Jackson, John (English, 1778-1831)

John Hunter

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This work was based on a 1786 portrait of Dr. John Hunter by Sir Joshua Reynolds. In 1748, 20-year-old John Hunter (1728-1793) arrived in London to work as an assistant at his older brother William’s anatomy school. From William, a physician and obstetrician, he learned about human anatomy and became skilled at dissection. He also studied under the famous surgeons William Cheselden and Percivall Pott. From 1760-63, while serving as an army surgeon in Spain and Portugal, he developed new methods of treating gunshot wounds, venereal disease, and other common medical problems. In 1767, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and in 1768 elected Surgeon to St. George’s Hospital. In his lectures, he stressed that surgeons should be aware of how injury, disease, and environmental changes affected the body and how the body adapted to those stresses. He also encouraged students to experiment, and use what they learned for the benefit of patients. It is said that his temper was the cause of his death—during an argument at the hospital. Hunter believed that in order to fully understand the human body, it was necessary to know as much as possible about the rest of the animal kingdom. To that end he collected various specimens, which he kept and dissected at his home in a London suburb. He paid large sums of money for additional animals, and also purchased human cadavers. By 1783, his home and its grounds were no longer large enough for his studies so he moved to Leicester Square, converting the house to a work space and an outbuilding into a print shop for the publication of his books and monographs. He also built a 52 x 28 foot museum that grew to almost 14,000 presentations of more than 500 species of plant and animal. Once his reputation grew, he sometimes received gifts of rarer species, such as kangaroos brought back on one of James Cook’s voyages. The famous painter Sir Joshua Reynolds lived across from Hunter in Leicester Square, and asked to paint his portrait. Hunter refused a number of times before finally accepting Reynolds’ invitation, and then was unable to sit still. Finally, after several failed sessions, Hunter became lost in thought and Reynolds was able to quickly capture his likeness. Reynolds surrounded him with reminders of his work: he has paused to think in the middle of writing something, quill still in hand, referring to his role as what would later be termed “the Founder of Scientific Surgery;” the open book, with drawings of different skulls and bones, reflects his studies of comparative anatomy; the specimens in jars refer to his extensive collection and the museum that housed it. The feet in the portrait belonged to an Irishman named Charles Byrne, who was around eight feet tall. In London, he made quite a bit of money as a curiosity, but was unable to deal with fame and became an alcoholic. At age 22, on his deathbed, in an effort to save his corpse from being dissected for science Byrne made arrangements to be buried at sea in a coffin lined with lead. Hunter bribed one of Byrne’s friends and took possession of the body, which he reduced to bone, studied, and put on display at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Should it remain there? Follow this link to read about the debate: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/8973135/Why-the-Irish-giants-skeleton-remains-a-bone-of-contention.html Notes by Mariann Smith
History of Medicine
National Portrait Gallery, London