My watch list  

John Hunter (surgeon)

John Hunter

Engraving of John Hunter (1728 – 1793) taken from the original portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which is in the Royal College of Surgeons. The skeleton of the Irish Giant Charles Byrne is in the background.
BornFebruary 13 1728(1728-02-13)
Long Calderwood, East Kilbride, Scotland
DiedOctober 16 1793 (aged 65)
InstitutionsSt. George's Hospital
Researchdentistry, gunshot wounds, venereal diseases, digestion, child development, foetal development, lymphatic system
Known forThe application of rigorous scientific experimentation in medicine
Research into many areas of medical science
EducationSt. Bartholomew's Hospital

John Hunter (February 13, 1728 - October 16, 1793) was a Scottish surgeon regarded as one of the most distinguished scientists and surgeons of his day. He was an early advocate of the application of rigorous scientific experimentation in medicine.

Additional recommended knowledge



Hunter was born at Long Calderwood near East Kilbride, the youngest of 10 children. Three of these children had died of illness before John Hunter was born. One of these three had been named John Hunter also. An older brother was William Hunter, the anatomist. From 1748, he studied at St. Bartholomew's Hospital under Percival Pott and taught and practiced in London (initially with his brother). Although his brother was the owner of the joint anatomy school, John did most of the delicate knife work under his brother's supervision.

He was commissioned as an Army surgeon in 1760 and spent three years in France and Portugal.

Hunter was an excellent anatomist; his knowledge and skill as a surgeon was based on sound anatomical background. Among his numerous contributions to medical science are :

  • study of human teeth and advancement of dentistry
  • extensive study of inflammation
  • fine work on gun-wounds
  • some work on venereal diseases, including possibly inoculating himself with venereal disease in 1767 to carry out further study
  • an understanding of the nature of digestion, and verifying that fats are absorbed into the lacteals, a type of small intestine lymphatic capillary, and not into the intestinal blood capillaries as was generally accepted.
  • The first complete study of the development of a child from fetus to birth
  • proves that the maternal and foetal blood supplies are separate
  • Unravelling of one of the major anatomical mysteries of the time- the role of the lymphatic system

After years of hard work he set up his own anatomy school in London in 1764 and started in private surgical practice. His recognition rose in 1767 when he was elected as Fellow of the Royal Society and in 1768 he was appointed as surgeon to St. George's Hospital. Later he became a member of the Company of Surgeons. In 1776 he was appointed surgeon to King George III; in 1786 he was appointed deputy surgeon to the British Army and in 1789 he was made Surgeon General.

In 1771 he married Anne Home, daughter of Robert Boyne Home and sister of Sir Everard Home. They had four children, two of whom died before the age of 5 and one of whom, Agnes (their fourth child), married General Sir James Campbell.

In 1783 he moved to a large house in Leicester Square, where today there stands a statue to him. The space allowed him to arrange his collection of nearly 14,000 preparations of over 500 species of plants and animals into a teaching museum.

In 1783 he acquired the skeleton of the 7' 7" Irish giant Charles Byrne against his clear deathbed wishes - he asked to be buried at sea. Hunter bribed a member of the funeral party (possibly for £500) and filled the coffin with rocks at an overnight stop, then subsequently published a scientific description of the anatomy and skeleton which now resides in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.[1][2]

He had a reputation as a blunt speaker with an argumentative nature. His death in 1793 followed a fit brought on during an argument at St George's Hospital over the admission of students.

In 1799 the government purchased Hunter's collection of papers and specimens, which it presented to the Company of Surgeons.

Helping the poor

Hunter was a philosopher in more senses than one; he had philosophy enough to bear prosperity, as well as adversity, and with a rough exterior was a very kind man. The poor could command his services more than the rich. He would see an industrious tradesman before a duke, when his house was full of grandees, "you have no time to spare," he would say, "you live by it; most of these can wait, they have nothing to do when they go home." No man cared less for the profits of the profession, or more for the honour of it. He cared not for money himself, and wished the Doctor [his brother William] to estimate it by the same scale, when he sent a poor man with this laconic note:-

"Dear Brother,- The bearer wants your advice. I do not know the nature of case. He has no money, and you have plenty, so are well met."
"Yours, J. Hunter."

He was applied to once to perform a serious operation on a tradesman's wife; the fee agreed upon was twenty guineas. He heard no more of the case for two months; at the end of which time he was called upon to perform it. In the course of his attendance, he found out that the cause of the delay had been the difficulty under which the patient's husband had laboured to raise the money; and that they were worthy people, who had been unfortunate, and were by no means able to support the expense of such an affliction. "I sent back to the husband nineteen guineas, and kept the twentieth," said he, "that they might not be hurt with an idea of too great obligation. It somewhat more than paid me for the expense I had been at in the business."


Hunter was the basis for the character "Jack Tearguts" in William Blake's early satire, An Island in the Moon.

A bust of John Hunter stands on a pedestal outside the main entrance to St George's Hospital in Tooting, South London, along with a lion and unicorn taken from the original Hyde Park Corner building. There is also a bust of him in Leicester Square in London's West End and in the South West corner of Lincoln's Inn Fields.

The John Hunter Hospital, the largest hospital in Newcastle, Australia, and principal teaching hospital of the University of Newcastle, is named after Hunter (as well as two other historically significant John Hunters).

John Hunter was known to use colorful language quite often, even in formal situations.


  1. ^ Doctors: The Biography of Medicine by Sherwin B. Nuland.
  2. ^ Doctors: The History of Scientific Medicine Revealed Through Biography Sherwin B. Nuland at The Teaching Company.
  • Moore, Wendy. The Knife Man (London: Bantam 2005, ISBN 0-593-05209-9)
  • Kobler, John, The Reluctant Surgeon. A Biography of John Hunter, Garden City, New York, Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1960.
Preceded by
William Roy
Copley Medal
Succeeded by
Charles Blagden
NAME Hunter, John
DATE OF BIRTH February 13, 1728
PLACE OF BIRTH Long Calderwood, East Kilbride, South Lanarkshire, Scotland
DATE OF DEATH October 16, 1793
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "John_Hunter_(surgeon)". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
Your browser is not current. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 does not support some functions on Chemie.DE