Hunter, John

Hunter, John
SUBJECT AREA: Medical technology
b. 14 (registered 13) February 1728 East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, Scotland
d. 16 October 1793 London, England
Scottish surgeon and anatomist, pioneer of experimental methods in medicine and surgery.
The younger brother of William Hunter (1718–83), who was of great distinction but perhaps of slightly less achievement in similar fields, he owed much of his early experience to his brother; William, after a period at Glasgow University, moved to St George's Hospital, London. In his later teens, John assisted a brother-in-law with cabinet-making. This appears to have contributed to the lifelong mechanical skill which he displayed as a dissector and surgeon. This skill was particularly obvious when, after following William to London in 1748, he held post at a number of London teaching hospitals before moving to St George's in 1756. A short sojourn at Oxford in 1755 appears to have been unfruitful.
Despite his deepening involvement in the study of comparative anatomy, facilitated by the purchase of animals from the Tower menagerie and travelling show people, he accepted an appointment as a staff surgeon in the Army in 1760, participating in the expedition to Belle Isle and also serving in Portugal. He returned home with over 300 specimens in 1763 and, until his appointment as Surgeon to St George's in 1768, was heavily involved in the examination of this and other material, as well as in studies of foetal testicular descent, placental circulation, the nature of pus and lymphatic circulation. In 1772 he commenced lecturing on the theory and practice of surgery, and in 1776 he was appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to George III.
He is rightly regarded as the founder of scientific surgery, but his knowledge was derived almost entirely from his own experiments and observations. His contemporaries did not always accept or understand the concepts which led to such aphorisms as, "to perform an operation is to mutilate a patient we cannot cure", and his written comment to his pupil Jenner : "Why think. Why not trie the experiment". His desire to establish the aetiology of gonorrhoea led to him infecting himself, as a result of which he also contracted syphilis. His ensuing account of the characteristics of the disease remains a classic of medicine, although it is likely that the sequelae of the condition brought about his death at a relatively early age. From 1773 he suffered recurrent anginal attacks of such a character that his life "was in the hands of any rascal who chose to annoy and tease him". Indeed, it was following a contradiction at a board meeting at St George's that he died.
By 1788, with the death of Percival Pott, he had become unquestionably the leading surgeon in Britain, if not Europe. Elected to the Royal Society in 1767, the extraordinary variety of his collections, investigations and publications, as well as works such as the "Treatise on the natural history of the human teeth" (1771–8), gives testimony to his original approach involving the fundamental and inescapable relation of structure and function in both normal and disease states. The massive growth of his collections led to his acquiring two houses in Golden Square to contain them. It was his desire that after his death his collection be purchased and preserved for the nation. It contained 13,600 specimens and had cost him £70,000. After considerable delay, Par-liament voted inadequate sums for this purpose and the collection was entrusted to the recently rechartered Royal College of Surgeons of England, in whose premises this remarkable monument to the omnivorous and eclectic activities of this outstanding figure in the evolution of medicine and surgery may still be seen. Sadly, some of the collection was lost to bombing during the Second World War. His surviving papers were also extensive, but it is probable that many were destroyed in the early nineteenth century.
Principal Honours and Distinctions
FRS 1767. Copley Medal 1787.
1835–7, Works, ed. J.F.Palmer, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London.

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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