1902 Encyclopedia > William Hunter

William Hunter
Scottish physician
(1718-83)




HUNTER, WILLIAM (1718-1783), a celebrated physiologist and physician, and the first great teacher of anatomy in England, was born May 23, 1718, at East Kilbride, Lanark. He was the seventh child of his parents, and an elder brother of John Hunter, the distinguished surgeon. When fourteen years of age he was sent to the university of Glasgow, where he studied for five years. He had originally been intended for the church, but, scruples concerning subscription arising in his mind, he followed the advice of his friend William Cullen (see CULLEN, vol. vi. P. 694), and resolved to devote himself to physic. During 1737-40 he resided with Cullen at Hamilton, and then, with a view to increasing his medical knowledge before settling in partnership with his friend, he spent the winter of 1740-41 at Edinburgh, and thence went to London. There Dr James Douglas, an anatomist and obstetrician of some note, to whom he had been recommended, engaged his services as a tutor to his son, and as a dissector, and assisted him to enter as a surgeon’s pupil at St George’s Hospital, and to procure the instruction of the anatomist Dr Nicholls. Dr Douglas died in April 1742, but Hunter still, continued to live with his family. In 1746 Hunter undertook in place of Mr Samuel Sharpe the delivery, for a society of

FOOTNOTE (p. 391)

(1) Treatise on the Blood, p. 63.

(2) Essays and Observations, i. 113.

(3) Treatise on the Blood, p. 89.

(4) Ib., p. 90.

(5) P. P Staple, with the loan of whose volume of MS. Notes of Hunter’s "Chirurgical Lectures." Dated, on the last page, Sept. 20, 1787, the writer has been favoured by Dr W. H. Broadbent.



naval practitioners, of a series of lectures on operative surgery, and so satisfactory did he acquit himself of his task that he was requested to include anatomy in his course. It was not long before he attained considerable fame as a lecturer ; for not only was his oratorical ability great, but he differed from his contemporaries in the care which he took to provide for his hearers in 1748. "totam rem anatomicam complectens," comprised only twenty-three lectures, exclusive of a short and defective "Syllabus Chirurgicus," and that at "one of the most reputable courses of anatomy in Europe," which Hunter had himself attended, the professor was obliged to demonstrate all the parts of the body, except the nerves and vessels (shown in a foetus) and the bones, on a single dead subject, and for the explanation of the operations of surgery used a dog! In 1747 Hunter became a member of the Corporation of Surgeons. In the course of a tour through Holland to Paris with his pupil J. Douglas in 1728, he visited Albinus at Leyden, and inspected with admiration his injected preparations. By degrees Hunter renounced surgical for obstetric practice, in which he excelled. He was appointed a surgeon-accoucheur at the Middlessex Hospital in 1748, and at the British Lying-in Hospital in the year following. The degree of M.D. was conferred upon him by the university of Glasgow, October 24, 1750. About the same time he left his old abode at Mrs Dougla’s and settled as a physician in Jermyn Street. He became a licentiate of the College of Physicians, September 30, 1756. In 1762 he was consulted by Queen Charlotte, and in 1764 was made physician-extraordinary to her Majesty.

On the departure of his brother John for the army. Hunter engaged as assistant Mr William Hewson, whom he subsequently admitted to partnership in his lectures. Hewson was succeeded in 1770 by Mr Cruikshank. Hunter became in 1767 a fellow of the Royal Society ; in 1768 a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and third professor of anatomy to the Royal Academy of Arts ; and in 1780 and 1782 respectively an associate of the Royal Medical Society and of the Royal Academy of Science of Paris. During the closing ten years of his life his health failed greatly. His last lecture, at the conclusion of which he fainted, was given, contrary to the remonstrances of friends, only a few days before his death, which took place March 30, 1783. He was buried in the rector’s vault at St James’s Piccadilly.





Hunter had in 1765 requested of the Hon. Mr Grenville the grant of a plot of ground on which he might establish "a museum in London for the improvement of anatomy, surgery, and physic" (see "Papers" at end of his Two Introductory Lectures, 1784), and had offered to expend on its erection £7000, and to endow in perpetuity a professorship of anatomy in connexion with it. His application receiving no recognition, he after many months abandoned his scheme, and built himself a house, with lecture and dissecting-rooms, in Great Windmill Street, whither he removed in 1770. In one fine apartment in this house was accommodated his collection, comprising anatomical and pathological preparations, ancient coins and medals, minerals shells, and corals. His natural history specimens were in part a purchase, for £1200, of the executors of his friend Dr John Fothergill (see vol. ix. P. 475). Hunter’s whole collection, together with his fine library of Greek and Latin classics and an endowment of £8000, by his will became, after the lapse of twenty years, the property of the university of Glasgow. His paternal estate of Long Calderwood was left to his brother-in-law, Dr James Baillie, by whom, as soon as the will was proved, it was made over to John Hunter. Hunter was never married, and was a man of frugal habits. Like his brother John, he was an early riser, and of untiring industry. He is described as being in his lectures, which were of two hour’s duration, "both simple and profound, minute in demonstration, and yet the reverse of dry and tedious;" and his mode of introducing anecdotal illustrations of his topic was most happy. Lecturing was to him a pleasure, and, notwithstanding his many professional distractions, he regularly continued it, because, as he said, he "conceived that a man may do infinitely more good to the public by teaching his art than by practicing it" (see "Memorial" appended to Introd. Lect., p. 120).

Hunter was the author of several contributions to the Medical Observations and Enquiries and the Philosophical Transactions. In his paper on the structure of cartilages and joints, published in the latter in 1743, he anticipated what Bichat sixty years afterwards wrote concerning the structure and arrangement of the synovial membranes. His Medical Commentaries (pt.i., 1762, supplemented 1764) contains, among other like matter details of his disputes with the Munros as to who first had successfully performed the injection of the tubuli testis (in which, however, both he and they had been forestalled by Haller in 1745), and as to had discovered the true office of the lymphatics (cf. ANATOMy, vol. i. p 815), and also a discussion on the question whether he or Pott ought to be considered the earliest to have elucidated the nature of hermis congenital, which, as a matter of fact, had been previously explained by Haller. In the Commentaries is exhibited Hunter’s one weakness—an inordinate love of controversy. His impatience of contradiction he averred to be a characteristic of anatomists, in whom he once jocularly condoned it, on the plea that "the passive submission of dead bodies" rendered the crossing of their will the less bearable. His great work, The Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus, exhibited in Figures, fol. (See ANATOMY, vol. i. p. 816), was published in 1774. His posthumous works are Two Introductory Lectures, 1784, and Anatomical Description of the Human Gravid Uterus, 1794, which was re-edited by Dr Rigby in 1843.

See Gent. Mag., liii. Pt. 1, p. 364, 1783 ; S. F. Simmons, An Account of the Life of W. Hunter, 1783 ; Adam’s and Ottley’s Lives of J. Hunter ; Sir B. C. Brodie Hunterian Oration, 1837 ; W. Munk, The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London, ii. 205, 1878; and the preceding article. (F. H. B.)






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