Poem on the frontispiece:
I have made candles of infants fat
The Sextons have been my slaves
I have bottled babes unborn, and dried
Hearts and livers from rifled graves.
From "The Surgeon's Warning."
Robert Southey, Poems, 1799
John Hunter was the younger brother of famous anatomist/surgeon William Hunter. John was 10 years William's junior. William was a "sophisticated socialite" as well as an astute businessman, who had established a popular and profitable anatomy school in Covent Garden. William's anatomy school was the first of its kind in England.
John, born February 14, 1728, was the 10th child born to a struggling farm family who lived in the countryside south of Glasgow. Possibly dyslexic, he did not thrive on formal education, but his curiosity was most engaged by observations of the natural world.
When the 20-year-old John went to London to join his brother, Georgian medicine was a mix of quackery and misguided tradition. Medical treatments consisted mostly of physics and emetics, bloodletting, and opium. "Physicians" were too exalted to let blood or perform surgery themselves, so such distasteful operations were left to "surgeons" or barbers and barber-surgeons (hence the traditional red and white striped barber pole).
John's first job for William's school was to be put in charge of obtaining cadavers for dissection. Anatomists and their representatives would fight family members for possession of the corpses of executed criminals. There weren't enough criminals to supply the needs of William's school, hence John had to resort to body snatching--either himself with the help of students, or by employing professional "resurrectionists."
To take advantage of cooler winter weather (retarding decay), the autumn anatomy course started at the beginning of October. "The dissecting season" ended sometime in May.
In contrast to William's poised eloquence, John was awkward in formal situations. Eventually, however, he was to win students' admiration during Q & A sessions and after-class debates. John became fascinated with comparative anatomy, developing relationships with keepers of various menageries and animal dealers to purchase the corpses of any exotic animals that died in their keeping.
In order to further his experience as a surgeon, John joined the army as a battlefield surgeon, and shipped out for France in March of 1761. When he returned to London in April 1763, at the age of 35, he was unemployed and no longer needed at his brother's anatomy school. He also quarreled with William who had taken over John's anatomical preparations and declined to return them or relinquish credit for them. This was a perennial source of friction between the brothers.
John turned to the neglected field of dentistry to bring in income. Dentistry was scorned by most physicians and surgeons of the day as an occupation fit only for barbers, wig makers, or even black smiths. John used the opportunity to begin experimenting with primitive transplant surgery. He started by transplanting human teeth into the comb of a rooster, and eventually was able to transplant teeth from healthy (but poor) donors into the mouths of the wealthy. He also began to earn fees performing autopsies (the significance of which was beginning to be recognized).
He met his future wife, Anne, when he was called in to treat her for an infestation of roundworms.
In 1767, he was elected to the Royal Society.
His fascination with experimentation continued. He attempted to freeze and reanimate small animals, in hopes of making a fortune by "sending" frozen people into the future.
In attempting to resolve the issue of whether syphilis and gonorrhea were two distinct diseases, as opposed to variable manifestations of the same one, he inoculated himself with gonorrhea. Unfortunately he chose to inoculate himself with discharge from a patient who had both diseases. So his experiment gave misleading results as well as putting his life in danger. He treated himself with mercury, the treatment of the day, but it's not entirely clear that he was cured. He also delayed his marriage by several years in order to avoid infecting his wife.
He assisted an infertile couple by performing the earliest recorded case of artificial insemination.
In 1767, John examined the teeth of an elephant-like animal from North America (actually a mastodon). He correctly concluded that they did not belong to a modern elephant, but rather to a previously unknown, and probably extinct, species. This idea flew in the face of contemporary dogma that all species had been created by God and remained unchanged. His work in comparative anatomy led him to write about the "Great Chain of Being," and eventually to toy with ideas dangerously close to the concept of evolution.
Two close friends of Hunter's, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, accompanied James Cook on his "Voyage of Discovery," departing Plymouth England in August of 1768.
Hunter kept a large menagerie of domestic and exotic animals on his farm at Earl's Court, just outside London. He kept everything from observation hives of bees to zebras and leopards. An underground laboratory featured a large copper vat for boiling down remains to obtain skeletons. His comparative anatomy and physiology studies were initially aimed at furthering human medicine, but he also developed an interest in treating animal diseases. The Veterinary College of London opened in 1791, with Hunter's assistance and support.
He also collected abnormal specimens (human and animal): a stillborn anencephalic, a cyclopic pig, a bicephalic calf, and so on.
In the autumn of 1770, 21-year old Edward Jenner (who would later develop the first smallpox vaccine) became John Hunter's first house pupil at St. George's Hospital.
Cook's ship, Endeavor, returned in July 1771, with specimens of more than a thousand animal species previously unknown in Europe (and an even larger number of plant specimens). The most spectacular were the skull and skins and several kangaroos. Hunter was unable to classify them anatomically with any species he had previously encountered, and had to wait almost two decades to get his hands on an intact specimen.
In the summer of 1771, John Hunter married his fiancée of seven years, Anne Home. He was 43 to her 29. His brother William was excused from attending, due to his belief that marriage was incompatible with a career in anatomy. The year before, he had parted company with his former assistant, William Hewson, upon his marriage to Polly Stevenson. Polly Stevenson was the daughter of Benjamin Franklin's London landlady. She had a keen mind, and remained a close friend of Franklin's for life.
Hunter's new wife pursued her social life and raised their children surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of her husband's anatomical and physiological research. In one incident in 1772, a visiting explorer had returned from northern Canada with a family of Inuit. All came to dinner at the Hunters. The head of the Inuit family wandered about the house and grounds, only to stumble over a glass case full of human bones. He demanded to know if this were the fate of previous Inuit guests who had been killed and eaten. Hunter assured him that all the bones belonged to executed criminals (even though this wasn't strictly true).
Electricity was an absorbing interest in 18th century Britain, stirred up by Ben Franklin's 1751 paper arguing that lightning was an electrical force, and experiment with kite and key the following year. In the 1740s, invention of the Leyden jar, an early type of battery, contributed to the fashion for electrical experiments and "therapies." In 1772, electric eels from Surinam were seen in London for the first time; John Hunter was the recipient of four of them for dissection.
In 1777, a popular reverend was hung for forgery. John Hunter and his team stood by in hopes of successful reviving him. In those days, hang knots did not break the neck, but relied upon strangulation. Hanging was not an exact art, and it was not unheard of for "executed" felons to revive. Since their sentence had been carried out, they were then set free--unless of course, they had the bad luck to be dissected in the interim. 19th century records note that 10 out of 36 bodies dissected after hanging between 1812 and 1830 had beating hearts--which did not stop the proceedings.
Practitioners of the day recommended bloodletting and tobacco vapor enemas for reviving drowning victims. Hunter, on the other hand, recommended introducing air into the victim's lungs, in combination with holding stimulating vapors to the nose and or rubbing the skin with essential oils. And finally, the administration of electric shocks, with the aim of restarting the heart. This idea had first been suggested by Benjamin Franklin, who had never tried to put it into practice. Dr. Hunter and his team did all they could to try to revive the Reverend Dodd, but the delay in obtaining the body was too great for any real chance of success.
John and William had a final falling out in 1780, right in front of the assembled Royal Society. John publicly accused William of having plagiarized his work on the structure of the placenta. These charges with were more or less true, as William had appropriated John's anatomical preparations as his own. The brothers were also divided philosophically: William remained faithful to the traditional view of the origin of life and immutable species, while John attempted to grabble with increasing evidence for changes in species over time.
John Hunter was widely known to covet the skeletal remains of the celebrated "Irish giant," Charles Byrne, long before the man's death. Byrne was 7 ft, 8 inches tall, and John wanted the addition to his collection of human and animal specimens of developmental abnormalities. Hunter even offered to pay Byrne for his body, in advance of his death, and hired an agent to follow Byrne around London. Far from agreeing, Byrne made his friends promise to seal him in a lead coffin and drop his body out at sea--out of the anatomist's reach. When Byrne died, his friends kept watch over his body for several days, charging the public to view the giant casket. Unbeknownst to them, Hunter had bribed the undertaker, who swapped the body for a load of paving stones. John kept the body hidden for several years, to avoid public upset of the manner of acquisition.
William died in 1783, at the age of 65. John did not attend the funeral, and was not named in William's will.
John himself was suffering from angina, but there was little the medicine of the day could offer him. Around this time (1785) Benjamin Franklin, who was living in France, was suffering with a bladder stone. A team headed by Hunter advised him to avoid surgery at his age, instead relying on control of the symptoms--in particular, opium to control the pain. Franklin returned home in 1786 and was active for several more years before dying in 1790 at the age of 84, and quite dependent on opium.
Hunter's museum on Leicester Square opened in 1788.
Hunter died in 1792. Completely in character, he had a fatal heart attack during an argument with his colleagues at St. George's Hospital. All his worldly wealth was tied up in his collection, leaving his family nothing but debts. He had thought the sale of his collection to the government would provide an income for his family. However, his plan suffered from bad timing. In the midst of war with France, the British government had no money to spare for natural history. John's 51-year-old widow had to support herself as a "ladies chaperone" for the daughters of an army surgeon.
Tragically, many of his papers and unpublished manuscripts fell into hostile hands, and were destroyed. In 1859, his remains were moved to Westminster Abbey where he was reinterred with a second funeral, and a plaque from the Royal College of Surgeons.