John Hunter, often referred to as the Founder of Scientific Surgery, was one of the most distinguished surgeons of his day, and was an early advocate of the processes of disease and repair on which the practice of surgery is based.

John Hunter

As a boy, Hunter showed little taste for learning and books, preferring instead to walk through the countryside and observe nature.

In 1748, at the age of 20, Hunter assisted his elder brother William who was already an established physician in London. He was set to work on a number of dissections and excelled.

John Hunter at St George's

In 1754, Hunter entered as a surgeon’s pupil at St George’s Hospital for his training and in 1756, he was house-surgeon at the hospital for a number of months.

While serving with the British Army in Portugal in 1762, Hunter gained extensive knowledge of gunshot wounds and inflammation while also pursuing his study of human anatomy.

On his return to England in 1763, Hunter began to build up his private practice, taking up resident pupils.

In 1768 he was elected surgeon to St George’s Hospital and in the same year, Hunter took house-pupils. Among them was Edward Jenner, who registered as a pupil in 1770 and later pioneered the smallpox vaccine.

The ‘Irish Giant’ and Hunter’s death

In January 1776, Hunter was appointed surgeon extraordinary to King George III and in 1783, Hunter acquired the most extensive specimen in his museum, the skeleton of Charles Byrne, otherwise known as the ‘Irish Giant.’ Byrne, who was seven feet and seven inches in height.

Charles Byrne had tried to prevent Hunter obtaining his body by being asked to be buried at sea. Hunter bribed the undertaker, and the body was stolen on its way to the sea.

The body was promptly skeletonised and Hunter subsequently published a scientific description of it. The skeleton, as well as much of Hunter’s surviving collection, can today be found in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

Hunter died in 1793, aged 65, reportedly falling dead in the arms of Dr Robertson, physician at St George’s. The autopsy revealed Hunter’s heart was diseased.

What was Hunter like?

Hunter is said to have woken up at five or six in the morning, saw his patients until midday and then visited his hospital and outdoor patients until 4pm. He then ate and slept for an hour before reading or preparing his lectures, working late in to the night.

In manners, Hunter is said to have been rude, impatient, blunt-speaking and easily provoked, but as a thinker, naturalist and experimenter, Hunter was at the forefront of British surgeons.

Last Updated: Friday, 18 May 2018 11:19