The Life and Times of John Hunter (Surgeon)
John Hunter FRS (1728 –1793) was a Scottish Surgeon and one of the most distinguished scientists and surgeons of his day. He was an early advocate of careful observation and the scientific method in medicine. He taught and collaborated with Edward Jenner, the pioneer of the smallpox vaccine.
Hunter is alleged to have paid for the stolen body of the Irish Giant, Charles Byrne, and proceeded to study and exhibit it against Byrne’s explicit wishes (Bryne wanted to be buried at sea). It’s said that Hunter paid £500 cash to procure Bryne’s corpse of the ‘Irish Giant’, Charles Byrne, the London Circus attraction. Justifiably afraid that his body would wind up on a dissection table, the almost eight-foot-tall giant had arranged before his death for his body to be buried at sea. Somehow his coffin instead was filled with rocks, and his skeleton was on display in the anatomic collections of John Hunter.
Hunter came to London in 1748 at the age of 20 and worked as an assistant in the anatomy school of his elder brother William – an established physician and obstetrician. Under William’s direction, John learnt human anatomy and showed great aptitude in the dissection and preparation of specimens.
Suffering from ill health, Hunter became a staff surgeon with the British army in 1760, serving during the Seven Years’ War. During this time, he acquired surgical skills and experience with gunshot wounds and inflammation. Afterwards, he worked with the dentist James Spence conducting teeth transplants, and in 1764 set up his own anatomy school in London.
Picture Credit: [Cropped Left & Right] “This image is taken from John Hunter, man of science and surgeon (1728-1793) With introd. by Sir James Paget” by Medical Heritage Library, Inc. is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Hunter built a collection of living animals whose skeletons and other organs he prepared as anatomical specimens, eventually amassing nearly 14,000 preparations demonstrating the anatomy of humans and other vertebrates, including more than 3,000 animals.
Hunter became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1767. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1787. The Hunterian Society of London was so named in his honour, and the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons preserves his name and his collection of anatomical specimens. It still contains the illegally procured body of Charles Byrne, despite ongoing protests.
John Hunter researched blood while bloodletting patients with various diseases, which helped him develop his theory that inflammation was a bodily response to disease and was not itself pathological.
Hunter studied under William Cheselden at Chelsea Hospital and Percival Pott at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. After qualifying, he became assistant surgeon (house surgeon) in 1756 at St George’s Hospital and surgeon in 1768, an appointment that was short-lived because he wanted to devote himself to anatomy.
Hunter and Dentistry
When Hunter returned to London after his war service, he was drawn to dentistry. Preventive dental care was unknown at the time, and the mania for sugar to sweeten tea led to an epidemic of caries – the decay and crumbling of a tooth or bone.
It wasn’t long before Hunter entered into a partnership with dentist James Spence, whose practice afforded the opportunity to study the anatomy and diseases of teeth. Hunter recognised the role of gum disease in the loss of teeth. He recorded his observations and study in the first comprehensive study on the anatomy and diseases of teeth, a two-volume treatise that became the definitive text in the field and established his reputation among London’s surgical elite. Hunter’s solution to the loss of teeth after extraction was to take the appropriate matching tooth from a ‘poor’ human donor (generally someone who needed the money) and attempt to establish it in the ‘rich’ host’s empty socket.
Hunter’s treatise on human teeth was a basic building block of modern dentistry.
Hunter – blunt-speaker and disputatious
By the 1780s, Hunter enjoyed widespread recognition as the leading teacher of surgery of his time. However, the acclaim did little to mellow his blunt-speaking and argumentative nature. His temper was to be his downfall: Hunter died in 1793 suffering a fit after an argument at St George’s Hospital over the acceptance of students for training.
Hunter and bodies for dissection
Hunter is said to have spent far more than he could afford on bodies for dissection, and he overpaid for curiosities. As with all surgeons and anatomists of the day, he engaged grave robbers, ironically called “resurrectionists,” to procure bodies for study and examination. John Hunter’s home on Leicester Square had two entrances: a respectable one for patients and students, the other one, more sinister, for the deliveries of corpses.
Hunter’s lasting contribution to Science
Always the innovator, John Hunter’s experiments provided many invaluable insights for modern medicine. Primarily a student of observation as opposed to strict academia, his wide-ranging interests allowed him to explore several areas of treatment simultaneously.
He introduced the modern approach to surgery: ’Start with a thorough understanding of anatomy and physiology, meticulously observe the symptoms of disease in a living patient and post-mortem findings of those that died of it, then, on the basis of the comparison, propose an improvement in treatment, test it in animal experiments, and try the procedure on humans.’
Hunter was a key figure of the Enlightenment who transformed surgery, advanced biological understanding and perhaps anticipated the evolutionary theories of Darwin. He is remembered as a founder of ‘scientific surgery’. He helped improve the knowledge and understanding of human teeth, bone growth and remodelling, inflammation, gunshot wounds, venereal diseases, digestion, the functioning of the lacteals, child development, the separateness of maternal and foetal blood supplies, and the role of the lymphatic system. He carried out the first recorded artificial insemination in 1790 on a linen draper’s wife.
Sources and Further Reading
- Book: John Hunter, the father of scientific surgery – available for download from https://www.facs.org/~/media/files/archives/shg%20poster/2017/05_john_hunter.ashx
- Book: The Knife Man: The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery, by Wendy Moore – available on Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Knife-Man-Body-snatching-Modern-Surgery/dp/0553816187/
Picture Credit: “John Hunter, FRS, surgeon, Oxford Museum of Natural History” by Snapshooter46 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0