1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hunter, William
HUNTER, WILLIAM (1718–1783), British physiologist and physician, the first great teacher of anatomy in England, was born on the 23rd of May 1718, at East Kilbride, Lanark. He was the seventh child of his parents, and an elder brother of the still more famous John Hunter (q.v.). When fourteen years of age, he was sent to the university of Glasgow, where he studied for five years. He had originally been intended for the church, but, scruples concerning subscription arising in his mind, he followed the advice of his friend William Cullen, and resolved to devote himself to physic. During 1737–1740 he resided with Cullen at Hamilton, and then, to increase his medical knowledge before settling in partnership with his friend, he spent the winter of 1740–1741 at Edinburgh. Thence he went to London, where Dr James Douglas (1675–1742), an anatomist and obstetrician of some note, to whom he had been recommended, engaged his services as a tutor to his son and as a dissector, and assisted him to enter as a surgeon’s pupil at St George’s Hospital and to procure the instruction of the anatomist Frank Nicholls (1699–1778). When Dr Douglas died Hunter still continued to live with his family. In 1746 he undertook, in place of Samuel Sharp, the delivery, for a society of naval practitioners, of a series of lectures on operative surgery, so satisfactorily that he was requested to include anatomy in his course. It was not long before he attained considerable fame as a lecturer; for not only was his oratorical ability great, but he differed from his contemporaries in the fullness and thoroughness of his teaching, and in the care which he took to provide the best possible practical illustrations of his discourses. We read that the syllabus of Edward Nourse (1701–1761), published in 1748, totam rem anatomicam complectens, comprised only twenty-three lectures, exclusive of a short and defective “Syllabus Chirurgicus,” and that at “one of the most reputable courses of anatomy in Europe,” which Hunter had himself attended, the professor was obliged to demonstrate all the parts of the body, except the nerves and vessels (shown in a foetus) and the bones, on a single dead subject, and for the explanation of the operations of surgery used a dog! In 1747 Hunter became a member of the Corporation of Surgeons. In the course of a tour through Holland to Paris with his pupil, J. Douglas, in 1728, he visited Albinus at Leiden, and inspected with admiration his injected preparations. By degrees Hunter renounced surgical for obstetric practice, in which he excelled. He was appointed a surgeon-accoucheur at the Middlesex Hospital in 1748, and at the British Lying-in Hospital in the year following. The degree of M.D. was conferred upon him by the university of Glasgow on the 24th of October 1750. About the same time he left his old abode at Mrs Douglas’s, and settled as a physician in Jermyn Street. He became a licentiate of the College of Physicians on the 30th of September 1756. In 1762 he was consulted by Queen Charlotte, and in 1764 was made physician-extraordinary to her Majesty.
On the departure of his brother John for the army, Hunter engaged as an assistant William Hewson (1739–1774), whom he subsequently admitted to partnership in his lectures. Hewson was succeeded in 1770 by W. C. Cruikshank (1745–1800). Hunter was elected F.R.S. in 1767; F.S.A. in 1768, and third professor of anatomy to the Royal Academy of Arts; and in 1780 and 1782 respectively an associate of the Royal Medical Society and of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Paris. During the closing ten years of his life his health failed greatly. His last lecture, at the conclusion of which he fainted, was given, contrary to the remonstrances of friends, only a few days before his death, which took place in London on the 30th of March 1783. He was buried in the rector’s vault at St James’s, Piccadilly.
Hunter had in 1765 requested of the prime minister, George Grenville, the grant of a plot of ground on which he might establish “a museum in London for the improvement of anatomy, surgery, and physics” (see “Papers” at end of his Two Introductory Lectures, 1784), and had offered to expend on its erection £7000, and to endow in perpetuity a professorship of anatomy in connexion with it. His application receiving no recognition, he after many months abandoned his scheme, and built himself a house, with lecture and dissecting-rooms, in Great Windmill Street, whither he removed in 1770. In one fine apartment in this house was accommodated his collection, comprising anatomical and pathological preparations, ancient coins and medals, minerals, shells and corals. His natural history specimens were in part a purchase, for £1200, of the executors of his friend, Dr John Fothergill (1712–1780). Hunter’s whole collection, together with his fine library of Greek and Latin classics, and an endowment of £8000, by his will became, after the lapse of twenty years, the property of the university of Glasgow.
Hunter was never married, and was a man of frugal habits. Like his brother John, he was an early riser, and a man of untiring industry. He is described as being in his lectures, which were of two hours’ duration, “both simple and profound, minute in demonstration, and yet the reverse of dry and tedious”; and his mode of introducing anecdotal illustrations of his topic was most happy. Lecturing was to him a pleasure, and, notwithstanding his many professional distractions, he regularly continued it, because, as he said, he “conceived that a man may do infinitely more good to the public by teaching his art than by practising it” (see “Memorial” appended to Introd. Lect. p. 120).
Hunter was the author of several contributions to the Medical Observations and Enquiries and the Philosophical Transactions. In his paper on the structure of cartilages and joints, published in the latter in 1743, he anticipated what M. F. X. Bichat sixty years afterwards wrote concerning the structure and arrangement of the synovial membranes. His Medical Commentaries (pt. i., 1762, supplemented 1764) contains, among other like matter, details of his disputes with the Monros as to who first had successfully performed the injection of the tubuli testis (in which, however, both he and they had been forestalled by A. von Haller in 1745), and as to who had discovered the true office of the lymphatics, and also a discussion on the question whether he or Percivall Pott ought to be considered the earliest to have elucidated the nature of hernia congenita, which, as a matter of fact, had been previously explained by Haller. In the Commentaries is exhibited Hunter’s one weakness—an inordinate love of controversy. His impatience of contradiction he averred to be a characteristic of anatomists, in whom he once jocularly condoned it, on the plea that “the passive submission of dead bodies” rendered the crossing of their will the less bearable. His great work, The Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus, exhibited in Figures, fol., was published in 1774. His posthumous works are Two Introductory Lectures (1784), and Anatomical Description of the Human Gravid Uterus (1794), which was re-edited by Dr E. Rigby in 1843.
See Gent. Mag. liii. pt. 1, p. 364 (1783); S. F. Simmons, An Account of the Life of W. Hunter (1783); Adams’s and Ottley’s Lives of J. Hunter; Sir B. C. Brodie, Hunterian Oration (1837); W. Munk, The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London, ii. 205 (1878). (F. H. B.)