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Hunter, John (1728-1793)

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0114 MS0189
Held at: Royal College of Surgeons of England
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Full title: Hunter, John (1728-1793)
Date(s): 1699- [1950]
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: 19 boxes, 3 volumes
Name of creator(s): Hunter | John | 1728-1793 | surgeon and anatomist


Administrative/Biographical history:

John Hunter was born in East Kilbride, in 1728. He received little formal education. He moved to London in 1748, with his elder brother William Hunter (1718-1783) who was a midwife and physician, and a private lecturer in surgery and anatomy. Initially John made dissections and prepared specimens for William's lectures, and he started attending lectures in 1749. He became a surgeon-pupil at St George's Hospital in 1754, and started to give lectures for William. By 1750 John was so proficient at dissection that he was able to make the first set of preparations for his brother's comprehensive study of pregnancy, The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, published in 1774. John was commissioned as an army surgeon in 1761, and joined the British military expedition to Belle Īle, off the northern coast of France. He was posted to Portugal in 1762. While serving with the army he laid the foundations for future work by studying the regeneration of the tails of lizards. He also carried out researches on the treatment of venereal disease and gunshot wounds. On his return to London he taught practical anatomy and operative surgery, and worked with the dentist James Spence. The latter resulted in two major publications: The Natural History of Human Teeth (1771) and A Practical Treatise on the Diseases of the Teeth (1778) which included important accounts of the transplantation of teeth in people, as well as the more famous experiment of the transplantation of a human tooth into a cock's comb. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1767 and became a Member of the Company of Surgeons in 1768. He was appointed surgeon at St George's Hospital. He gave lectures in anatomy at the Incorporated Society of Artists in 1769-1770. Shortly afterwards he started to lecture in surgery to his pupils from St George's Hospital. In 1775 Hunter began to advertise a course of lectures on 'The Principles and Practice of Surgery', and he continued to stage these each year until his death. His surgical achievements were recognised by his appointment as Surgeon-extraordinary to George III and as Croonian lecturer at the Royal Society. He was elected a Member of the American Philosophical Society and received the Copley Medal of the Royal Society. He was elected a Member of the Court of Assistants of the Company of Surgeons in 1789. Hunter had been appointed Assistant Surgeon-General to the armed forces in 1785, and Surgeon-General and Inspector General of Regimental Hospitals in 1790. He drew up a scheme for training army medical staff which he successfully put into practice. Hunter was also one of the first vice-presidents of the London Veterinary College, established in 1791. He died in 1793.

John Hunter kept many manuscript notes of his dissections, cases, and research. Hunter employed a number of amanuenses so that fair copies of his rough manuscripts could be taken, the rough manuscripts often being destroyed after this had been done. There still remained a great deal of unpublished material after Hunter's death in 1793 and these manuscripts were kept at Hunter's house under the care of William Clift. Over the next six years, Clift copied many of the manuscripts for his own reference. Hunter wanted his collection of specimens to be offered to the British Government. In 1799 the collections were offered to The Company of Surgeons, which became The Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1800. A museum was purpose built to incorporate these collections in Lincoln's Inn Fields. In 1799, Sir Everard Home ordered that all the Hunterian manuscripts should be transferred to his own house. Home, a Hunterian Trustee, Hunter's brother-in-law, and one of Hunter's executors, was entrusted by the Board of Trustees for the Hunterian Collections, to use the manuscripts to compile a catalogue of the specimens. However, this catalogue never appeared. In 1823, Home spoke to Clift of a fire at his home resulting in the fire brigade being called, which was caused by his burning of Hunter's manuscripts in the fireplace. The Hunterian Trustees began to worry about the catalogue being completed and elected a committee to consider the catalogue at their meeting in Feb 1824. The Board of Curators of the Museum requested on 5 Mar 1824 that the Hunter manuscripts be transferred to the College as soon as possible. Home responded that Hunter did not consider his manuscripts to be seen by the public due to their imperfect state and that they should instead be destroyed. Home claimed that he had spent the last 30 years using the papers for the benefit of the museum, but due to his own ill health could not continue this, and ended his executorship by destroying them. The Board of Trustees were astonished and correspondence followed between the Trustees, the Board of Curators, and Home. This resulted in Home presenting the Board of Trustees with a sealed parcel containing some of Hunter's descriptions of specimens, in 1824. Home claimed these were all the records of Morbid Anatomy by Hunter. The Board of Curators reported that the records were incomplete and Clift revealed that the records, when he had looked after them between 1793-1799, had been much more numerous. Home did not respond to the questions asked of him about these records, but presented the 'Cases in Surgery' manuscripts to the Board of Trustees in 1825. The reasons behind Home's destruction of the Hunterian Manuscripts has been discussed on numerous occasions, with several theories being proposed. Sir Arthur Keith suggested for example that Home destroyed the manuscripts out of piety due to the heretical content of some the papers. This explanation has been considered limited due to minority of papers that might be considered of a heretical nature. The theory now more generally accepted to explain the destruction of the majority of the Hunterian manuscripts is that Home was using the contents of the manuscripts in his own publications. Evidence used to back up this argument includes comparisons between some of Hunter's works and those of Home, which contain striking similarities; the extent of publications produced by Home between 1793-1823, including an incredible amount of original work for such a short time period; and the fact that Home destroyed the Hunterian manuscripts a few days after receiving the final proofs of his work Lectures on Comparative Anatomy. Following the presentation by Home of the manuscripts of records in morbid anatomy and cases in surgery, Clift began to transcribe them. These transcriptions were completed by 1825, and were added to the transcriptions of other Hunterian Manuscripts undertaken by Clift before the originals were destroyed. Other Hunterian manuscripts have been added to the collections over the years from various sources.


Scope and content/abstract:

Papers of John Hunter, 1699-[1950], comprising manuscripts originally deposited by Sir Everard Home in 1824, late 18th century; further Hunter manuscripts, mid to late 18th century; transcripts of Hunter's lectures and works by unidentified authors, late 18th century to early 19th century; and 'Hunteriana' or material related to John Hunter that has been collected by the College, 1699-mid 20th century.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

As outlined in Scope and Content.

Conditions governing access:

By written appointment only.

Conditions governing reproduction:

No photocopying permitted.

Finding aids:

Library card catalogue.

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

After the death of John Hunter, the majority of his papers were passed to his brother-in-law Sir Everard Home, who was using them to work on a catalogue of the Hunterian specimens donated to the Royal College of Surgeons of England, in 1799. Home donated some of the Hunter manuscripts in 1824-1825 but destroyed many more. Later, the College also acquired manuscripts by John Hunter from various sources, including transcripts of Hunter's works and lectures where the author or transcriber remains unidentified.

Allied Materials

Related material:

Copies and transcripts of Hunter manuscripts by William Clift, MS0007; Hunter-Baillie papers, MS0014; Hunter-Jenner letters, MS0015; Hamilton Letters, MS0190; Hunterian Letters (Grey-Turner Bequest), MS0191; Loudoun Medical Papers, MS0192.

Transcripts of Hunter lectures by John Heaviside, MS0013; Mr Eyles, MS0193; John Whitsed, MS0194; Thomas Keate, MS0195; Joseph Pearce, MS0196; Henry Nathaniel Rumsey, MS0197; Charles Dagge Seager, MS0198; W Waller, MS0199; Charles Wilkinson, MS0200; and Thomas Wilson, MS0201.

Publication by James Finlayson on whether John Hunter was a student at Glasgow, MS0202; and the Hunter Family Album, MS0253.

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Compiled by Anya Turner.
Sources: Allen, Elizabeth; Turk, J L; and Murley, Sir Reginald (eds), The Case Books of John Hunter FRS, London, Royal Society of Medicine Services Limited, 1993

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
Sep 2008

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