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pioneer of tissue grafting
John Hunter was born in the parish of East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, on February 13, 1728, the youngest son of a Scottish gentleman. He did not receive much formal education, but he did have a persistent curiosity about the natural world and spent a lot of time exploring the countryside around his home. In 1748 he left Scotland and rode on horseback to London to assist his brother William Hunter, a well-known obstetrician and medical lecturer, with making dissections at his anatomical school.
Medical teaching was not very well organized at this time, and surgeons usually gained their experience through practice or apprenticeship. There was also a deep social division between the physician, usually a university graduate, and the surgeon, who was regarded as a craftsman.
John's job was to prepare dissected anatomical specimens for William's lectures. Hard-working and singularly patient and skillful in dissection, John had by his second winter in London acquired sufficient anatomical knowledge to be entrusted with the charge of his brother's practical class. He became a surgeon's pupil at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in 1751, a surgeon's pupil at St. George's Hospital in 1754, and house-surgeon at St. George's in 1756. On June 5, 1755, he entered as a gentleman commoner at St. Mary's Hall, Oxford.
Hunter also performed original research during his period of study. His discoveries included the descent of the testes in the fetus during the eighth month of pregnancy, the functions of the lymph glands, and the structure and function of the placenta.
In 1760, Hunter obtained the appointment of staff-surgeon in Hodgson and Keppel's expedition to Belleisle, off the west coast of France, in 1761. The following year he served with the English forces on the frontier of Portugal. His experiences during these expeditions made him an expert in gunshot wounds, and he showed that amputations regarded as standard procedure could often be avoided if wounds were properly treated. After returning to private life he continued his studies of human anatomy, and arranged his notes and memoranda on inflammation. He also ascertained by experiment that digestion does not take place in snakes and lizards during hibernation, and observed that enforced vigorous movement at that season proves fatal to such animals. His work eventually resulted in the publication of his most important book, A Treatise on the Blood, Inflammation, and Gunshot Wounds (1794), which revolutionized the surgeon's attitude towards his patients.
After retiring from the army in 1763, Hunter took a house in Golden Square and began to practice as a surgeon. In order to supplement his income, he also taught practical anatomy and operative surgery to a private class. In 1767, he performed several experiments on dogs which laid the foundation of the modern practice of cutting through tendons for the relief of distorted and contracted joints. That same year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
On December 9, 1768, Hunter was elected a surgeon to St. George's Hospital, and, soon after, a member of the Corporation of Surgeons. In 1776 he was appointed physician extraordinary to King George III, and in 1790 surgeon general and inspector general of hospitals. Early in 1786 he published his Treatise on the Venereal Disease, and later that same year he published Observations on Certain Parts of the Animal Economy. In 1787 he received the Royal Society's Copley Medal, and was also elected a member of the American Philosophical Society.
John Hunter died on October 16, 1793, while attending a board meeting at St. George's Hospital. His remains were interred privately in the vaults of St. Martin's in the Fields; in 1859, his remains were removed to Abbot Islip's Chapel in Westminster Abbey.
The scope of Hunter's researches and speculations was immensely wide. He was the first to suggest that blood is a living substance like other components of the body. He speculated that the embryo in its development may go through various phases resembling more primitive creatures. He pioneered the art of tissue grafting in a series of experiments which included transplanting a human tooth onto a cock's comb and grafting the leg spur of a fighting cock onto its head (shown at left).
The Hunterian Museum
While serving abroad with the British army, Hunter began to collect specimens for what would ultimately become a unique museum of assorted anatomical, biological, and pathological specimens that would comprise more than 13,500 exhibits. He purused his passion for collecting by negotiating with various menageries, including the Tower of London, for the bodies of any animals that happened to die. It was said that as soon as he had accumulated enough money in surgeon's fees, he would go out to buy another specimen for his museum.
Hunter's passion for collecting was so great that he even pursued the Irish giant Charles Byrne, later known as O'Brien, for his skeleton after death. O'Brien, who stood about 8 feet tall in life, had requested that his body be sealed in a lead coffin and buried in the Thames estuary to outwit Hunter, but Hunter managed to bribe the undertaker to steal the corpse anyway.
Preserved intact after Hunter's death, the collection eventually formed the basis of the Hunterian Museum in London, under the custodianship of the Royal College of Surgeons.
This page was last updated on 02/12/2017.