John Hunter and the Anatomy of a Museum: Simon Chaplin Describes the Extraordinary Personal Museum of the 18th-Century Anatomist and Gentleman-Dissector John Hunter, and Suggests That This, and Others like It, Played a Critical Role in Establishing an Acceptable View of Dissection

By Chaplin, Simon | History Today, February 2005 | Go to article overview

John Hunter and the Anatomy of a Museum: Simon Chaplin Describes the Extraordinary Personal Museum of the 18th-Century Anatomist and Gentleman-Dissector John Hunter, and Suggests That This, and Others like It, Played a Critical Role in Establishing an Acceptable View of Dissection


Chaplin, Simon, History Today


IN FEBRUARY 2005, the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England re-opens to the public alter a two-year closure for refurbishment. At the heart of the museum lies an extraordinary collection of over 3,500 anatomical and pathological preparations, specimens of natural history, fossils, paintings and drawings assembled by the Scottish-born surgeon and anatomist John Hunter (1728-93).

Collecting appears to have been something of a family trait. John's elder brother, the anatomist and man-midwife William Hunter (1718-83) bequeathed his museum to his alma mater, the University of Glasgow. In contrast with its sibling institution, London's Hunterian Museum has hitherto been largely the preserve of a medical audience. Purchased by the government in 1799 and placed in the care of the College, it has been regarded as a resource celebrating the tradition of 'scientific surgery' that John Hunter is credited with founding. Yet the collection also has a role to play in uncovering the historical context of anatomical study, As the centrepiece of the house-cum-anatomy school which he occupied with his wife, the poet Anne Home Hunter (1742-1821), and their children in London's Leicester Square from 1783 until his death in 1793, John Hunter's museum played a vital role in mediating the social and moral tensions that surrounded the practice of anatomical dissection in Georgian London.

Hunter achieved a measure of success in his career that was unsurpassed by his contemporaries. Despite an unpromising start--he was the youngest of ten siblings, fatherless from the age of thirteen and a notoriously poor student--he had risen to the head of his profession. He began his career as a dissecting room assistant in the anatomy school of his brother William, who in 1746 was one of the first to exploit the relaxation on the rules governing anatomical dissection that followed the split of London's Barber-Surgeons' Company the previous year.

Having mastered the arts of dissection and the making of anatomical preparations with William, John went on to train as a surgeon. After serving with the army in France and Portugal he established himself in private practice in London in the mid-1760s. By the end of the decade lie had consolidated his reputation, gaining election as a Fellow of the Royal Society and as a staff surgeon to St George's Hospital. In 1775 he advertised a course of lectures in the 'Principles and Practice of Surgery' that was repeated each year until his death, with lessons in 'practical anatomy' added from 1785 onwards. By the time of his death he was Surgeon-Extraordinary to George III and Surgeon-General of the Army and was widely recognised as London's leading teacher of surgery and anatomy.

Hunter's publications included medical tracts on the treatment of venereal disease, gunshot wounds and the disorders of the human teeth, together with contributions on topics as diverse as the natural history of whales, the 'internal heat' of plants and animals and the crossbreeding of wolves and dogs. Yet his renown rested less on his ability with the pen than with his unparalleled skill in dissection, which found application in a host of disciplines that helped elevate the status of anatomical study. As one contemporary biographer noted:

   If a body were to be embalmed, John
   Hunter was sent for; if a virtuoso
   solicited a dissection or preparation,
   to him he applied; if anything strange
   in nature occurred, the explanation
   of it came from him.

Hunter performed post-mortems for the eminent physician John Pringle (1707-82), who while recognising the value of autopsy confessed he had the weakness 'not to be able to see the dissection of a friend' and instead turned to that 'curious and most experienced anatomist, .John Hunter' who, he said, had 'an excellent hand for the business'.

Hunter also conducted examinations of rare animals, including many brought back by Joseph Banks (1743-1820) from his own voyages to the Pacific, and applied his expertise to the study of objects such as fossils and mummies on behalf of antiquarian collectors. …

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John Hunter and the Anatomy of a Museum: Simon Chaplin Describes the Extraordinary Personal Museum of the 18th-Century Anatomist and Gentleman-Dissector John Hunter, and Suggests That This, and Others like It, Played a Critical Role in Establishing an Acceptable View of Dissection
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