#26 – John Hunter

Imagine the year is 1780 and you’re ill. Perhaps you’ve got a problem with your appendix, or a large cyst on the back of your knee from sitting on a coach for years. The outlook isn’t good. They’re either going to bleed you close to death or they’re going to chop of your leg.

Medicine, and especially surgery, had hardly moved on since the times of ancient Greeks. Barbers still offered surgery, but only things linked around the 4 humours or amputation.

However this all began to change in the 18th Century, and one of the men at the heart of it was John Hunter. A man who was pretty damned incredible when you look at it.

Hunter had grown up on a farm in Scotland and had spent a lot of his youth running away from education to look at bugs and small animals. He was fascinated with how things work. His brother, William, had moved to London in order to climb the social ranks and become a doctor. John moved to London and became Robert’s assistant.

I don’t want to go too long into John’s early medical days – they were fascinating, gory and involved starting a trend in grave robbing that would become an epic issue sweeping the country.

What I want to talk about is his fascination with innards. Lovely.

Because Hunter hadn’t studied any of the common views in medicine (indeed, he could barely read or write) he liked to learn by doing and he wanted to know how every animal worked.

He lived in a house in Earl’s Court with hundreds of animals. Pigs and zebras and jaguars and llamas wandered around his stately grounds. People would stop and stare at this weird little zoo. Especially the mysterious cameleopard – an animal no one in the UK had ever really seen before.

One day a jaguar escaped his garden and terrorised the sleepy village of Earl’s Court – Hunter was overjoyed when the townsfolk brought him back the dead animal. He dissected it, removed it’s vital organs for his museum and boiled the carcass down to preserve the skeleton.

In fact – Hunter’s incredible love of animals coupled with his shady dealings with corpses meant he became the inspiration behind some massively famous works of fiction:

And whilst he was gaining a reputation as being a renegade surgeon, refusing to follow the opinions of others, he was becoming more and more respected by the normal people. Indeed many people used to seek him out personally, despite the lack of recognition from the Company of Surgeons. He tried to cure Casanova’s syphilis (by pouring mercury down his urethra!), he was there for the birth of Byron, he tried to cure the madness of King George.

But his greatest achievement was his museum.

Hunter’s museum was not open to the public. In fact it was only open at all 2 days a year when he would let respected nobles and surgeons in to gaze at his collection of wonders. The bodies of countless animals. Body systems and organs all beautifully dissected and preserved.

Yet… this museum could have got him hanged, for the layout was not in animal order – but in a way that was far more heretical.

Lets look at skulls.

Hunter laid out all of his skulls by order of appearance. So his bird skulls were together, leading through to lizards etc. The shocker was that at the far end of his display, monkey skulls merged into ape skulls merged into human skulls.

He therefore theorised that maybe…. just maybe… Adam and Eve had been something more ape like, from which humans and monkeys had descended. This was a theory that he never wrote down (he wasn’t stupid) – but these early ponderings on evolution are evident in a lot of his studies, especially his studies on hermaphrodite cows

These are probably views he told his pupils (his controversial views meant he had a great many pupils).

One of his pupils was an Erasmus Darwin. Grandfather to a certain Charles:

Sadly, Hunter died of Angina in 1793, but it was his own bloody fault. In order to study whether syphilis and gonorrhoea were the same disease, he infected himself with the disease to view the symptoms…

He thought it went away…. of course it didn’t. It just festered in his body making him weaker and weaker until he died.

If you want to learn more about Hunter (I haven’t even talked about the way he stalked and terrorised fairground freaks so as to add their corpses to his collection) and be a little bit grossed out – visit the Royal College of Surgeons in Holborn and check out his museum. A lot of it was destroyed by his peers after his death, or hit by a bomb in ww2. Although less than a third of it remains, it is still epic and fascinating.

If you’re after something a little more pleasant and a little more alcoholic. Why not go to the Moon Under the Water in Leicester Square – he used to live there and it was custom built by Hunter to be the original home of his museum (in fact, there is a statue of him in the central square – but you can’t see it because of all the bloody 2012 roadworks).

So there you have it. John Hunter. The man who moved surgery away from ancient history and who realised that understanding how the body works was a key step to fixing him.

We’d all be dying a lot more without him.

This is a guest post by CJAmazing. Follow his adventures through Empire’s Top 500 movies here.

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