Primarily a student of observation as opposed to strict academia, John
Hunter’s wide-ranging interests allowed him to explore several areas of
medicine simultaneously. As a surgeon with an attraction to comparative
anatomy, Hunter dedicated his skills and focus to “no less than a total
understanding of life,” leading to his voracious, lifelong studies of
anatomy, physiology and pathology in both humans and animals.
Always the innovator, Hunter applied his scientific conclusions to
concepts of wound healing, transplantation, heart disease, orthopedics and
pathology. As he conducted his research, Hunter compiled specimens and notes
into one of his greatest contributions to medicine: the Hunterian Museum.
Though initially considered a difficult young man, Hunter eventually
evolved into a skilled surgeon whose passion for research would pave the way
for future leaders in his field.
Though his original birth date is unclear, John Hunter, in
characteristically stubborn fashion, insisted on celebrating his birthday on
February 14. The last of 10 children born to the Laird of Long Calderwood in
1728, Hunter spent the majority of his childhood exploring the natural wonders
of his father’s estate in East Kilbride, Scotland. Throughout this time,
he expressed his contempt for, and impatience with, school, preferring to
examine the natural world, a penchant that would persist throughout his life.
Hunter was a skilled surgeon whose passion for research paved the way for
future leaders in his field.
Source: Source: Royal College of
As a young adult, Hunter went to London to join his older brother
William, an anatomist and obstetrician with a growing lab and a respectable
reputation. To everyone’s surprise, Hunter, who was unwieldy and irritated
by academics, demonstrated a tremendous dexterity for dissection. Hunter immediately
commenced working at William’s anatomy school before becoming a pupil at
Chelsea Hospital in 1749.
An apprenticeship in surgery at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital
followed, and from there, Hunter went on to work at St. George’s Hospital,
where he would become house surgeon in 1768. Yet, Hunter’s appointment was
short-lived; he desired to devote himself to anatomy.
In 1763, Hunter opened a surgical practice in London and bought a plot
of land in Earl’s Court in London. He quickly populated this land with
numerous animals of various species to extend his knowledge of comparative
anatomy. Eventually, Hunter made this his home with his wife, Anne Home, a poet
with whom he would have four children.
Some of Hunter’s most remarkable discoveries dealt with the
importance of pathology, especially in relation to surgery. His ideas regarding
this connection originated during his service as an army staff surgeon in the
Seven Years War.
In Hunter’s posthumous publication, “A Treatise on Blood,
Inflammation and Gun-shot Wounds,” he noted the significance of
inflammation and examined its causes as well as its subsequent effect on tissue
damage in soldiers who sustained severe gunshot injuries. Hunter’s
conclusions caused him to adhere to a conservative viewpoint: surgery and
amputation should be a last resort. Though his ideas were disputed at the time,
Hunter was ultimately proven correct.
Much of Hunter’s work focused on the pathology of infectious
conditions, such as tuberculosis, suppuration in abscesses, bone lesions and
osteomyelitis. He was one of the first physicians to concentrate on these
infectious conditions in relation to surgery and consequently was one of the
first to understand the importance of infection control in surgery.
In addition to these observations, Hunter amassed more than 2,000
pathological preparations of his own research that eventually found their way
into the Hunterian museum. Among the accumulated data, numerous cases of cancer
appeared, indicating Hunter’s early contributions to oncology. His
collection included examples of tumors; early instances in which cancer of the
breast and rectum had spread to regional lymph nodes; initial cases of
pathological atheroma; and evidence of malignancies from carcinoma.
One of Hunter’s more famous specimens involved the body of a man
with osteosarcoma of the thigh. Although he did not actually name the
phenomenon, Hunter noted the emergence of similar tumors in the man’s
lungs and theorized about their constitution and development. In this case,
Hunter’s preliminary recognition of metastasis served as proof that his
powers of observation precipitated later important discoveries.
However, Hunter’s experiments were not limited to pathology. One of
his well-known scientific trials, which involved tying a thread around a
stag’s carotid artery, successfully demonstrated the concept of collateral
circulation. Initially, the stag’s tied-off antler became cold and stopped
growing. Nevertheless, as Hunter hypothesized, its warmth returned in two weeks
and resumed developing. After this triumphant experiment, Hunter translated his
research to formulate procedures that could bypass vascular aneurysms.
Hunter’s museum preparations also illustrate his growing grasp of
bone resorption. After conducting numerous experiments on animals, including
transplanting human teeth into a cock’s comb, Hunter advocated tooth
transplantation for dentists of his time. Although original attempts at tooth
transplantation in humans met with failure due to graft rejection, Hunter
gained insight into the need for “freshness of transplanted tissue”
as well as “matching for size” of transplanted organs.
Even though more than two centuries have passed, these revolutionary
experiments, as well as Hunter’s abundant preparations, can still be seen
in London at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England,
which was purchased and preserved by parliament in 1799.
Throughout his distinguished career, Hunter maintained a reputation for
his stubborn pursuit of research. For instance, Hunter made countless requests
for hedgehogs as research subjects to be sent from his friend and former pupil,
Edward Jenner, despite their inability to survive at Earl’s Court. Also,
his relentless yearning to study the body of Charles Byrne, the Irish giant,
led him to engage in bribery and body-snatching.
Hunter’s studies proved to be more useful than unusual, and he
earned a great deal of respect from the public and his peers. In 1767 at the
age of 39, Hunter was elected to the Royal Society, and nine years later in
1776, King George III dubbed him Surgeon Extraordinary. In 1786, Hunter also
received the esteemed Copley Medal from the Royal Society.
By this time, Hunter was recognized as the leading teacher of surgery of
his time. His passion and expertise attracted many students who would
eventually become famous in their own right, such as Thomas Chevalier and
Unfortunately, despite his early aversion to scholarship, Hunter’s
fervor to institute better academic programs for his students led to his death
at the age of 65. On Oct. 16, 1793, Hunter, a longtime sufferer of angina
pectoris, died of a coronary occlusion during an argument with the board of St.
George’s Hospital about his desire to train two students who were
unapproved for the surgical profession.
Hunter’s accomplishments were far-reaching and his forays into
various areas of science and medicine make it nearly impossible to classify him
as having just one specialty. His epitaph at Westminster Abbey describes him as
“a gifted interpreter of the Divine Power and wisdom at work in the laws
of organic life” and “The Founder of Scientific Surgery.”
In 1914, the Royal College of Surgeons of England recognized
Hunter’s many accomplishments by establishing the Hunterian Oration in his
honor, thus commemorating his revolutionary mind for future generations of
scientists and physicians. – by Melissa Foster
For more information:
- Ann R Coll Surg Engl. 2005;87:1-18.
- BMJ. 1978;1:391-392.
- BMJ. 1949;1:379-383.
- Br Heart J. 1986;56:109-114.
- John Hunter. The Royal College of Surgeons of England website.
Published 2008. Accessed Dec. 23, 2008.