St George's in 1756.

The wounds of war

By 1760 Hunter had been in London for a dozen years. He was thirty-two, and hardly better off professionally than when he had arrived. He was no longer the untrained young Scot who had come down to London on horseback to seek his future and his fortune. But the first was still unsure and the second non-existent. To live in London required more than an assistant's income, and to be a man of social substance more than an assistant's position. His brother offered him a partnership in the school, but recognizing his own deficiencies as a lecturer he refused. His goal had been to become a practising surgeon and yet, despite his talent and despite his experiences in the laboratory and the hospital, he could still not qualify as a member of the Company of Surgeons or practise in the city as a fully fledged professional. By now Hunter's workload had affected his health and he was advised to take a complete rest, go abroad, and occupy his mind 'with less exacting pursuits' (Dobson, Clift, 45). Hunter did no work for several months. However, with England at war and in need of surgeons, he joined the army as a staff surgeon in October 1760, and was part of the expedition which sailed for Belle Île in 1761.

The Seven Years' War, during which England was engaged primarily with France for imperial dominance, was already winding down. England's victory was virtually assured, although the war continued for another three years, and surgeons to treat the wounded were still in demand. Hunter served with the army in Portugal in 1762. For Hunter such service promised, among other things, the formal qualification for surgical practice he required, and its pay of the (hardly munificent) 10s. a day allowed him greater financial independence.

In the dissecting room, demonstrating the structural details of the human body, he had dealt with only the dead. In the army, whether in the field, aboard ship, or in the base hospital, as a surgeon, Hunter dealt always with the trauma of battle: the open wounds, the shattered limbs, the bullet holes. In the schools, anatomy was all. The medical venues of war were, however, laboratories of the living where experiment was immediate and unplanned, but where too ignorance was often profound, and success infrequent and inexplicable. Traditional methods of treatment were of limited use. With his leg amputated, the blood vessels tied, and the stump painfully cauterized with the red-hot iron, the patient more often died than survived; the gunshot wound cut to extract the ball did more harm than good. It was from such experiences that he initiated his most important research on the inflammation of the blood and gunshot wounds. Following the advice of Pott, Hunter found that left to itself nature did better than the surgeon. What was nature's secret? For the anatomist each organ, each part, could be teased out with a delicate hand and faithfully described. What and how their purposes were served, however, was still largely unknown. Despite his anatomical knowledge and his skills as a practising surgeon with scalpel or saw Hunter was forced to confront his own ignorance.

Hunter was not a learned man. His literary background was meagre, his linguistic skills inferior to the manual. Moreover, he was not the autobiographical type nor given to introspection. There is virtually nothing of a personal comment on his wartime experience, especially of the failures to heal and the pervasive pain and death—only, as his subsequent publications indicate, a stronger commitment to discover the processes of life through which the normal become the abnormal. So he came to physiology, the search for an understanding of the processes of life. It was not enough to know the role played by each part of the whole, but how that role was effected. Although a copy of Bacon's work was in his library when he died it is unlikely that Hunter had read it, and yet it was the Baconian concept of an inductive natural history that he re-created as his method. The war years, particularly those spent in Portugal, where he began seriously to collect specimens in the field, gave him the opportunities to apply it in earnest.

Thus, the war years were the capstone of an educational process that not only prepared him as the leading surgeon he soon became but also served as an introduction to the human and comparative physiology that became the primary interest for the rest of his life. As he remarked later and continually emphasized to his students, 'To perform an operation, is to mutilate a patient we cannot cure; it should therefore be considered an acknowledgement of the imperfection of our art' (Works, 2.93). It was to perfect the art that he turned to natural history and comparative anatomy.

A London surgeon

With the war about to end, in spring 1763, Hunter returned to London. He found rooms in Golden Square only a few streets from his brother's now successful Jermyn Street establishment. The war experience had made him a surgeon. It had also provided a career path within the army structure which, beginning with limited duty on half pay, would over the next thirty years lead him to increasingly responsible and respectable offices of authority: as surgeon-extraordinary to the king in 1776, surgeon-general of the army, and inspector of its hospitals in 1790, positions earned as much by political skills and patronage as by qualification.

More immediate was the difficult task of developing a successful career in a London where surgical practice was dominated, if not controlled, by surgeons of well-established reputations at the major hospitals. Without patients of his own and with a new found collecting habit to support, Hunter joined the dental practice of James Spence, a respectable operator in an occupation in which quackery was common. Although he respected Spence, the alliance was a comedown because in the hierarchy of medical practice dental surgery occupied the lowest level. To earn a few more guineas, Hunter gave some lectures on anatomy and took on temporary students to pay for additions to his growing collection. Through royal favour he had first refusal of the animals dying in the king's menagerie, but in order to study the living specimens he acquired a small country cottage and property in Earls Court beyond the western edge of the city, which over the following years he expanded into a small country estate where he kept a variety of exotic specimens. With the live animals at Earls Court and from his varied and expanding collection of dried and wet specimens, he was creating the laboratory of comparative anatomy and physiology that for the rest of his life, in one venue or another, was the focus of his professional activity.

Primarily from his work during these years Hunter produced his first major scientific work, A Treatise on the Natural History of the Human Teeth. Like all his more comprehensive works, necessarily supported by a long series of continued observations, the publication of the Treatise was not hurried; the first part, a slim volume, appeared in 1771, from the sale of which he reportedly received £1000, and the second in 1778, when both were issued as a single volume. Hunter was never secretive of his research, whose aim was to provide the information documented by experiment and disciplined observation for the improvement of surgical practice. Although his treatises were the culmination of a long series of observations, their content had been disseminated through his annually updated lectures and personal discussions. It is the reputation he won as a virtually unpublished researcher through such informal means that earned him election as a fellow of the Royal Society on 5 February 1767 (earlier than his brother William). He received the Copley medal in 1787. From 1776 to 1782 Hunter gave the Croonian lectures which were based on his research on muscular motion. In 1768 he became a member of the Company of Surgeons and a member of the surgical staff of St George's Hospital.

The Treatise laid out the form of all but the most limited of his future publications: an ordered record of his sometimes long-continued observations or experiments as preliminary to functional generalizations. Their detail bewildered critics, who derided what seemed a senseless piling of one apparently irrelevant descriptive detail on another. Hunter rejoined that

Too much attention cannot be paid to facts; yet too many facts crowd the memory without advantage, … [unless] they lead us to establish principles … [from which] we learn the causes of diseases. Without this knowledge a man cannot be a surgeon.

Kobler, 169

This method—the translation of the anatomical to the physiological, the operational interdependence of both and, perhaps, the hesitant extraction of the general from the precisely defined particulars—runs throughout his subsequent treatises: Treatise on Venereal Disease (1786) and the most important, Treatise on the Blood, Inflammation, and Gunshot Wounds (1794). Hunter shared the scepticism of his fellow Scotsman David Hume about the generally assumed precedence of ideas over experience, together with his emphasis on the need to separate matters of meaning from essential matters of fact from which the former are always inferred. Hunter's world was that of matters of fact; he was very cautious in moving to the level of generalization occupied by matters of meaning.

In 1785 Hunter carried out experiments on the mode of growth of deer's antlers which resulted in his discovery of collateral circulation by anastomosing branches of the arteries. This discovery led him in December to tie the femoral artery of a patient suffering from popliteal aneurysm, trusting to the development of the collateral circulation. The patient recovered in six weeks.

The Spence years provided Hunter also with a sense of systemic focus. From the initial descriptive emphasis on the teeth, for example, he moved to the mouth, the throat, and eventually the stomach, viewing them all as interacting parts of a major physiological system of food ingestion and digestion, characteristic in one form or another of all animal life. Subsequently, in his contributions both to the Royal Society and in his surgical lectures, his research data led him to define similarly related structures as the cerebrally centred nervous system, the circulatory system whose fluids both fed the organism and cleansed it of wastes, the musculoskeletal system which moved it, and the process which propagated the species. His was a holistic view of the organism, each part playing its own role in a constantly interacting systemic whole that was the living organism. It was also a teleological view, but with no external assigner of some predetermined purpose. He allowed himself, however, a rare speculation that the whole was energized by some life-force, inherent perhaps in the blood that moves through the whole organism, but without design or designer. In Hunter's view the concepts of function and form were inseparable. Pathology reflected the failure of a part to perform its function just as death reflected the failure of the whole system itself through the loss of blood's vitality. The art of surgery was to correct the failures, and, as a natural philosopher, it was his own role to discover through science the matters of fact of the normal process in order to correct where possible its aberration.

As his comparative anatomy collection increased Hunter used this systemic approach as a means of ordering it. By the end of his life, using the human system, which he considered the most advanced, as a reference point, he sought to construct the progressive order within the animal kingdom in each of the several systems illustrated by his own preparations. The concept of a functional improvement in each major system, describable in nature, was to be the primary novelty in the arrangement of his museum collection. Lacking for most of his life any real concept of geological time Hunter's system, unlike that of J. B. Lamarck, was non-transformational, but rather a classificatory device much fuller and more natural than those which followed in one way or another the popular but arbitrary Linnaean model. In the next century, Richard Owen, curator of the Hunterian collection for twenty-five years and the most celebrated advocate of his method, after reviewing all Hunter's works, saw him as

the first of the moderns who treated the organs of the animal body under their most general relations, and who pointed out the anatomical conditions which were characteristic of great groups or classes of animals; as one, in short, throughout whose works we meet with general propositions in comparative anatomy, the like of which exist in none of his contemporaries or predecessors, save in those of Aristotle.

Owen, xl

Resettled as a surgical practitioner

By 1770 the increase in both Hunter's practice and the continuing expansion of his collection forced a change in residence and practice. Fortunately William decided to move his school to grander quarters on Great Windmill Street. Hunter took over the few remaining years of the Jermyn Street lease. The new space provided ample room for his growing collection, which, by the time of the lease's end ten years later, had taken over much of the building; and the expanding practice allowed him to settle his domestic life.

After a courtship of several years, on 22 July 1771 at St James's, Piccadilly, Hunter married Anne Home (1742/3–1821) [see Hunter, Anne], the daughter of Robert Home, a former army surgeon, whom Hunter had met during the war. The two men had kept up a friendship in London and it was in such a context of family friendship that Hunter had met his future wife. Anne's personality and interests usefully complemented those of her husband. A poet, she became active in the socially amorphous group of actors, writers, artists, and musicians who frequented the salons and clubs in the city. The Hunters had four children, but only two survived infancy: John Banks Hunter (1772–1838), who found a career in the army, and Agnes Margaretta (1776–1838), who married first Captain James Campbell and later Lieutenant-Colonel Benjamin Charlewood.

In new quarters, Hunter's work space arranged, his domestic life settled, and a surgeon at St George's, he set up shop as surgeon, researcher, and teacher, all in the same establishment. For the first time he could take on paying house pupils. His first and most famous student was Edward Jenner in 1770, up to London from Gloucestershire to become a surgeon. The close friendship and tuitional relationship between the two lasted until Hunter's death. For Jenner, as with many other students, the association with Hunter was the major influence in his professional life. Hunter's nephew Matthew Baillie and his brother-in-law Everard Home were early students; one of the last to attend his lectures was the polymath and prodigy Thomas Young. There were also such distinguished surgeons of the next generation as Astley Cooper, Anthony Carlisle, John Abernethy, William Blizard, Henry Cline, and William Lawrence, all of whom, as oligarchs of the Royal College of Surgeons, became protectors of the Hunterian legacy. To them all he had preached as he had demonstrated the indissoluble relationship between form and function, and always the dictum that observation and experiment must precede generalization. As he wrote in the often quoted response to Jenner's request for comment on an idea of his, 'I think your solution is just. But why think? Why not try the experiment? Repeat the experiments … they will give you the solution' (Works, 1.56). His lectures, delivered in the early years at various venues, on the theory and practice of surgery, beginning in 1772, were works in progress, not infrequently changing viewpoints and correcting data from year to year. Unlike the shorter lecture series of his medical colleagues, Hunter's more serious lectures were ambitious, consisting of eighty-six one-hour evening lectures three times a week from October to April. To these lectures he devoted a great deal of time and energy since they were designed to teach students not only the elements of their art but also the methods and results of the science from which it must proceed. He was not, however, a successful lecturer. Too uncomfortable as a public speaker and too much interested in detail, however animated he might be in informal conversation, his delivery, read nervously from his detailed notes and text, made him a dull lecturer. Few auditors began the course and fewer stayed on to the end. His métier as a teacher was to establish a working relationship with the student, to teach him through experience rather than by written word.

In 1780 an incident occurred which led to Hunter's becoming estranged from his brother. In January that year John read a paper before the Royal Society on the structure of the placenta. On 3 February William wrote to the secretary of the Royal Society claiming that the discovery was well known to be his. John Hunter replied that he had made the discoveries in 1754, discussed them with William, and repeated the experiment. John also asserted that William had 'accurately delineated and minutely described the parts in that very accurate and elaborate work which he published on the Gravid uterus, without mentioning the mode of discovery' (Dobson, Clift, 350). Neither Hunter's paper nor the correspondence was published by the Royal Society.

The Hunterian establishment in Leicester Square

Hunter prospered both as surgeon and as man of science in Jermyn Street—so much so that by the time the lease expired in 1783 he required more space. He found a large house, 28 Leicester Fields or Square, as it became, a short distance away. The property, on the east side of the square, consisted of the main house fronting the square, a large lot behind it, and a small house on Castle Street. Over the next three years he renovated the entire property at a cost of £3000. The major change was to unite the two existing houses through constructing a building which could display his expanding natural history collection arranged in specially built cases on the upper level, and house a lecture theatre and reception room on the lower, all lit by a skylight. The smaller Castle Street house was divided into several rooms or laboratories in which Hunter and his assistants prepared and studied specimens. However, as his interests in the relation between anatomical form and physiological function increased he spent more time at Earls Court, its original small cottage expanded into a country villa, with its menagerie and laboratory, where he could get away from the distracting hurly-burly of the busy city and from his wife's social life. There he could observe directly the living animal as an extension of his work with the dead.

Two years after the move Hunter was fully established—his family in the large house on the square, with his consulting room on the ground floor, his lecture hall and natural history collection in the new space in the rear. He had become a public scientific man and his wife an active member of society. By the time of his death, eight years later, some fifty people had become a part of his expanded enterprise, for all of whom he was financially responsible—a responsibility that kept Hunter working harder and harder in order to stay out of ruinous debt. Although the income from his practice and his pupils reached as high as £6000 a year in the last years of his life, his zeal to add to his collection left little to support family or staff, and his estate was encumbered by debt at his death.

It was in the Leicester Square establishment that Hunter's career both as surgeon and naturalist reached its climax. In 1786 he published his timely Treatise on Venereal Disease, based on cases and treatments that he had been compiling for several years, and he was still working on his more important Treatise on the Blood, Inflammation, and Gunshot Wounds, containing his most significant contributions to surgical theory and practice, materials for which he had been storing away in his notes since the war years. Virtually completed, prepared for publication, and with a brief laudatory biographical preface by Home, it was published posthumously in 1794. Already in 1786 Hunter had brought together the nine memoirs he had contributed to the Royal Society into a single volume, Observations on Certain Parts of the Animal Oeconomy. Its title reflected his concern with the overall functioning of various interdependent parts of the whole organic system; a year before his death, certainly aware of how ill he was, he published a second edition, adding two more pieces. By the time of his death he had extended his interests to the study and explication of fossils, a varied collection of which he had assembled. In his last paper intended for the Royal Society, he identified them as representing animal species unknown in the present world, evidence suggesting an antiquity of the earth of 'thousands of centuries'. In an intellectual climate increasingly critical of theological heterodoxy, it was too radical even for his friends. Advised that such an idea would be abhorrent to the orthodox, it was not published until its rediscovery more than half a century later.

Hunter's working life

Hunter was addicted to work. His working day was divided into discrete parts. It might begin at five and certainly by six when his assistant arrived. These early hours until he breakfasted at nine were usually devoted to the dissections, of which more than 500 were documented. After breakfast he would see patients until midday; and then to his rounds, visiting patients at home or in hospital. Dinner was at four, after which he took his usual hour's sleep 'a sacred hour, in which he was only to be disturbed in matters of utmost emergency. Thus refreshed, the philosopher returned to his study, and passed the hours from eight o'clock to midnight in the business of writing or dictation' (Owen, 1.293). He usually worked up the scribbled notes from his dissections into some more philosophical treatment designed as a memoir or lecture through dictation to one or another of his assistants, of which William Clift was the last and the most tenacious in keeping the memory of the great man alive. Hunter kept his notes and manuscript drafts in cabinets in his study, Clift recalled,

that he might have ready access to them in the evenings; and scarcely a single evening occurred, except Sundays, during my attendance on Mr. Hunter for the last twenty months of his life, in which something was not added to the contents of those volumes of papers. I wrote constantly for him during that period from seven o'clock until eleven p.m., and sometimes an hour or two later; as did also Mr. Haynes for a great part of that period.

Owen, 2.497

Most of his initial notes were scribbled on the 'blank pages and envelopes of letters', then copied into the manuscripts. The scraps were then used to light candles from the fire in the fireplace and the rough drafts of memoirs, once clean copied, were 'taken into his private dissecting room as waste paper to dissect upon'.

Hunter's personality and manner

As the best of Hunter's nineteenth-century biographers described him from recollections of his students and others who knew him, Hunter

was deficient in those refined gentlemanly feelings, and those conciliatory manners … especially requisite in the medical profession. Conscious of great mental superiority, he was too apt to show this in a rude and overbearing manner, towards men who in their station were his equals, and exhibited somewhat too large a share of his self definition. Though he had a few admirers and friends, his apparent arrogance created many enemies and prevented him from ever becoming a general favourite of the profession.

Works, 1.26–7

Home, after Hunter's death, was more generous, but even he had to acknowledge Hunter's faults: 'His disposition was candid and free from reserve even to a fault', he wrote. 'He hated deceit, and as he was above every kind of artifice, he detested it in others, and too often avowed his sentiments' (Home, 64). He could be a difficult person to deal with. His success as surgeon, comparative anatomist, and natural historian excited hostility and provoked a malicious biography by a fellow surgeon, Jesse Foot, to many of whose observations and charges verging on malpractice and fraud his conservative colleagues could agree. However, certain of his own rectitude Hunter gave as much as he got. His comments regarding his enemies were caustic and acerbic. Although he would correct factual errors of his own when subsequent dissections or comment by others demanded, he remained certain that his method and principles were correct, and had little or no respect for those who disagreed with him. A tory in politics, he 'wished all the rascals who were dissatisfied with their country would be good enough to leave' (DNB). He would rather have seen his museum on fire than show it to a democrat.

The fine portrait of Hunter which his Leicester Square neighbour and friend Sir Joshua Reynolds painted in 1786 (and reworked in 1789) became his public image, thanks to the hundred or more impressions of William Sharp's even more expressive print. It is itself a biographical document. Here Hunter is seated at his writing table, pen in hand, specimens of his collection and significant publications on the shelves and table beside him, all showing examples of his idea of systemic progression. Reynolds caught the facial expression as Clift and his earlier long-time assistant, William Bell, may often have seen him: virtually motionless, his mind fully focused on the particular dissection on which he was engaged or the idea, the principle, to which it led.

Beyond the dissecting room

Once returned from the war the pressures of time and the discovery of his true vocation narrowed his social activities to those most directly associated with his professional interests and practice. Still fond of the theatre Hunter could attend only occasionally the mainly comedic and melodramatic performances that he enjoyed. Hunter was also a collector of paintings and rare books, although the motive for collecting appears to have been acquisitiveness rather than connoisseurship. The collection was auctioned after Hunter's death. As his reputation grew Hunter met many important figures in London's intellectual world, but his interests were too narrowly focused to foster any close relationship. He was neither a great conversationalist nor a frequenter of the fashionable salons, not even those hosted by his wife.

In the smaller, more intimate informal groups, coming together in the popular coffee-house clubs to discuss the novelties of the new sciences, however, he was much more comfortable. There Hunter could discuss his own work and argue his own ideas with associates with similar interests. One of these was a small exclusive group that met first at Jack's Coffee House, moving later to Slaughter's Coffee House. Richard Lovell Edgeworth, a wealthy Anglo-Irish landowner and intellectual, described a meeting he attended in the 1770s:

John Hunter was our chairman. Sir Joseph Banks, Solander, Sir C. Blagden, Dr. George Fordyce, Milne, Maskelyne, Captain Cook, Sir G. Shuckburgh, Lord Mulgrave, Smeaton, and Ramsden, were among our numbers. Many other gentlemen of talents belonged to this club … [among them and through their discussions] a certain esprit de corps, uncontaminated with jealousy, in some degree, combines the talents of numbers to forward the views of a single member … We tried every means in our power, except for personal insult, to try the temper and understanding of each candidate for admission. Every prejudice, which his profession or situation in life might have led him to cherish, was attacked, exposed to argument and ridicule. The argument was always ingenious, and the ridicule sometimes coarse.

R. L. Edgeworth, Memoirs, 1820, 1.188–9

It was a period when such small specialized groups flourished, if only for a season or two. And Hunter played an important role in their meetings. There was the Lyceum Medicum Londinenses for the Advancement of Medical Knowledge, of which he was a founder in 1785 and whose meetings he hosted in Leicester Square. Another was the more formal and somewhat more successful Society for the Improvement of Medical and Chirurgical Knowledge, of which he was also a founding member in 1783. The society met once a month to hear research papers from its members, some of which would be published in its short-lived Transactions. And most prestigious of all, there was the Royal Society, where the honour was great, but the proceedings dull.

Within such select groups, more heterodox in their medical views, his active participation suggests that Hunter felt much more comfortable than among the large number of surgeons operating within the orthodox traditions of medical practice. While they might respect him as a politically and professionally successful practitioner, they could neither understand nor appreciate his approach, nor his collecting mania, which was for them a matter of amusement, the rumoured sums paid for a single specimen a subject of malicious gossip.

Hunter's death

From the early 1770s, shortly after his marriage, Hunter suffered from the heart disease that eventually killed him. As an experienced surgeon, who had autopsied many of his patients with the symptoms he was himself increasingly experiencing, he would have known how serious his condition was.

With episodes of angina occurring with greater intensity and frequency, Hunter wrote out his final will during summer 1793. The family property in Scotland that he half inherited from his brother he willed to his son; his personal assets, which in the event were few, he willed to his wife and children; and to his nephew Matthew Baillie and his brother-in-law, Everard Home, he willed the Earls Court property. More concerned about the fate of his natural history collection and its documentation he willed the whole of it to Baillie and Home as trustees with instructions that it be sold to the government for the public or, failing that, to any foreign government, with the hope that it would be taken as a whole with no threat of dispersal. Unwanted by the family, and with no value in themselves, the manuscripts and papers were unmentioned, though recognized as an essential part of the material collection.

On 16 October 1793 Hunter went into his dissecting room before dawn as usual, and continued a dissection until breakfast at nine; he left at noon, 'as well as I ever saw him in my life' (Dobson, Clift, 11), wrote Clift a few days later, for what was to be an important meeting with his colleagues at St George's. The meeting promised to be contentious. Since becoming house surgeon of St George's twenty-five years earlier he had often diverged from his colleagues over the increasing restrictions on the admission of students and the teaching offered them when they arrived. Hunter stressed the need for better clinical training for the students and considered that his colleagues were not doing enough to attract students to the hospital, even though 'the surgeons were very ready to receive their share of the profits, but would do nothing to earn it' (Dobson, Clift, 324). It had been a continuing battle—and a losing one. He had become a member of the hospital staff, not 'to augment my income', Hunter wrote,

but to acquire opportunities of acquiring knowledge that I might be more useful to mankind, not only by improving [the quality of] my private practice, but if I should be enabled to make discoveries even in the art itself. I had a view also to the instruction of those who were studying under me … whose improvement is one principal benefit accruing to the public from such instruction … My motive was in the first place to serve the hospital, and in the second to diffuse the knowledge of the art that all might be partakers of it; thus indeed is the highest office in which the surgeon can be employed.

Wells, 137

In this last meeting with his colleagues he was frustrated by the refusal to accept two young students from Scotland, who, like Hunter almost fifty years before, had travelled to London to become surgeons.

In the past Hunter's angina attacks had usually been triggered by the mental excitement of intense argument. On this occasion, soon after the beginning of what would have been a repetition of the continuing disagreement, in the middle of a personal verbal attack by an opponent, Hunter felt ill and went off to a neighbouring room where he soon collapsed and died. Home's autopsy confirmed the arteriosclerosis that Hunter himself, from his symptoms and his experience, must have already known. No great public notice was taken of his death, and after a simple funeral six days later his body, in its leaden coffin, was placed in the vault of St Martin-in-the-Fields church, to be found there sixty years later by Frank Buckland and, in a different intellectual climate, removed for interment in the nave of Westminster Abbey. In 1877 a memorial window to Hunter was placed in the north transept of Kensington parish church by public subscription.

The Hunterian Museum

At his death Hunter's career was already moving in two directions: the successful surgeon who commanded high fees for his services; and the compulsive collector whose bottled preparations, dried specimens, and Earls Court menagerie, though ridiculed by many of his colleagues, attracted foreign naturalists on their visits to London. Through it he had become a friend of and consultant to both Sir Joseph Banks and Captain James Cook on their return with their treasures in 1771 from their long exploratory trip in the south Pacific. Hunter subsequently served future expeditions as an adviser on what to collect, how to collect, preserve, and analyse the more remarkable natural history specimens acquired. Earlier in his career, in 1775, he had written to Jenner of a 'great scheme' to found a programme 'to teach natural history, in which will be included anatomy, both human and comparative' of which his collection would be the physical text (24 May 1775, quoted in Works, 1.55). That idea went nowhere, superseded by more immediate practical needs.

In his instructions to his executors Hunter hoped that his collection might still serve the purpose for which he had assembled it. With its own political and economic problems the government had little interest in purchasing a collection of exotica that most experts thought of little use or consequence. In 1796 Sir Joseph Banks did not consider Hunter's museum to be 'an object of importance to the general study of natural history' (DNB). It was left to a few friends, especially the politically active Lord Auckland, finally to persuade the government, in 1799, to acquire the collection for £15,000 and to place it in the trust of the Company of Surgeons (soon to become the Royal College of Surgeons) for its preservation; this was only after the Royal College of Physicians had refused the collection. A dozen years later the government provided a similar amount for the construction of a building for its arrangement and exhibit. The collection was given on condition that a proper catalogue be made, a conservator appointed, and that twenty-four lectures on comparative anatomy should be delivered annually at the college.

Except for a few dedicated students of Hunter's there was little interest in the collection as it was left at his death. It remained for Clift to care for the collection with an almost single-minded dedication to the reputation of the man he revered above all others for the rest of his long life. Clift remained virtually alone with the collection and Hunter's papers until, with the expiry of the lease in 1807, he supervised its move to a college owned building in Lincoln's Inn Fields and then, in 1813, into the new expanded galleries, built by the surgeons as a monument to the man whose efforts, interests, and talents they felt had made them gentlemen. For most of that time, shifted from place to place, the natural history and comparative anatomy portion of the collection remained uncatalogued, most of the 13,682 specimens unexamined since Hunter's death and many having lost their identifying labels. Of the original collection, about two-thirds were destroyed in a bombing raid on 11 May 1941. Hunter's more substantive notes, the drafts of papers never published, and his correspondence, all important documentation for his unfinished work, were maintained with an equal dedication. Alone with the collection and without guidance as to its future, Clift began to copy them out in his legible hand as a continuing reminder of his master's greatness. When in 1800 the collection was transferred to the care of the College of Surgeons, Home, no longer executor, had a cartload of Hunter's manuscripts carried to his house, where, after plagiarizing them to make his own reputation, he burnt them in 1823. Only Clift's copies, safely in his own possession until his death, remained as evidence of Hunter's range of interests and constructive scientific imagination.

Through these two decades after his death Hunter's image was recast from that of a professionally unpopular medical radical into that of the profession's totemic ancestor. His teaching and empirical approach were now available to a wider public through the museum's arrangement, promised in the anticipated catalogue, and perpetuated by his students, now prominent in the profession. At the installation of the collection in its specially designed galleries of the college, his brother-in-law, Home, and his nephew, Baillie, established the Hunterian orations to be delivered on his birthday, first annually and later bi-annually, each to burnish some small part of the image symbolically paraded before the community as demonstration of how far the surgeons had grown in social respectability. The achievement of full professional status, almost a century after the separation of surgeons from the artisan barbers, was confirmed with the long-awaited completion of the collection's catalogues in time for the opening of the new expanded Hunterian Museum and the establishment of a Hunterian professorship of comparative anatomy and physiology in 1837, to be held for the next twenty years by Richard Owen. In the first series of his annual lectures in 1837, he ranked Hunter with Aristotle as a major contributor to natural philosophy. In support he brought together, in a new edition of the Animal Oeconomy, all Hunter's published memoirs as the fourth volume of J. F. Palmer's The Works of John Hunter. Together with Owen's publication in 1861 of all Hunter's unpublished work saved by Clift from Home's piracy and destruction, they constitute—with the Hunterian collection—the whole of Hunter's extant contributions to comparative physiology in the service of surgical practice. Paradoxically, even as his greatness was being celebrated his vision was being clouded. The art of surgical practice, and the science that Hunter had hoped would aid it, were breaking apart. For a younger generation of surgeons, a half century after Hunter's death, the collection itself was an anachronism to be enshrined in a museum. Hunter's aim of improving surgical practice through integrating it with natural science was deemed impracticable, even undesirable. Owen's continuation of Hunter's comparative anatomy was subject to the criticism of the college's membership. Responding to Owen's concern over the charge of irrelevance of a seemingly esoteric anatomical study, Sir Anthony Carlisle, one of the last surviving Hunterian students, and a major force in the college and its museum, wrote that he should not mind the criticism:

It is an excellent specimen of the Hunterian-Cuvierian Natural History, but, as I at first foresaw, your pearls are thrown before swine. If the medical hog-trough should be cleared out in our time, there is a gleam of hope for science among a small few, but you must not be disappointed by the general neglect of your researches.

Owen correspondence, NHM, 6.298

Despite Carlisle's gloomy words the museum remains, at the start of the twenty-first century, a fitting memorial to John Hunter, a major figure in the development of experimental medicine.


  • The works of John Hunter, ed. J. F. Palmer and others, 4 vols. (1835–7)
  • J. Kobler, The reluctant surgeon (1960)
  • S. R. Gloyne, John Hunter (1950)
  • G. Quist, John Hunter: 1728–1793 (1981)
  • R. Owen, Essays and observation on natural history (1861)
  • J. Adams, Memoirs of the life and doctrines of the late John Hunter, esq. (1817)
  • E. Home, ‘Introduction’, in J. Hunter, Treatise on the blood, inflammation, and gunshot wounds (1794)
  • J. Dobson, William Clift (1954)
  • J. Dobson, ‘John Hunter's museum’, in Z. Cope, The Royal College of Surgeons: a history (1959), 274–306
  • F. H. Butler, ‘John Hunter’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edn (1910–11)
  • J. Finlayson, ‘Account of a MS volume by William Clift’, BMJ (29 March 1890)
  • L. A. Wells, ‘Why not try the experiment? The scientific education of Edward Jenner’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 118 (1974)
  • L. S. Jacyna, ‘Images of John Hunter in the nineteenth century’, History of Science, 21 (1983), 85–108
  • E. Allen, R. S. Murley, and J. L. Turk, The case books of John Hunter FRS (1873)
  • C. Grigson, The life and poems of Anne Hunter: Haydn's tuneful voice (2009)
  • sexton's register book, London, St Martin-in-the-Fields
  • private information (2006) [Westminster Abbey]


  • BL, anatomical notes, Add. MS 34407
  • Bodl. Oxf., lecture notes [copies]
  • King's Lond., lecture notes
  • National Library of Medicine, Maryland, lecture notes
  • NHM, corresp. and papers
  • RCS Eng., corresp. and papers
  • Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, lecture notes
  • RS, papers
  • St George's Hospital, papers
  • Wellcome L., lecture notes
  • Wellcome L., notes on principles of surgery and venereal diseases


  • bronze and plaster casts of life mask, 1785, NPG
  • J. Reynolds, oils, 1786 (reworked 1789), RCS Eng. [see illus.]
  • attrib. G. Dance, pencil drawing, 1793, RCS Eng.
  • J. Flaxman, marble bust, 1800–1805, RCS Eng.
  • F. Chantrey, marble bust, 1820, RCS Eng.
  • H. Weekes, statue, 1864 (after J. Reynolds), RCS Eng.
  • R. Home, oils, RCS Eng.
  • J. Jackson (after oils by J. Reynolds), NPG
  • oils, RCS Eng.

Wealth at Death

liabilities of approx. £19,000; property sold for approx. £14,000, collection purchased in 1799 for £15,000

Page of
National Portrait Gallery, London
Page of
Bodleian Library, Oxford
Page of
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
Page of
Natural History Museum, London
Page of
King's College, London
Page of
British Library, London
Page of
British Medical Journal
Page of
Royal Society, London
Page of
Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, London
Page of
Royal College of Surgeons of England