John Hunter Letter

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

A single item of correspondence penned by John Hunter offering medical advice about a patient to a surgeon in Hampshire.

The letter is accompanied firstly by two items of correspondence between Mrs Charlotte Beswick, Hon Curator of Exhibits at the University of Manchester Medical School, and Miss E. Allen, Curator at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, London, dated April-May 1993. With these letters Beswick encloses a photocopy of the letter and seeks Allen's assistance in verifying that the letter was genuinely written by John Hunter, which is confirmed by Allen. Secondly, there are two notes from Beswick, dated December 1994, in which she confirms that the decision has been made to transfer the letter from the Medical School into the hands of the John Rylands Library for safe-keeping.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Hunter (1728-1793) was born on the 13 February 1728 in East Kilbride to John Hunter and Agnes Paul. John was the youngest of ten children, with his equally famous anatomist brother, William Hunter (1718-1783) being the seventh oldest. In 1748, following some uncertainty about what career he wished to pursue, Hunter headed to London to join his brother William and assist him with his anatomy school. William was immediately impressed with his dissection skills. In 1749/50 he attended the Chelsea Army Hospital under William Cheselden and in 1751 became a pupil at St Bartholomew's Hospital studying under Percivall Pott. In 1754 he entered St George's Hospital as a surgical pupil and in summer 1755 was persuaded by his brother to leave in favour of becoming a student at St Mary Hall, Oxford to improve his credentials. The lifestyle and teaching did not suit Hunter and he returned to St George's just a few months later in 1756.

His career having not progressed significantly Hunter joined the army as a staff surgeon in October 1760 in the midst of the Seven Years' War and set sail with the expeditionary force for Belle Île-en-Mer. During this time he also spent time in Portugal and learnt much from his experiences of military medicine but returned to London in 1763 after the official cessation of hostilities earlier that year. Back in London he established his own practice in Golden Square where he continued his experiments and dissections. On 5 February 1767 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and on 7 July 1768 passed the diploma of the Company of Surgeons which qualified to take a senior post at a hospital. Later that year on 9 December he was appointed to the role of surgeon at St George's Hospital. That same year his brother William had moved from his premises on Jermyn Street to his new anatomy school on Great Windmill Street, and so Hunter took over this property, which was well-suited for private practice.

With rooms of his own he gave lectures on surgery and anatomy and taught a great number of students, including such individuals as Edward Jenner, John Abernethy, and William Shippen. He also lectured at St George's, doing so for free in the winters of 1773 & 1774, but was not overly fond of lecturing in general despite being popular with students. Hunter placed much importance on the needs of his patients and focused on means of prevention as well as cure. He also dedicated a lot of time to comparative anatomy and had purchased a property at Earls Court to this end, as it gave him the space to experiment on a range of animals both dead and alive.

In 1776 he was appointed surgeon-extraordinary to the king and in 1790 surgeon-general of the army and inspector of its hospitals. In 1787 he received the Copley medal from the Royal Society and gave the Croonian lectures from 1776 to 1782 based on his research into muscular motion. Hunter was a founder member of both the Society for the Improvement of Medical and Chirurgical Knowledge in 1783 and the Lyceum Medicum Londinenses for the Advancement of Medical Knowledge in 1785, both small intimate groupings of medical men who met to discuss their work. He published liberally and broadly during his career and some of his key works include A Treatise on the Natural History of the Human Teeth (1771 & 1778), Treatise on Venereal Disease (1786), Observations on Certain Parts of the Animal Oeconomy (1786), and Treatise on the Blood, Inflammation, and Gunshot Wounds (1794).

During his career Hunter amassed a vast collection of pathological specimens, and items relating to comparative anatomy and natural history and on occasion reportedly paid huge sums of money for single items. All his specimens were carefully prepared and arranged with the student in mind, each offering its own explanation of some animal structure or manifestation of disease. After his death his collections became part of the Royal College of Surgeons and despite significant depletions over the years can still be seen today.

Hunter died on 16 October 1793 at a meeting of the board of governors held at St George's Hospital. His body was originally placed in the vaults of St Martin in the Fields but in 1859 was reinterred in Westminster Abbey where a plaque marks his grave.

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Accruals

No accruals are expected.

Related Material

The Wellcome Library, London hold several items of correspondence relating to John Hunter, including MS.7887, MS.8619, MS.8423, and MS.5234.

A volume of letters from John Hunter to Edward Jenner (Hunter-Jenner Letters) and a volume of letters from John Hunter and his brother William Hunter to various recipients (Hunterian Letters) are housed at the Royal College of Surgeons of England.