Lives of the fellows

William Hunter

b.23 May 1718 d.30 March 1783
MD Glasg(1750) LRCP(1756) FRS(1767)

William Hunter, M.D., was born on the 23rd May, 1718, at Kilbride, in Lanarkshire. He was the son of John Hunter, the owner of a small estate called Long Calderwood, a man of excellent understanding and of great integrity, but of an anxious temper, by his wife Agnes (Paul), a woman of great worth, of a handsome person and considerable talents. When fourteen years of age he was sent to the university of Glasgow, where he passed five years, and by his behaviour and diligence acquired the esteem of his professors, and the reputation of a good scholar. At this period he was intended for the church; but some conscientious objections respecting subscription arose in his mind, and while in doubt and uncertainty he met with Dr. Cullen, who was then in practice at Hamilton. Cullen’s conversation soon determined him to lay aside all thoughts of the church, and devote himself to the profession of physic. His father’s consent having been obtained, Mr. Hunter, in 1737, went to reside with Dr. Cullen, and remained there for nearly three years, a period to which in after life he was accustomed to look back with the utmost pleasure, and which he regarded as the happiest of his life. It was then agreed that he should go and prosecute his medical studies at Edinburgh and London, and afterwards settle at Hamilton in partnership with Dr. Cullen. He passed the winter session of 1740-1 at Edinburgh, and in the summer of 1741 arrived in London and took up his residence with Mr. afterwards Dr. Smellie, at that time an apothecary in Pall-mall. He had brought with him from Scotland a letter of recommendation to Dr. James Douglas, the well-known anatomist and obstetric physician, who was then engaged upon a work on the bones, and was in search of a young man of ability and industry whom he might employ as a dissector. This circumstance fixed his attention on Hunter, and finally induced him to invite him into his family, for the double purpose of assisting in dissections and superintending the education of his son. Mr. Hunter, having accepted Dr. Douglas’s offer, was by his friendly assistance entered as a surgeon’s pupil of St. George’s hospital, and as a dissecting pupil of Dr. Frank Nicholls, who was then teaching anatomy with great reputation. He also attended a course of lectures by Dr. Desaguliers, on experimental philosophy. Hunter soon became expert in dissection, and Dr. Douglas was at the expense of having some of his preparations engraved. But before many months had elapsed he had the misfortune to lose his friend and patron, who died in April, 1742, leaving a widow and two children. The death of Dr. Douglas made no change, however, in Hunter’s situation, for he continued to reside with the doctor’s family, and to pursue his studies with the same diligence as before. To teach anatomy was now the object of his ambition, and in 1746 an opportunity of doing so occurred which he at once embraced. A society of naval surgeons had an apartment in Covent-garden, where they engaged Mr. Sharpe to deliver a course of lectures on the operations of surgery. Mr. Sharpe continued to repeat this course, until, finding that it interfered too much with his other engagements, he declined it in favour of Hunter, who gave the society so much satisfaction that they requested him to extend his plan to anatomy, and, as an encouragement to do so, allowed him the use of their room for that purpose. In this new department he gave equal satisfaction to his hearers, and thenceforward continued his lectures with steadily increasing reputation for a long series of years. In 1747 Mr. Hunter was admitted a member of the Corporation of Surgeons, and in the spring of the following year accompanied his pupil, James Douglas, on a tour through Holland to Paris. At Leyden he visited Albinus, whose admirable injections inspired him with a strong desire to excel in that department of anatomy. In the early part of his career, Hunter practised both surgery and midwifery, but he always entertained an aversion to the former, and gradually confined himself to the latter line of practice, for which he was singularly calculated by the delicacy of his manners and a very quick perception of the caprices of the world. Dr. Douglas had acquired a high reputation in this branch, and Hunter’s connection with him not unnaturally led him into the same line of practice. He was appointed one of the surgeons-accoucheur to the Middlesex hospital in 1748, and to the British Lying-in hospital in 1749. Some favourable circumstances conspired also to advance his prospects. Dr. Smellie, although a man of merit, was unpleasing in his exterior and manners, and was unable to make way amongst the refined and fastidious. The abilities of Hunter at least equalled those of Smellie, and his person and deportment gave him a decided advantage. Sir Richard Manningham, one of the most eminent accoucheurs of the time, died about this period, and Dr. Sandys, who divided with him the fashion of the day, retired into the country a few years after the commencement of Hunter’s reputation. On the 24th October,1750, Hunter obtained the degree of doctor of medicine from the university of Glasgow, and about that time quitting the house of Mrs. Douglas, settled in Jermyn-street, when he entirely relinquished his practice as a surgeon, and began his career as a physician. He was admitted a Licentiate of the College of Physicians 30th September, 1756.

In 1762 Dr. Hunter was consulted by queen Charlotte, and two years afterwards was appointed physician extraordinary to her Majesty. By this time his engagements had become so numerous that he was compelled to seek an assistant in his lectures, and Mr. Hewson, then one of his pupils, was engaged, first as assistant and subsequently was admitted as a partner in the lectures. This connection subsisted until 1770, when a separation was occasioned by some disputes, and Mr. Cruikshank succeeded to the office. In 1767 Dr. Hunter was admitted a fellow of the Royal Society, and in the following year a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. In 1768 he was appointed by George the Third professor of anatomy to the Royal Academy, an office on which he conferred celebrity by the zeal and ability with which he discharged its difficult and onerous duties. On the death of Dr. Fothergill, Dr. Hunter was unanimously elected president of the Medical Society of London, and in 1780 the Royal Medical Society of Paris created him one of its foreign associates. He soon afterwards obtained a similar distinction from the Royal Academy of Sciences of that city.

About ten years before Dr. Hunter’s end, his health was so much impaired that, fearing he might soon become unfit for the profession which he loved, he proposed to recruit himself by a residence in Scotland, and was on the point of purchasing a considerable estate when the project was frustrated by a defect in the title-deeds. This trifle banished his rural plans, and he remained in London continually declining in health, but pursuing distinction with the same ardour with which he had courted it in his earlier days. He rose from a bed of sickness to deliver an introductory lecture to a course on the operations of surgery, in opposition to the earnest remonstrances of his friends. The lecture was accordingly delivered, but it was his last; towards the conclusion his strength was so much exhausted that he fainted away, and was finally replaced in the chamber which he had been so eager to quit. In a few days he was no more. Turning to his friend Dr. Combe in his latter moments, he observed, " If I had strength enough to hold a pen, I would write how easy and pleasant a thing it is to die." He expired on the 30th March, 1783, and was buried in the rector’s vault of St. James’s, Piccadilly. A mural monument on the south of the church is thus inscribed:—
to the Memory of
William Hunter, M.D., F.R.S.,
celebrated as a physician
and physiologist.
Born at Kilbride in Lanarkshire, May 23rd, 1718.
Died in London March 30th, 1783.

When Dr. Hunter began to practise obstetrics his ambition was fixed on the acquisition of a fortune sufficient to place him in easy and independent circumstances. Before many years had elapsed, he found himself in possession of a sum adequate to his wishes in this respect, and this he set apart as a resource of which he might avail himself whenever age or infirmities should oblige him to retire from business. After he had obtained this competency, as his wealth continued to accumulate, he formed a remarkable and praiseworthy design of engaging in some scheme of public utility, and at first had it in contemplation to found an anatomical school in this metropolis. For this purpose, about the year 1765, during the government of Mr. Grenville, he presented a memorial to that minister, in which he requested the grant of a piece of ground in the Mews for the site of an anatomical theatre. Dr. Hunter undertook to expend seven thousand pounds on the building, and to endow a professorship of anatomy in perpetuity. This scheme did not meet with the reception which it deserved. In a conversation on this subject, soon afterwards, with the earl of Shelburne, his lordship expressed a wish that the plan might be carried into execution by subscription, and very generously requested to accompany his name with a thousand guineas. Dr. Hunter’s delicacy would not allow him to adopt this proposal. He chose rather to execute the plan at his own expense, and accordingly purchased a spot of ground in Great Windmill-street, where he erected a spacious house, to which he removed from Jermyn-street in 1770. In this building, besides a handsome amphitheatre and other convenient apartments for his lectures and dissections, one magnificent room was fitted up with great elegance and propriety as a museum, only second in extent and importance to that subsequently formed by his distinguished brother and pupil, John Hunter. Of the magnitude and value of Dr. Hunter’s collection some idea may be formed when we consider the great length of years which he employed in making anatomical preparations, and in the dissection of morbid bodies, added to the eagerness with, which he procured additions from the museums of Sandys, Falconer, Blackall, and others which were at different times offered for sale in the metropolis. Friends and pupils were constantly augmenting his store with new specimens. On removing to Windmill-street, he began to extend his views to the embellishment of his collection by a magnificent library of Greek and Latin classics, and he formed also a very rare cabinet of ancient medals, which was at the time considered as only inferior to that belonging to the king of France. The coins alone had been purchased at an expense of twenty thousand pounds. Minerals, shells, and other objects of natural history were gradually added to this museum, which became an object of curiosity throughout Europe. It now enriches the university of Glasgow, to which it, with eight thousand pounds as a fund for the support and augmentation of the whole, was bequeathed by its liberal owner.(1)

Dr. Baillie has said of Dr. Hunter, that " no one ever possessed more enthusiasm for his art, more persevering industry, more acuteness of investigation, more perspicuity of expression, or, indeed, a greater share of natural eloquence. He excelled very much any lecturer whom I have ever heard in the clearness of his arrangement, the aptness of his illustrations, and the elegance of his diction. He was perhaps the best teacher of anatomy that ever lived.

"Of the person of Dr. Hunter it may be observed that he was regularly shaped, but of a slender make, and rather below a middle stature. His manner of living was extremely simple and frugal, and the quantity of his food was small, as well as plain. He was an early riser, and when business was over, was constantly engaged in his anatomical pursuits, or in his museum. There was something very engaging in his manner and address, and he had such an appearance of attention to his patients when he was making his inquiries as could scarcely fail to conciliate their confidence and esteem. In consultation with his medical brethren he delivered his opinion with diffidence and candour. In familiar conversation he was cheerful and unassuming. All who knew him allow that he possessed an excellent understanding, great readiness of perception, a good memory, and a sound judgment. With these intellectual powers he united uncommon assiduity and precision, so that he was admirably fitted for anatomical investigation." Dr. Hunters portrait, by Zoffani, is at the College. It was presented by Mr. Bransby Cooper, 13th April, 1829.

Dr. Hunter contributed several papers to the " Philosophical Transactions " and the " Medical Observations and Inquiries," and published—
Medical Commentaries. Part I. Containing a plain and direct Answer to Professor Monro, jun., with Remarks on the Structure, Functions, and Diseases of several Parts of the Human Body. 4to. Lond. 1762.
Supplement to the First Part of Medical Commentaries. 4to. Lond. 1764.
Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus exhibited in Figures. Fol. Birm. 1744.
After his death appeared—
Two Introductory Lectures to his Course of Anatomical Lectures. 4to. Lond. 1784.
Anatomical Description of the Human Gravid Uterus and its Contents. 4to. Lond. 1794.

William Munk

[(1) Lives of British Physicians. 2nd edition. Lond. 18-57. p. 224, et seq]

(Volume II, page 205)

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