Famous Hunter ~~ John Hunter

John Hunter (1728-1793) John Hunter Scientist and Surgeon
John Hunter was born in 1728 on a Scottish farm on the outskirts of Glasgow; the youngest of 10 children.  He received little in the way of a formal education and dropped out of school at the age of 13 years.  Despite this background he was to become one of the of the most influential British surgeons of the 18th century.  In 1748, he wrote to his brother William, an anatomist and obstetrician, enquiring as to whether he could join him in London.  Later that year he began preparing anatomical dissections and within a year he was helping his brother teach anatomy.  John Hunter became an assistant to William Cheselden at the Chelsea Hospital  and in 1751 he was appointed apprentice to Sir Percival Pott at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.  Between 1754 and 1756 he worked as a house surgeon at St. George’s Hospital.

In 1761, he developed pulmonary tuberculosis, a disease which was to affect him for much of his working life.  In order to improve his health he was commissioned as an army surgeon and was sent to France and Portugal for two years.  During this time he became familiar with the management of war wounds and their complications. In 1764, he returned to London where he set up his own anatomy school and started in private surgical practice.  His surgical career was slow to be established.   However, in 1767 he was elected as Fellow of the Royal Society and in 1768 he was appointed as surgeon to St. George’s Hospital.  He became a member of the Company of Surgeons but he was never to hold high office within the organisation.  

The written work produced by Hunter had a significant impact on medical practice of the time.  His first book, Natural History of Human Teeth, was published in 1771.  In it he clearly described dental anatomy and coined the terms bicuspids, cuspids, incisors and molars.  His second book, A Practical Treatise on the Diseases of Teeth, described dental pathology.  In 1786 he published A Treatise on Venereal Disease in which he described chancre and lymphogranuloma venereum. In The Digestion of the Stomach after Death (1772) he described shock and intussusception and in A Treatise on Blood, Inflammation and Gun-Shot Wounds (1794) he questioned the need to surgically enlarge gun-shot wounds and disproved the belief that gunpowder was poisonous.  In 1786 he was appointed deputy surgeon to the army and in 1789 he was made Surgeon General.  He described ligation of the femoral artery in the treatment of popliteal aneurysms.

The lack of a university education failed to lessen his contributions to surgery, medicine and science.  Many of these contributions were the result of clear and concise personal observations based on innumerable hours spent preparing anatomical dissections.  His anatomical and surgical teaching was held in high regard and his famous pupils include Benjamin Bell, Astley Cooper, Everard Home and Edward Jenner. 

Known as the father of scientific surgery, John Hunter was one of the first people to apply a rational and scientific approach to surgery. The Reluctant Surgeon Although there is no single medical or surgical advance that is credited to him, John Hunter greatly extended our understanding of disease processes making real inroads into areas such as inflammation, transplanting teeth, gunshot wounds and venereal disease.

He has been described as a ‘reluctant surgeon’ in that he would only operate when really necessary. Given the absence of anaesthetics and the dangers that attended surgery in the eighteenth century this was a sensible approach. John taught his students that surgery should only be attempted if the surgeon had a clear outcome in mind and that it would do the least amount of harm to the patient. This approach, of only operating- indeed conducting any treatment, on a rational basis coupled with his extensive anatomical studies is what gave him the accolade of father of scientific surgery.

A Bribe for a Body Although essentially a kind man, John Hunter was no saint, particularly when his curiosity drove him. He bribed a mourner to help him obtain the body of the 7 feet 7 inch Irish giant Charles Byrne for dissection (John was fascinated by the unusual). The unfortunate Irishman knew that John wanted his body and asked to be buried at sea to ensure that the grave robbers couldn’t get to him. He failed to take into account John’s determination and a mourner’s greed.

A Man with a Fierce Temper John had a fierce temper which, he thought, might one day kill him. In a heroic experiment to determine that nature of venereal disease, John purposefully inoculated himself with infected material from a sufferer. This gave him syphilis which over the years severely damaged his heart and the rest of circulatory system. John was well aware of the dangers this combination of a badly damaged heart and an uncontrollable temper, saying that ‘My life is at the mercy of any rogue who chooses to provoke me’.

This proved prescient. During an argument with fellow surgeons John collapsed never to regain consciousness. He died on 16th October 1793.

Much of what remains of John Hunter’s collection can be seen in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, London. If you can’t get there, the website has a virtual tour.


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