Valentine’s Day Special: John Hunter

In this special series, I will try to head up to Valentine’s Day with a series of posts to celebrate the day of love with posts not quite so pink and rosey. And I will start with the volatile Scottish surgeon: John Hunter!

Yeah. You read that right! Read on, to understand why I chose him!

John Hunter by John Jackson detail

“Man is born or comes into the world ignorant; but he is furnished with the senses, so as to be impressed with the properties of things; by which means he gradually, of himself, acquires a degree of knowledge. But man goes farther, he has the power of receiving information of things that never impressed his senses; and, if he has that power, it is natural to suppose that one man has the power of communicating his knowledge of things to another, each giving and receiving reciprocally; which we find to be the case.”

–Essays and Observations, Volume I, Introduction to Natural History.

So, although there is considerable amount of evidence to show that Hunter was born on 13th February, 1728, he himself fashioned his date of birth to be St. Valentine’s Day and since that fits in well with the theme of this series of posts on my blog, I will go with that! He was the youngest of ten children, and had an elder brother, William, who was a well-respected teacher of human anatomy in London. John started off as William’s assistant in 1748 and soon achieved enough knowledge to be running practical classes of his own. He worked under the tutelage of Percival Pott, himself an authority, about whom some day I want to write about, and was soon to become an undeniably  prominent name in his field.

Now why did I choose to cover John Hunter as the inaugural topic of this Valentine’s Day series? Besides the obvious fact that he was very nearly born on that day, it his passion which has made him an idol in my eyes: and what is love without passion? So, I decided to start off with him. Since there are so many wonderful sources (read: Wikipedia) to know the detailed nitty gritties of Hunter’s life, what I will do instead is try to state a few of the quirks of this amazing character, which impresses me no ends.

He was an assiduous anatomist! He would collect dead animals, and sometimes, but rare animals after their death, and dissect them and display them for his students. However, when it came to public speaking, he was far from the best when he started off, so he would never get too many students initially. According to Drewry Ottley’s account, he once borrowed 5 guineas from the King’s Bookkeeper to buy a dying tiger for study of its anatomy. At his customized home, he had facilities for dissection of animals: starting from their incarceration to their incineration. He had a pond lined with skulls, where he experimented with artificially developing pearls from oysters. Legends say he fought with, and bested, two leopards, who had escaped from his facilities with nothing but his bare hands.

So, it is little wonder, that when this individual snapped his Achilles Tendon in 1767, he would use it as an educational experience. His experimentation forms the present day basis for release surgery for joint contractures due to fibrosis and shortening of injured tendons. It was the same year in which he was elected to the FRS, ahead of his much distinguished brother William.

He was becoming a prominent surgeon and in 1768 he moved into a larger house, where he started to take in pupils, charging 500 guineas for their studies. One of these pupils was Edward Jenner: another celebrated name for the history buffs like me: another minefield of legends and stories! Anyways. Great people always get on well together: and so did Jenner and Hunter. Jenner was to meet Hunter later on, when Hunter was not doing well physically and return a diagnosis of an organic disease of the heart, which appears to be ischemic heart disease. Although Hunter’s practice expanded and he started to take in more pupils and delivering more public speeches, his fear for public speaking never left him. He is said to have taken a “draught of laudanum” to compose himself prior to every lecture of his!

Hunter also started the tradition of Medical Photography when he took on William Bell to stay with him to make drawings of his anatomical preparations.

Hunter Treatise-e-sm2 He was a contemporary legend in the specialty of Venereal Diseases. It was the trend of the time, so to say, to inoculate oneself and use himself as an experimental lab rat. He inoculated himself with Gonorrhea, using a needle which was unknowingly seeded with Syphilis as well. When he developed features of both the diseases, he propounded that Syphilis and Gonorrhea were probably the different manifestations of the same disease. This was, of course, wrong, but what is more of interest here is the fact that he chose the scientific method to test his hypothesis than use his eminence to pull the argument along. It took him 3 years to cure himself of this rather unfortunate misadventure (of which he had no clue at that time, ironically enough!) and hence delayed his marriage!

One of the most popular stories about Hunter is regarding the Irish giant Charles Byrne, the Irish freak.

This Irishman was allegedly 8’2” tall. He was a “freak” who gained much popularity and by virtue of his size, managed to gain some wealth and social stature as well. But it all went to his head and he became a servant to the wishes of the tinged fluid. It was during one of his drunken traipsings that he was robbed of his life’s savings. Inconsolable, he turned to his best friend: booze. Not surprisingly, he died soon after. Now, the science of surgery and anatomy was burgeoning in the day and the Irish Giant was morbidly afraid that after his death he would become the feast for the circling vultures of surgeons. That he was right was proved by the fact that as he lay dying, a large number of surgeons came to his house to stake their claim on his body for the progress of science. Now, he had expressedly wished at his deathbed that he wanted to be “put to sea” after his death. However, Hunter managed to bribe his way to his body and filled the coffin with rocks instead. Hunter allegedly paid 500 pounds for the body. In today’s world, that would come to something around twenty thousand pounds. Hunter later on published a paper on the detailed anatomic study of the giant’s body. His 7’7″ skeleton today resides in the Royal College of Surgeons in London. One Dr. Greg House, MD would be put to shame by Hunter’s deviousness, it seems!

While studying the development of branching of deer antlers, Hunter stumbled across the concept of anastomosis of vessels. He used this assumption to tie off the femoral artery of a patient suffering from popliteal artery aneurysm, hoping that the collaterals would develop and take care of the circulation. That he was correct was proved as the patient recovered: another paternalistic approach leading to a therapeutic breakthrough!

However, as he grew in stature and position, he kept on meeting with more and more resistance from his peers on several counts. On one occasion, he stopped sharing his fees for surgery and teaching with his colleagues on the ground that they did not put in any effort to teach the students. On the fateful morning of his death, 16th October, 1793, he was approached by two Scot students who were refused entry into the medical training program on the basis of new rules (which Hunter did not approve of) that specifically barred students without previous medical instruction. He was supposed to have said that in particularly poor health and anyone irking him may do so with fatal consequences. He was known to have said that his life was ‘in the hands of any rascal who chose to annoy and tease me.’ It turned out that when he went in to argue the case of the two young Scotsmen, his opinions were outright rejected. He was so shocked, that he supposedly walked away, fuming, collapsing and dying almost immediately in his departure.

Hunter stood apart from his contemporaries in being the rare genius who genuinely acquired all of his knowledge through practice and perseverance. He read little, but knew a lot. Most of the knowledge he had obtained by his laborious work into dissection and studying thereof. He was not a very good teacher, and had difficulty in communicating his knowledge to his students, though not for the lack of trying. He admitted that his mind was like a bee hive, with a lot of random confusion apparently overlying the great order and sense of direction. Those who were perceptive enough to look under the veneer of confusion would find the great mind at work. Although an apparently brash man, with little patience for society’s time consuming niceties, he was one with his work. He would often be found, standing for hours on end, forceps in hands, cleaning, cutting and hacking away at some fine organ whose beauty only he could appreciate with such passion.

I did not even speak of Hunter’s publications and treatises. Or his contribution to fields like Paleontology, Archeology and Geology: which stemmed from his love of the study of Anatomy. He had written so much in his lifetime that posthumous publications were still coming out till the 1850s. Some of his greatest works were actually published posthumously.

He was honest enough to accede that ‘to perform an operation (unnecessarily) is to mutilate a patient we cannot cure, and so an acknowledgment of the imperfection of our art.’ A somewhat eccentric, passionate, dedicated, workaholic genius, I could find no better person to kick off my series on love and passion with than John Hunter, the Father of Scientific Surgery.

On gizzards of gulls, hawks and owls,
The heat of lizards, spurs of fowls;
Bones of pigs, air-sacs of eagles,
Moaning dingos, barking beagles;
Sleek oppossums, pricely hedgehogs,
Buffaloes, dormice, wolves and dogs.

More Links:

1. Dictionary of National Biographies: John Hunter (Surgeon)

2. 1911 Encyclopedia (based on the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1911)

3. Treatise on Venereal Disease by John Hunter

4. Wikipedia: John Hunter (Surgeon)

5. Who Named It: Hunter, John

11 thoughts on “Valentine’s Day Special: John Hunter

  1. I love this post. I have just finished the first 3 books of the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson and have found the history of science to be truly fascinating. if you have not read them, I highly recommend.


  2. What an impressive post about the life and times of John Hunter. he accomplished a lot in the filed of medicine and i could help but marvel at the fees he charged back then! Thanks for a wonderful report on a man who claimed the 14th as his special day…
    Thanks for your contribution to the bloghop! 😉


  3. the name of this blog caught my eye,while this post may take it out and study it .. great stuff, medicine does indeed have some rich characters .. ;


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