|Description||Hunter was born on 13 February 1728 in East Kilbride. Attending the local village school, he experienced great difficulties learning to read and write and gave up all formal education when he was 13. He went to London in 1748 at the age of 20, to join his brother William. 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 their first opportunity to dissect human corpses for themselves. Working as his brother's pupil and assistant, John was entrusted with the task of obtaining the school's vital teaching material - a regular supply of fresh bodies dug up from paupers' graves. |
In the 12 years the Hunter brothers worked together, John was present at the dissection of more than 2,000 bodies. During this period, Hunter established the circulation of the placenta, traced the nerves of smell, described the descent of the testes in the womb, explained the cause of congenital hernias, demonstrated the circulation of the lymphatic system, and conducted numerous experiments on animals. It was this unparalleled knowledge of the human body that made him the skilled surgeon he became.
After 12 years working with William Hunter signed up as a surgeon with the army. He treated casualties at the capture of Belle-Île and in the campaign in Portugal during the Seven Years War. It was during his time on Belle-Île that Hunter made comparisons between five French soldiers whose gun-shot wounds had gone untreated and a British soldier who had undergone surgery. Discovering that the French soldiers' wounds had healed better for their lack of surgery, he recommended leaving simple gun-shot wounds untreated - a wise precaution in the days before antisepsis.
Returning to London in 1763, Hunter found work in dentistry and popularised tooth transplants. Building up his clientele, Hunter treated many patients for venereal disease which was then ubiquitous in London. Gathering esteem as a surgeon and anatomist, Hunter made post mortems respectable by persuading many of his influential friends to give prior consent to autopsies on themselves or family members. 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. For most of his life Hunter worked towards the formulation of a theory which would explain all life on earth, eventually concluding that the earth was immensely old and that all species had descended from common ancestors although he did not manage to work out how this change occurred.
Ultimately, Hunter became the most popular and best-paid surgeon in London. He treated Georgian London's poorest in St George's Hospital, and its best-known celebrities in his private practice, based at his consulting rooms in Leicester Square. Hunter pioneered several medical innovations, including a famous operation in 1785 when he cured a coach-driver of a popliteal aneurysm by tying the artery in the patient's thigh so that a collateral circulation would develop and bypass the swelling. In a typical example of his scientific approach, he had developed his hypothesis, tested it first on animals and then attempted the operation.
Hunter's enduring legacy was his insistence on observation and experiment in developing surgery. He argued that all medical treatments and surgical procedures should be tried and tested, and that only proven therapies should be introduced into practice. He encouraged his many students continually to review their work and update their methods, and to learn from their mistakes. His revolutionary views were disseminated throughout the UK and the United States by his numerous pupils through the first half of the nineteenth century.
Hunter died, of a heart attack, in the board room of St George's Hospital, London, in 1793. On the following day, as usual, his pupils gathered in the dissecting room of his Leicester Square house for an anatomy lesson - but this time the corpse on the table belonged to their former teacher. John Hunter had left prior instructions that his body was to be dissected by his students as his final contribution to their education.
Contents: Medical lectures, c1781; microphotographs taken from Hunter's specimens of freemartins, 1913