John Hunter Biography (1728-1793)

surgeon and anatomist

A man with little formal education, John Hunter rose to become one of the most eminent and influential surgeons of his time. He was born in Long Calderwood, Lanarkshire, Scotland, the youngest of ten children. After his father diedin 1741, Hunter left school and worked on the family farm and as a cabinetmaker. In 1748 Hunter joined his brother, William (1718-1783), an anatomist inLondon, England. Hunter's skill in preparing specimens for his brother's anatomy lectures was so impressive that he became William's assistant. William also arranged for Hunter to study surgery at Chelsea and St. Bartholomew's Hospitals. The younger Hunter became a master of anatomy in 1753. In 1755 Williamsent Hunter to Oxford to acquire a formal education; however, academics heldno interest for the young man. He returned to London within two months to resume his dissection work with William and his own original experimentation. He gathered his specimens from postmortem examinations, from his brother's dissecting rooms, and from "resurrectionists"--body-snatchers who dug up freshlyburied corpses from graveyards and sold them secretly to surgeons.

Suffering from ill health, Hunter became a staff surgeon with the British army in 1760, serving during the Seven Years' War. His experiences in treating wounded soldiers resulted in his important treatise on gunshot wounds, published posthumously in 1794. When the war ended in 1763, Hunter returned to London and began a private surgical practice, continuing his research at the sametime. The same year, he bought two acres in Earls Court, which he filled withan overflowing and diverse collection of animals for use in his surgical studies and dissections. Hunter's practice and reputation grew rapidly. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and was appointed surgeon to St. George's Hospital in 1767. He married poet Anne Home--a minor--in 1771, and was named surgeon-extraordinary to King George III (1738-1820) in 1776.

Determined to make surgical training more accessible, Hunter began lecturingon the theory and practice of surgery to students in 1773, in his own home. After a falling-out with his brother, Hunter moved to Leicester Square in 1783and built an educational complex with lecture and conversation rooms, and amuseum which housed his extensive collection of specimens and served as an invaluable teaching aid for his students, demonstrating the structure and functions of both diseased and healthy body parts in a wide range of species. Oneof his prized specimens was the skeleton of an eight-foot-tall Irishman, Charles Byrne, who had planned a burial at sea so as to remain out of Hunter's museum. Well-paid by the doctor, the resurrectionists thwarted Byrne's last wishes. Hunter's museum was purchased by the British government in 1799 but wasseverely damaged in the London blitz of 1941.

Hunter's contributions to anatomy and surgery were vast. His treatise on human teeth was a basic building block of modern dentistry. He made detailed studies of the structure and function of the lymph vessels and carried out earlyexperiments on tissue transplantation, including grafting a human tooth intoa cock's comb. He published important studies of venereal disease and animalhibernation, developed surgical techniques to repair the Achilles tendon andto ligate arteries in cases of aneurysm instead of amputating, and improved embalming techniques--most notably for a gentleman whose wife's body had to remain above ground in order for him to inherit her wealth. Hunter had a greatinfluence on the development of scientific, experimentally based surgery through students who trained under him and later became famous, notably Edward Jenner (1749-1823), and Philip Syng Physick, the "Father of American surgery."

Hunter's health was permanently affected by an experiment he carried out on himself in 1767, through which he contracted syphilis. Increasingly troubled by angina pectoris, Hunter collapsed and died of an attack in 1793 during a meeting of the board of St. George's Hospital. His remains were reinterred at Westminster Abbey in 1859, with an inscription memorializing him as the "Founder of Scientific Surgery."

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