1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hunter, John
HUNTER, JOHN (1728–1793), British physiologist and surgeon, was born on the 13th of February 1728, at Long Calderwood, in the parish of East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, being the youngest of the ten children of John and Agnes Hunter. His father, who died on the 30th of October 1741, aged 78, was descended from the old Ayrshire family of Hunter of Hunterston, and his mother was the daughter of a Mr Paul, treasurer of Glasgow. Hunter is said to have made little progress at school, being averse to its restraints and pursuits, and fond of country amusements. When seventeen years old he went to Glasgow, where for a short time he assisted his brother-in-law, Mr Buchanan, a cabinetmaker. Being desirous at length of some settled occupation, he obtained from his brother William (q.v.) permission to aid, under Mr Symonds, in making dissections in his anatomical school, then the most celebrated in London, intending, should he be unsuccessful there, to enter the army. He arrived accordingly in the metropolis in September 1748, about a fortnight before the beginning of his brother’s autumnal course of lectures. After succeeding beyond expectation with the dissection of the muscles of an arm, he was entrusted with a similar part injected, and from the excellence of his second essay Dr Hunter predicted that he would become a good anatomist. Seemingly John Hunter had hitherto received no instruction in preparation for the special course of life upon which he had entered.
Hard-working, and singularly patient and skilful in dissection, Hunter had by his second winter in London acquired sufficient anatomical knowledge to be entrusted with the charge of his brother’s practical class. In the summer months of 1749–1750, at Chelsea Military Hospital, he attended the lectures and operations of William Cheselden, on whose retirement in the following year he became a surgeon’s pupil at St Bartholomew’s, where Percivall Pott was one of the senior surgeons. In the summer of 1752 he visited Scotland. Sir Everard Home and, following him, Drewry Ottley state that Hunter began in 1754 to assist his brother as his partner in lecturing; according, however, to the European Magazine for 1782, the office of lecturer was offered to Hunter by his brother in 1758, but declined by him on account of the “insuperable embarrassments and objections” which he felt to speaking in public. In 1754 he became a surgeon’s pupil at St George’s Hospital, where he was appointed house-surgeon in 1756. During the period of his connexion with Dr Hunter’s school he, in addition to other labours, solved the problem of the descent of the testis in the foetus, traced the ramifications of the nasal and olfactory nerves within the nose, experimentally tested the question whether veins could act as absorbents, studied the formation of pus and the nature of the placental circulation, and with his brother earned the chief merit of practically proving the function and importance of the lymphatics in the animal economy. On the 5th of June 1755, he was induced to enter as a gentleman commoner at St Mary’s Hall, Oxford, but his instincts would not permit him, to use his own expression, “to stuff Latin and Greek at the university.” Some three and thirty years later he thus significantly wrote of an opponent: “Jesse Foot accuses me of not understanding the dead languages; but I could teach him that on the dead body which he never knew in any language dead or living.” Doubtless, however, linguistic studies would have served to correct in him what was perhaps a natural defect—a difficulty in the presentation of abstract ideas not wholly attributable to the novelty of his doctrines.
An attack of inflammation of the lungs in the spring of 1759 having produced symptoms threatening consumption, by which the promising medical career of his brother James had been cut short, Hunter obtained in October 1760 the appointment of staff-surgeon in Hodgson and Keppel’s expedition to Belleisle. With this he sailed in 1761. In the following year he served with the English forces on the frontier of Portugal. Whilst with the army he acquired the extensive knowledge of gunshot wounds embodied in his important treatise (1794) on that subject, in which, amongst other matters of moment, he insists on the rejection of the indiscriminate practice of dilating with the knife followed almost universally by surgeons of his time. When not engaged in the active duties of his profession, he occupied himself with physiological and other scientific researches. Thus, in 1761, off Belleisle, the conditions of the coagulation of the blood were among the subjects of his inquiries. Later, on land, he continued the study of human anatomy, and arranged his notes and memoranda on inflammation; he also ascertained by experiment that digestion does not take place in snakes and lizards during hibernation, and observed that enforced vigorous movement at that season proves fatal to such animals, the waste so occasioned not being compensated, whence he drew the inference that, in the diminution of the power of a part attendant on mortification, resort to stimulants which increase action without giving real strength is inadvisable. A MS. catalogue by Hunter, probably written soon after his return from Portugal, shows that he had already made a collection of about two hundred specimens of natural and morbid structures.
On arriving in England early in 1763, Hunter, having retired from the army on half-pay, took a house in Golden Square, and began the career of a London surgeon. Most of the metropolitan practice at the time was held by P. Pott, C. Hawkins, Samuel Sharp, Joseph Warner and Robert Adair; and Hunter sought to eke out his at first slender income by teaching practical anatomy and operative surgery to a private class. His leisure was devoted to the study of comparative anatomy, to procure subjects for which he obtained the refusal of animals dying in the Tower menagerie and in various travelling zoological collections. In connexion with his rupture of a tendo Achillis, in 1767, he performed on dogs several experiments which, with the illustrations in his museum of the reunion of such structures after division, laid the foundation of the modern practice of cutting through tendons (tenotomy) for the relief of distorted and contracted joints. In the same year he was elected F.R.S. His first contribution to the Philosophical Transactions, with the exception of a supplement to a paper by J. Ellis in the volume for 1766, was an essay on post-mortem digestion of the stomach, written at the request of Sir J. Pringle, and read on the 18th of June 1772, in which he explained that phenomenon as a result of the action of the gastric juice. On the 9th of December 1768 he was elected a surgeon to St George’s Hospital, and, soon after, a member of the Corporation of Surgeons. He now began to take house-pupils. Among these were Edward Jenner, who came to him in 1770, and until the time of Hunter’s death corresponded with him on the most intimate and affectionate terms, W. Guy, Dr P. S. Physick of Philadelphia, and Everard Home, his brother-in-law. William Lynn and Sir A. Carlisle, though not inmates of his house, were frequent visitors there. His pupils at St George’s included John Abernethy, Henry Cline, James Earle and Astley Cooper. In 1770 he settled in Jermyn Street, in the house which his brother William had previously occupied; and in July 1771 he married Anne, the eldest daughter of Robert Home, surgeon to Burgoyne’s regiment of light horse.
From 1772 till his death Hunter resided during autumn at a house built by him at Earl’s Court, Brompton, where most of his biological researches were carried on. There he kept for the purpose of study and experiment the fishes, lizards, blackbirds, hedgehogs and other animals sent him from time to time by Jenner; tame pheasants and partridges, at least one eagle, toads, silkworms, and many more creatures, obtained from every quarter of the globe. Bees he had under observation in his conservatory for upwards of twenty years; hornets and wasps were also diligently studied by him. On two occasions his life was in risk from his pets—once in wrestling with a young bull, and again when he fearlessly took back to their dens two leopards which had broken loose among his dogs.
Choosing intuitively the only true method of philosophical discovery, Hunter, ever cautious of confounding fact and hypothesis, besought of nature the truth through the medium of manifold experiments and observations. “He had never read Bacon,” says G. G. Babington, “but his mode of studying nature was as strictly Baconian as if he had.” To Jenner, who had offered a conjectural explanation of a phenomenon, he writes, on the 2nd of August 1775: “I think your solution is just; but why think? why not try the experiment? Repeat all the experiments upon a hedgehog as soon as you receive this, and they will give you the solution.” It was his axiom however, “that experiments should not be often repeated which tend merely to establish a principle already known and admitted, but that the next step should be the application of that principle to useful purposes” (“Anim. Oecon.,” Works, iv. 86). During fifteen years he kept a flock of geese simply in order to acquaint himself with the development of birds in eggs, with reference to which he remarked: “It would almost appear that this mode of propagation was intended for investigation.” In his toxicological and other researches, in which his experience had led him to believe that the effects of noxious drugs are nearly similar in the brute creation and in man, he had already, in 1780, as he states, “poisoned some thousands of animals.”
By inserting shot at definite distances in the leg-bones of young pigs, and also by feeding them with madder, by which all fresh osseous deposits are tinged, Hunter obtained evidence that bones increase in size, not by the intercalation of new amongst old particles, as had been imagined by H. L. Duhamel du Monceau, but by means of additions to their extremities and circumference, excess of calcareous tissue being removed by the absorbents. Some of his most extraordinary experiments were to illustrate the relation of the strength of constitution to sex. He exchanged the spurs of a young cock and a young pullet, and found that on the former the transplanted structure grew to a fair size, on the latter but little; whereas a spur from one leg of a cock transferred to its comb, a part well supplied with blood, grew more than twice as fast as that left on the other leg. Another experiment of his, which required many trials for success, was the engrafting of a human incisor on the comb of a cock. The uniting of parts of different animals when brought into contact he attributed to the production of adhesive instead of suppurative inflammation, owing to their possession of “the simple living principle.” The effects of habit upon structure were illustrated by Hunter’s observation that in a sea-gull which he had brought to feed on barley the muscular parietes of the gizzard became greatly thickened. A similar phenomenon was noticed by him in the case of other carnivorous birds fed on a vegetable diet.
It was in 1772 that Hunter, in order effectually to gauge the extent of his own knowledge, and also correctly to express his views, which had been repeatedly misstated or ascribed to others, began his lectures on the theory and practice of surgery, at first delivered free to his pupils and a few friends, but subsequent to 1774 on the usual terms, four guineas. Though Pott, indeed, had perceived that the only true system of surgery is that which most closely accords with the curative efforts of nature, a rational pathology can hardly be said to have had at this time any existence; and it was generally assumed that a knowledge of anatomy alone was a sufficient foundation for the study of surgery. Hunter, unlike his contemporaries, to most of whom his philosophic habit of thought was a mystery, and whose books contained little else than relations of cases and modes of treatment, sought the reason for each phenomenon that came under his notice. The principles of surgery, he maintained, are not less necessary to be understood than the principles of other sciences; unless, indeed, the surgeon should wish to resemble “the Chinese philosopher whose knowledge consisted only in facts.” Too much attention, he remarked, cannot be paid to facts; yet a multitude of facts overcrowd the memory without advantage if they do not lead us to establish principles, by an acquaintance with which we learn the causes of diseases. Hunter’s course, which latterly comprised eighty-six lectures, delivered on alternate evenings between the hours of seven and eight, lasted from October to April. Some teachers of his time were content to dismiss the subjects of anatomy and surgery in a course of only six weeks’ duration. His class was usually small and never exceeded thirty. He was deficient in the gifts of a good extempore speaker, being in this respect a remarkable contrast to his brother William; and he read his lectures, seldom raising his eyes from the manuscript. His manner with his auditory is stated to have been embarrassed and awkward, or, as Adams puts it (Obs. on Morbid Pois., p. 272), “frequently ungraceful,” and his language always unadorned; but that his “expressions for the explaining of his new theories rendered his lectures often unintelligible” is scarcely evident in his pupils’ notes still extant. His own and others’ errors and fallacies were exposed with equal freedom in his teaching. Occasionally he would tell his pupils, “You had better not write down that observation, for very likely I shall think differently next year”; and once in answer to a question he replied, “Never ask me what I have said or what I have written; but, if you will ask me what my present opinions are, I will tell you.”
In January 1776 Hunter was appointed surgeon-extraordinary to the king. He began in the same year his Croonian lectures on muscular motion, continued annually, except in 1777, till 1782: they were never published by him, being in his opinion too incomplete. In 1778 appeared the second part of his Treatise on the Natural History of the Human Teeth, the first part of which was published in 1771. It was in the waste of the dental alveoli and of the fangs of shedding teeth that in 1754–1755, as he tells us, he received his first hint of the use of the absorbents. Abernethy (Physiological Lectures, p. 196) relates that Hunter, being once asked how he could suppose it possible for absorbents to do such things as he attributed to them, replied, “Nay, I know not, unless they possess powers similar to those which a caterpillar exerts when feeding on a leaf.” Hunter in 1780 read before the Royal Society a paper in which he laid claim to have been the first to make out the nature of the utero-placental circulation. His brother William, who had five years previously described the same in his Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus, thereupon wrote to the Society attributing to himself this honour. John Hunter in a rejoinder to his brother’s letter, dated the 17th of February 1780, reiterated his former statement, viz. that his discovery, on the evening of the day in 1754 that he had made it in a specimen injected by a Dr Mackenzie, had been communicated by him to Dr Hunter. Thus arose an estrangement between the two Hunters, which continued until the time of William’s last illness, when his brother obtained permission to visit him.
In 1783 Hunter was elected a member of the Royal Society of Medicine and of the Royal Academy of Surgery at Paris, and took part in the formation of “A Society for the Improvement of Medical and Chirurgical Knowledge.” It appears from a letter by Hunter that in the latter part of 1783, he, with Jenner, had the subject of colour-blindness under consideration. As in that year the lease of his premises in Jermyn Street was to expire, he purchased the twenty-four years’ leasehold of two houses, the one on the east side of Leicester Square, the other in Castle Street with intervening ground. Between the houses he built in 1783–1785, at an expense of above £3000, a museum for his anatomical and other collections which by 1782 had cost him £10,000. The new edifice consisted of a hall 52 ft. long by 28 ft. wide, and lighted from the top, with a gallery all round, and having beneath it a lecture theatre. In April 1785 Hunter’s collections were removed into it under the superintendence of Home and William Bell, and another assistant, André. Among the foreigners of distinction who inspected the museum, which was now shown by Hunter twice a year—in October to medical men, and in May to other visitors—were J. F. Blumenbach, P. Camper and A. Scarpa. In the acquisition of subjects for his varied biological investigations and of specimens for his museum, expense was a matter of small moment with Hunter. Thus he endeavoured, at his own cost, to obtain information respecting the Cetacea by sending out a surgeon to the North in a Greenland whaler. He is said, moreover, to have given, in June 1783, £500 for the body of O’Brien, or Byrne, the Irish giant, whose skeleton, 7 ft. 7 in. high, is so conspicuous an object in the museum of the College of Surgeons of London.
Hunter, who in the spring of 1769–1772 had suffered from gout, in spring 1773 from spasm apparently in the pyloric region, accompanied by failure of the heart’s action (Ottley, Life, p. 44), and in 1777 from vertigo with symptoms of angina pectoris, had in 1783 another attack of the last mentioned complaint, to which he was henceforward subject when under anxiety or excitement of mind.
In May 1785, chiefly to oblige William Sharp the engraver, Hunter consented to have his portrait taken by Sir Joshua Reynolds. He proved a bad sitter, and Reynolds made little satisfactory progress, till one day Hunter, while resting his somewhat upraised head on his left hand, fell into a profound reverie—one of those waking dreams, seemingly, which in his lectures he has so well described, when “the body loses the consciousness of its own existence.” The painter had now before him the man he would fain depict, and, turning his canvas upside down, he sketched out the admirable portrait which, afterwards skilfully restored by H. Farrar, is in the possession of the Royal College of Surgeons. A copy by Jackson, acquired from Lady Bell, is to be seen at the National Portrait Gallery, and St Mary’s Hall, Oxford, also possesses a copy. Sharp’s engraving of the original, published in 1788, is one of the finest of his productions. The volumes seen in Reynolds’ picture are a portion of the unpublished records of anatomical researches left by Hunter at his death, which, with other manuscripts, Sir Everard Home in 1812 removed from his museum, and eventually, in order, it has been supposed, to keep secret the source of many of his papers in the Philosophical Transactions, and of facts mentioned in his lectures, committed to the flames.
Among the subjects of Hunter’s physiological investigation in 1785 was the mode of growth of deer’s antlers. As he possessed the privilege of making experiments on the deer in Richmond Park, he in July of that year had a buck there caught and thrown, and tied one of its external carotid arteries. He observed that the antler which obtained its blood supply therefrom, then half-grown, became in consequence cold to the touch. Hunter debated with himself whether it would be shed in due time, or be longer retained than ordinarily. To his surprise he found, on re-examining the antler a week or two later, when the wound around the ligatured artery was healed, that it had regained its warmth, and was still increasing in size. Had, then, his operation been in some way defective? To determine this question, the buck was killed and sent to Leicester Fields. On examination Hunter ascertained that the external carotid had been duly tied, but that certain small branches of the artery above and below the ligature had enlarged, and by their anastomoses had restored the blood supply of the growing part. Thus it was evident that under “the stimulus of necessity,” to use a phrase of the experimenter, the smaller arterial channels are capable of rapid increase in dimensions to perform the offices of the larger. It happened that, in the ensuing December, there lay in one of the wards of St George’s Hospital a patient admitted for popliteal aneurism. The disease must soon prove fatal unless by some means arrested. Should the surgeon, following the usual and commonly fatal method of treatment, cut down upon the tumour, and, after tying the artery above and below it, evacuate its contents? Or should he adopt the procedure, deemed by Pott generally advisable, of amputating the limb above it? It was Hunter’s aim in his practice, even if he could not dispense with the necessity, at least to diminish the severity of operations, which he considered were an acknowledgment of the imperfection of the art of healing, and compared to “the acts of the armed savage, who attempts to get that by force which a civilized man would get by stratagem.” Since, he argued, the experiment with the buck had shown that collateral vessels are capable of continuing the circulation when passage through a main trunk is arrested, why should he not, in the aneurism case, leaving the absorbents to deal with the contents of the tumour, tie the artery in the sound parts, where it is tied in amputation, and preserve the limb? Acting upon this idea, he ligatured his patient’s femoral artery in the lower part of its course in the thigh, in the fibrous sheath enclosing the space since known as “Hunter’s canal.” The leg was found, some hours after the operation, to have acquired a temperature even above the normal. At the end of January 1786, that is, in six weeks’ time, the patient was well enough to be able to leave the hospital. Thus it was that Hunter inaugurated an operation which has been the means of preserving to hundreds life with integrity of limb—an operation which, as the Italian P. Assalini, who saw it first performed, testifies, “excited the greatest wonder, and awakened the attention of all the surgeons in Europe.”
Early in 1786 Hunter published his Treatise on the Venereal Disease, which, like some of his previous writings, was printed in his own house. Without the aid of the booksellers, 1000 copies of it were sold within a twelvemonth. Although certain views therein expressed with regard to the relationship of syphilis have been proved erroneous, the work is a valuable compendium of observations of cases and modes of treatment (cf. John Hilton, Hunt. Orat. p. 40). Towards the end of the year appeared his Observations on certain parts of the Animal Oeconomy, which, besides the more important of his contributions to the Philosophical Transactions, contains nine papers on various subjects. In 1786 Hunter became deputy surgeon-general to the army; his appointment as surgeon-general and as inspector-general of hospitals followed in 1790. In 1787 he received the Royal Society’s Copley medal, and was also elected a member of the American Philosophical Society. On account of the increase in his practice and his impaired health, he now obtained the services of Home as his assistant at St George’s Hospital. The death of Pott in December 1788 secured to him the undisputed title of the first surgeon in England. He resigned to Home, in 1792, the delivery of his surgical lectures, in order to devote himself more fully to the completion of his Treatise on the Blood, Inflammation and Gunshot Wounds, which was published by his executors in 1794. In this, his masterpiece, the application of physiology to practice is especially noticeable. Certain experiments described in the first part, which demonstrate that arterialization of the blood in respiration takes place by a process of diffusion of “pure air” or “vital air” (i.e. oxygen) through membrane, were made so early as the summer of 1755.
Hunter in 1792 announced to his colleagues at St George’s, who, he considered, neglected the proper instruction of the students under their charge, his intention no longer to divide with them the fees which he received for his hospital pupils. Against this innovation, however, the governors of the hospital decided in March 1793. Subsequently, by a committee of their appointing, a code of rules respecting pupils was promulgated, one clause of which, probably directed against an occasional practice of Hunter’s, stipulated that no person should be admitted as a student of the hospital without certificates that he had been educated for the medical profession. In the autumn two young Scotchmen, ignorant of the new rule, came up to town and applied to Hunter for admission as his pupils at St George’s. Hunter explained to them how he was situated, but promised to advance their request at the next board meeting at the hospital on the 16th of October. On that day, having finished a difficult piece of dissection, he went down to breakfast in excellent spirits and in his usual health. After making a professional call, he attended the board meeting. There the interruption of his remarks in behalf of his applicants by a flat contradiction from a colleague brought on one of the old spasmodic heart attacks; he ceased speaking, and retired into an adjoining room only to fall lifeless into the arms of Dr Robertson, one of the hospital physicians. After an hour had been spent in vain attempts to restore animation, his body was conveyed to his house in a sedan chair. His remains were interred privately on the 22nd of October 1793, in the vaults of St Martin’s in the Fields. Thence, on the 28th of March 1859, through the instrumentality of F. T. Buckland, they were removed to Abbot Islip’s chapel in Westminster Abbey, to be finally deposited in the grave in the north aisle of the nave, close to the resting-place of Ben Jonson.
Hunter was of about medium height, strongly built and high-shouldered and short-necked. He had an open countenance, and large features, eyes light-blue or grey, eyebrows prominent, and hair reddish-yellow in youth, later white, and worn curled behind; and he dressed plainly and neatly. He rose at or before six, dissected till nine (his breakfast hour), received patients from half-past nine till twelve, at least during the latter part of his life, and saw his outdoor and hospital patients till about four, when he dined, taking, according to Home, as at other meals in the twenty years preceding his death, no wine. After dinner he slept an hour; he then superintended experiments, read or prepared his lectures, and made, usually by means of an amanuensis, records of the day’s dissections. “I never could understand,” says W. Clift, “how Mr Hunter obtained rest: when I left him at midnight, it was with a lamp fresh trimmed for further study, and with the usual appointment to meet him again at six in the morning.” H. Leigh Thomas records that, on his first arrival in London, having by desire called on Hunter at five o’clock in the morning, he found him already busily engaged in the dissection of insects. Rigidly economical of time, Hunter was always at work, and he had always in view some fresh enterprise. To his museum he gave a very large share of his attention, being fearful lest the ordering of it should be incomplete at his death, and knowing of none who could continue his work for him. “When I am dead,” said he one day to Dr Maxwell Garthshore, “you will not soon meet with another John Hunter.” At the time of his death he had anatomized over 500 different species of animals, some of them repeatedly, and had made numerous dissections of plants. The manuscript works by him, appropriated and destroyed by Home, among which were his eighty-six surgical lectures, all in full, are stated to have been “literally a cartload”; and many pages of his records were written by Clift under his directions “at least half a dozen times over, with corrections and transpositions almost without end.”
To the kindness of his disposition, his fondness for animals, his aversion to operations, his thoughtful and self-sacrificing attention to his patients, and especially his zeal to help forward struggling practitioners and others in any want abundantly testify. Pecuniary means he valued no further than they enabled him to promote his researches; and to the poor, to non-beneficed clergymen, professional authors and artists his services were rendered without remuneration. His yearly income in 1763–1774 was never £1000; it exceeded that sum in 1778, for several years before his death was £5000, and at the time of that event had reached above £6000. All his earnings not required for domestic expenses were, during the last ten years of his life, devoted to the improvement of his museum; and his property, this excepted, was found on his decease to be barely sufficient to pay his debts. By his contemporaries generally Hunter was respected as a master of the art and science of anatomy, and as a cautious and trustworthy if not an elegant or very dexterous operator. Few, however, perceived the drift of his biological researches. Although it was admitted, even by Jesse Foot, that the idea after which his unique museum had been formed—namely, that of morphology as the only true basis of a systematic zoological classification—was entirely his own, yet his investigations into the structure of the lower orders of animals were regarded as works of unprofitable curiosity. One surgeon, of no inconsiderable repute, is said to have ventured the remark that Hunter’s preparations were “just as valuable as so many pig’s pettitoes”; and the president of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, writing in 1796, plainly expressed his disbelief as to the collection being “an object of importance to the general study of natural history, or indeed to any branch of science except to that of medicine.” It was “without the solace of sympathy or encouragement of approbation, without collateral assistance,” and careless of achieving fame—for he held that “no man ever was a great man who wanted to be one”—that Hunter laboured to perfect his designs, and established the science of comparative anatomy, and principles which, however neglected in his lifetime, became the ground-work of all medical study and teaching.
In accordance with the directions given by Hunter in his will, his collection was offered for purchase to the British government. But the prime minister, Pitt, on being asked to consider the matter, exclaimed: “What! buy preparations! Why, I have not money enough to purchase gunpowder.” He, however, consented to the bestowal of a portion of the king’s bounty for a couple of years on Mrs Hunter and her two surviving children. In 1796 Lord Auckland undertook to urge upon the government the advisability of acquiring the collection, and on the 13th of June 1799, parliament voted £15,000 for this purpose. Its custodianship, after refusal by the College of Physicians, was unanimously accepted by the Corporation of Surgeons on the terms proposed. These were in brief—that the collection be open four hours in the forenoon, two days every week, for the inspection and consultation of the fellows of the College of Physicians, the members of the Company of Surgeons and persons properly introduced by them, a catalogue of the preparations and an official to explain it being at those times always at hand; that a course of not less than twenty-four lectures on comparative anatomy and other subjects illustrated by the collection be given every year by some member of the Company; and that the preparations be kept in good preservation at the expense of the Corporation, and be subject to the superintendence of a board of sixteen trustees. The fulfilment of these conditions was rendered possible by the receipt of fees for examinations and diplomas, under the charter by which, in 1800, the Corporation was constituted the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1806 the collection was placed in temporary quarters in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and the sum of £15,000 was voted by parliament for the erection of a proper and commodious building for its preservation and extension. This was followed by a grant of £12,500 in 1807. The collection was removed in 1812 to the new museum, and opened to visitors in 1813. The greater part of the present edifice was built in 1835, at an expense to the college of about £40,000; and the combined Hunterian and collegiate collections, having been rearranged in what are now termed the western and middle museums, were in 1836 made accessible to the public. The erection of the eastern museum in 1852, on premises in Portugal Street, bought in 1847 for £16,000, cost £25,000, of which parliament granted £15,000; it was opened in 1855.
The scope of Hunter’s labours may be defined as the explication of the various phases of life exhibited in organized structures, both animal and vegetable, from the simplest to the most highly differentiated. By him, therefore, comparative anatomy was employed, not in subservience to the classification of living forms, as by Cuvier, but as a means of gaining insight into the principle animating and producing these forms, by virtue of which he perceived that, however different in form and faculty, they were all allied to himself. In what does life consist? is a question which in his writings he frequently considers, and which seems to have been ever present in his mind. Life, he taught, was a principle independent of structure, most tenaciously held by the least highly organized beings, but capable of readier destruction as a whole, as, e.g., by deprivation of heat or by pain, in young than in old animals. In life he beheld an agency working under the control of law, and exercising its functions in various modes and degrees. He perceived it, as Abernethy observes, to be “a great chemist,” a power capable of manufacturing a variety of substances into one kind of generally distributed nutriment, and of furnishing from this a still greater variety of dissimilar substances. Like Harvey, who terms it the anima vegetiva, he regarded it as a principle of self-preservation, which keeps the body from dissolution. Life is shown, said he, in renovation and action; but, although facilitated in its working by mechanical causes, it can exist without action, as in an egg new-laid or undergoing incubation. It is not simply a regulator of temperature; it is a principle which resists cold, conferring on the structures which it endows the capacity of passing some degrees below the freezing-point of ordinary inanimate matter without suffering congelation. Hunter found, in short, that there exists in animals a latent heat of life, set free in the process of death (see Treatise on the Blood, p. 80). Thus he observed that sap if removed from trees froze at 32° F., but within them might be fluid even at 15°; that a living snail placed in a freezing mixture acquired first a temperature of 28°, and afterwards of 32° ere it froze; and that, whereas a dead egg congealed immediately at 32°, a living egg did so only when its temperature had risen to that point after a previous fall to 29¼°. The idea that the fluid and semifluid as well as the solid constituents of the body contain the vital principle diffused through them he formed in 1755–1756, when, in making drawings illustrative of the changes that take place in the incubated egg, he noted specially that neither the white nor the yolk undergoes putrefaction. The blood he, with Harvey, considered to possess a vitality of its own, more or less independent of that of the animal in which it circulates. Life, he held, is preserved by the compound of the living body and the source of its solid constituents, the living blood. It is to the susceptibility of the latter to be converted into living organized tissue that the union of severed structures by the first intention is due. He even inclined to the belief that the chyle has life, and he considered that food becomes “animalized” in digestion. Coagulation of the blood he compared to the contraction of muscles, and believed to be an operation of life distinct from chemical coagulation, adducing in support of his opinion the fact that, in animals killed by lightning, by violent blows on the stomach, or by the exhaustion of hunting, it does not take place. “Breathing,” said Hunter, “seems to render life to the blood, and the blood continues it in every part of the body.” Life, he held, could be regarded as a fire, or something similar, and might for distinction’s sake be called “animal fire.” Of this the process of respiration might afford a constant supply, the fixed life supplied to the body in the food being set free and rendered active in the lungs, whilst the air carried off that principle which encloses and retains the animal fire. The living principle, said Hunter, is coeval with the existence of animal or vegetable matter itself, and may long exist without sensation. The principle upon which depends the power of sensation regulates all our external actions, as the principle of life does our internal, and the two act mutually on each other in consequence of changes produced in the brain. Something (the “materia vitae diffusa”) similar to the components of the brain (the “materia vitae coacervata”) may be supposed to be diffused through the body and even contained in the blood; between these a communication is kept up by the nerves (the “chordae internunciae”). Neither a material nor a chemical theory of life, however, formed a part of Hunter’s creed. “Mere composition of matter,” he remarked, “does not give life; for the dead body has all the composition it ever had; life is a property we do not understand; we can only see the necessary leading steps towards it.” As from life only, said he in one of his lectures, we can gain an idea of death, so from death only we gain an idea of life. Life, being an agency leading to, but not consisting of, any modification of matter, “either is something superadded to matter, or else consists in a peculiar arrangement of certain fine particles of matter, which being thus disposed acquire the properties of life.” As a bar of iron may gain magnetic virtue by being placed for a time in a special position, so perhaps the particles of matter arranged and long continued in a certain posture eventually gain the power of life. “I enquired of Mr Hunter,” writes one of his pupils, “if this did not make for the Exploded Doctrine of Equivocal Generation: he told me perhaps it did, and that as to Equivocal Generation all we cd have was negative Proofs of its not taking Place. He did not deny that Equivocal Generation happened; there were neither positive proofs for nor against its taking place.”
To exemplify the differences between organic and inorganic growth, Hunter made and employed in his lectures a collection of crystallized specimens of minerals, or, as he termed them, “natural or native fossils.” Of fossils, designated by him “extraneous fossils,” because extraneous respecting the rocks in which they occur, he recognized the true nature, and he arranged them according to a system agreeing with that adopted for recent organisms. The study of fossils enabled him to apply his knowledge of the relations of the phenomena of life to conditions, as exhibited in times present, to the elucidation of the history of the earth in geological epochs. He observed the non-occurrence of fossils in granite, but with his customary scientific caution and insight could perceive no reason for supposing it to be the original matter of the globe, prior to vegetable or animal, or that its formation was different from that of other rocks. In water he recognized the chief agent in producing terrestrial changes (cf. Treatise on the Blood, p. 15, note); but the popular notion that the Noachian deluge might account for the marine organisms discovered on land he pointed out was untenable. From the diversity of the situations in which many fossils and allied living structures are found, he was led to infer that at various periods not only repeated oscillations of the level of the land, lasting thousands of centuries, but also great climatic variations, perhaps due to a change in the ecliptic, had taken place in geological times. Hunter considered that very few fossils of those that resemble recent forms are identical with them. He conceived that the latter might be varieties, but that if they are really different species, then “we must suppose that a new creation must have taken place.” It would appear, therefore, that the origin of species in variation had not struck him as possible. That he believed varieties to have resulted from the influence of changes in the conditions of life in times past is shown by a somewhat obscure passage in his “Introduction to Natural History” (Essays and Observations, i. 4), in which he remarks, “But, I think, we have reason to suppose that there was a period of time in which every species of natural production was the same, there being then no variety in any species,” and adds that “civilization has made varieties in many species, which are the domesticated.” Modern discoveries and doctrines as to the succession of life in time are again foreshadowed by him in the observation in his introduction to the description of drawings relative in incubation (quoted in Pref. to Cat. of Phys. Ser. i. p. iv., 1833) that: “If we were capable of following the progress of increase of the number of the parts of the most perfect animal, as they first formed in succession, from the very first, to its state of full perfection, we should probably be able to compare it with some one of the incomplete animals themselves, of every order of animals in the creation, being at no stage different from some of those inferior orders; or, in other words, if we were to take a series of animals from the more imperfect to the perfect, we should probably find an imperfect animal corresponding with some stage of the most perfect.”
In pathological phenomena Hunter discerned the results of the perturbation of those laws of life by which the healthy organism subsists. With him pathology was a science of vital dynamics. He afforded principles bearing not on single complaints only, but on the effects of injury and disease in general. To attempt to set forth what in Hunter’s teaching was new to pathology and systematic surgery, or was rendered so by his mode of treatment, would be well-nigh to present an epitome of all that he wrote on those subjects. “When we make a discovery in pathology,” says Adams, writing in 1818, “we only learn what we have overlooked in his writings or forgotten in his lectures.” Surgery, which only in 1745 had formally ceased to be associated with “the art and mystery of barbers,” he raised to the rank of a scientific profession. His doctrines were, necessarily, not those of his age: while lesser minds around him were still dim with the mists of the ignorance and dogmatism of times past, his lofty intellect was illumined by the dawn of a distant day.
Authorities.—See, besides the above quoted publications, An Appeal to the present Parliament ... on the subject of the late J. Hunter’s Museum (1795); Sir C. Bell, A Lecture ... being a Commentary on Mr J. Hunter s preparations of the Diseases of the Urethra (1830); The President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Address to the Committee for the Erection of a Statue of Hunter (Lond., March 29, 1859); Sir R. Owen, “Sketch of Hunter’s Scientific Character and Works,” in Tom Taylor’s Leicester Square (1874), also in Hunter’s Works, ed. by Palmer, vol. iv. (1837), and in Essays and Observations; the invaluable catalogues of the Hunterian Collection issued by the Royal College of Surgeons; and numerous Hunterian Orations. In the Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, by John White, is a paper containing directions for preserving animals, printed separately in 1809, besides six zoological descriptions by Hunter; and in the Natural History of Aleppo, by A. Russell, are remarks of Hunter’s on the anatomy of the jerboa and the camel’s stomach. Notes of his lectures on surgery, edited by J. W. K. Parkinson, appeared in 1833 under the title of Hunterian Reminiscences. Hunter’s Observations and Reflections on Geology, intended to serve as an introduction to the catalogue of his collection of extraneous fossils, was published in 1859, and his Memoranda on Vegetation in 1860. (F. H. B.)
- The date is thus entered in the parish register, see Joseph Adams, Memoirs, Appendix, p. 203. The Hunterian Oration, instituted in 1813 by Dr Matthew Baillie and Sir Everard Home, is delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons on the 14th of February, which Hunter used to give as the anniversary of his birth.
- Ottley’s date, 1738, is inaccurate, see S. F. Simmons, Account of ... W. Hunter, p. 7. Hunter’s mother died on the 3rd of November 1751, aged 66.
- So in Home’s Life, p. xvi., and Ottley’s, p. 15. Hunter himself (Treatise on the Blood, p. 62) mentions the date 1755.
- Ottley incorrectly gives 1753 as the date. In the buttery book for 1755 at St Mary’s Hall his admission is thus noted: “Die Junii 5to 1755 Admissus est Johannes Hunter superioris ordinis Commensalis.” Hunter apparently left Oxford after less than two months’ residence, as the last entry in the buttery book with charges for battels against his name is on July 25, 1755. His name was, however, retained on the books of the Hall till December 10, 1756. The record of Hunter’s matriculation runs: “Ter° Trin. 1755.—Junii 5to Aul. S. Mar. Johannes Hunter 24 Johannis de Kilbride in Com. Clidesdale Scotiae Arm. fil.”
- Ottley, Life of J. Hunter, p. 22.
- Treatise on the Blood, p. 21.
- See Adams, Memoirs, pp. 32, 33. Cf. Hunter’s Treatise on the Blood, p. 8, and Works, ed. Palmer, i. 604.—On the employment of Hunter’s term “increased action” with respect to inflammation, see Sir James Paget, Lect. on Surg. Path., 3rd ed., p. 321 sqq.
- According to Hunter, as quoted in Palmer’s edition of his lectures, p. 437, the accident was “after dancing, and after a violent fit of the cramp”; W. Clift, however, who says he probably never danced, believed that he met with the accident “in getting up from the dissecting table after being cramped by long sitting” (see W. Lawrence, Hunt. Orat., 1834, p. 64).
- The subjects and dates of his subsequent papers in the Transactions, the titles of which give little notion of the richness of their contents, are as follows: The torpedo (1773); air-receptacles in birds, and the Gillaroo trout (1774); the Gymnotus electricus, and the production of heat by animals and vegetables (supplemented in 1777), (1775); the recovery of people apparently drowned (1776); the free martin (1779); the communication of smallpox to the foetus in utero, and the occurrence of male plumage in old hen pheasants (1780); the organ of hearing in fishes (1782); the anatomy of a “new marine animal” described by Home (1785); the specific identity of the wolf, jackal and dog (supplemented in 1789), the effect on fertility of extirpation of one ovarium, and the structure and economy of whales (1787); observations on bees (1793); and some remarkable caves in Bayreuth and fossil bones found therein (1794). With these may be included a paper by Home, from materials supplied by Hunter, on certain horny excrescences of the human body.
- Mrs Hunter died on the 7th of January 1821, in Holles Street, Cavendish Square, London, in her seventy-ninth year. She was a handsome and accomplished woman, and well fulfilled the social duties of her position. The words for Haydn’s English canzonets were supplied by her, and were mostly original poems; of these the lines beginning “My mother bids me bind my hair” are, from the beauty of the accompanying music, among the best known. (See R. Nares in Gent. Mag. xci. pt. 1, p. 89, quoted in Nichols’s Lit. Anec., 2nd ser., vii. 638.)
- Hunt. Orat., 1842, p. 15.
- The condition of this animal during hibernation was a subject of special interest to Hunter, who thus introduces it, even in a letter of condolence to Jenner in 1778 on a disappointment in love: “But let her go, never mind her. I shall employ you with hedgehogs, for I do not know how far I may trust mine.”
- See his evidence at the trial of Captain Donellan, Works, i. 195.
- On the discovery of the dyeing of bones by madder, see Belchier, Phil. Trans., vol. xxxix., 1736, pp. 287 and 299.
- Essays and Observations, i. 55, 56. “May we not claim for him,” says Sir Wm. Fergusson, with reference to these experiments, “that he anticipated by a hundred years the scientific data on which the present system of human grafting is conducted?” (Hunt. Orat., 1871, p. 17).
- Essays and Observations, i. 115; cf. Works, i. 391.
- The Transactions of the Society contain papers by Hunter on inflammation of veins (1784), intussusception (1789), a case of paralysis of the muscles of deglutition (1790), and a case of poisoning during pregnancy (1794), with others written by Home, from materials supplied by him, on Hunter’s operation for the cure of popliteal aneurism, on loose cartilages in joints, on certain horny excrescences of the human body, and on the growth of bones.
- Bell lived with Hunter fourteen years, i.e. from 1775 to 1789, and was employed by him chiefly in making and drawing anatomical preparations for the museum. He died in 1792 at Sumatra, where he was assistant-surgeon to the East India Company.
- O’Brien, dreading dissection by Hunter, had shortly before his death arranged with several of his countrymen that his corpse should be conveyed by them to the sea, and sunk in deep water; but his undertaker, who had entered into a pecuniary compact with the great anatomist, managed that while the escort was drinking at a certain stage on the march seawards, the coffin should be locked up in a barn. There some men he had concealed speedily substituted an equivalent weight of paving-stones for the body, which was at night forwarded to Hunter, and by him taken in his carriage to Earl’s Court, and, to avoid risk of a discovery, immediately after suitable division boiled to obtain the bones. See Tom Taylor, Leicester Square, ch. xiv. (1874); cf. Annual Register, xxvi. 209 (1783).
- See C. R. Leslie and Tom Taylor, Life and Times of Sir J. Reynolds, ii. 474 (1865).
- Works, i. 265–266.
- A transcript of a portion of Hunter’s MSS., made by Clift in 1793 and 1800, was edited by Sir Richard Owen, in two volumes with notes, in 1861, under the title of Essays and Observations in Natural History, Anatomy, Physiology, Psychology and Geology. On the destruction of Hunter’s papers see Clift’s “Appendix” in vol. ii. p. 497, also W. H. Flower, Introd. Lect., pp. 7-9 (1870).
- In his Treatise on the Blood, p. 288, Hunter observes: “We find it a common principle in the animal machine, that every part increases in some degree according to the action required. Thus we find ... vessels become larger in proportion to the necessity of supply, as for instance, in the gravid uterus; the external carotids in the stag, also, when his horns are growing, are much larger than at any other time.”
- See Sir R. Owen, “John Hunter and Vivisection,” Brit. Med. Journ. (February 22, 1879, p. 284). In the fourth of his operations for popliteal aneurism, Hunter for the first time did not include the vein in the ligature. His patient lived for fifty years afterwards. The results on the artery of this operation are to be seen in specimen 3472a (Path. Ser.) in the Hunterian Museum.
- Home, Trans. of Soc. for Impr. of Med. and Chirurg. Knowl. i. 147 (1793). Excess of heat in the injured limb was noticed also in Hunter’s second case on the day after the operation; and in his fourth case it reached 4°-5° on the first day, and continued during a fortnight.
- The record of Hunter’s death in the St James Chronicle for October 15-17, 1793, p. 4, col. 4, makes no allusion to the immediate cause of Hunter’s death, but gives the following statement: “John Hunter.—This eminent Surgeon and valuable man was suddenly taken ill, yesterday, in the Council-room of St George’s Hospital. After receiving the assistance which could be afforded by two Physicians and a Surgeon, he was removed in a close chair to his house, in Leicester Fields, where he expired about two o’clock.” Examination of the heart revealed disease involving the pericardium, endocardium and arteries, the coronary arteries in particular showing ossific change.
- Hunt. Orat., 1827, p. 5.
- See p. 266 of his malicious so-called Life of John Hunter (1794).
- Cf. J. H. Green, Hunt. Orat., 1840, p. 27.
- Abernethy, Physiological Lectures, p. 11 (1817).
- Instituted in 1806.
- Increased to seventeen in 1856.
- How clearly he held this view is seen in his remark (Treatise on the Blood, p. 28, cf. p. 46) that, as the coagulating lymph of the blood is probably common to all animals, whereas the red corpuscles are not, we must suppose the lymph to be the essential part of that fluid. Hunter was the first to discover that the blood of the embryos of red-blooded animals is at first colourless, resembling that of invertebrates. (See Owen, Preface to vol. iv. of Works, p. xiii.)
- Treatise on the Blood, p. 63.
- Essays and Observations, i. 113.
- Treatise on the Blood, p. 89.
- Ib. p. 90.
- P. P. Staple, with the loan of whose volume of MS. notes of Hunter’s “Chirurgical Lectures,” dated, on the last page, Sept. 20th, 1787, the writer was favoured by Sir W. H. Broadbent.