Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hunter, William (1718-1783)

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HUNTER, WILLIAM (1718–1783), anatomist, seventh of ten children of John and Agnes Hunter, and elder brother of John Hunter (1728–1793) [q. v.], was born at Long Calderwood, East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, on 23 May 1718. At the age of fourteen he was sent to Glasgow University, where he remained five years. He was intended by his father for the Scottish church, but becoming averse to subscribing the articles, he took the advice of William Cullen (1710-1790) [q.v.], then practising at Hamilton, and decided to enter the medical profession. He was Cullen's resident pupil from 1737 to 1740, and a partnership with Cullen was to have followed his return from study in Edinburgh and London. He afterwards referred to Cullen as 'a man to whom I owe most, and love most of all men in the world.' After spending the winter of 1740-1 at Edinburgh under Monro primus and other professors, he went to London in the summer of 1741. Dr. James Douglas (1675-1742) [q.v.], who was looking out for a suitable dissector to aid him in his projected work on the bones, engaged Hunter for this purpose, and to superintend his son's education. Douglas also assisted Hunter to enter as a pupil at St. George's Hospital under James Wilkie, surgeon, and to obtain instruction from Dr. Frank Nicholls (1699-1778) [q.v.], teacher of anatomy, and from Dr. Desaguliers in experimental philosophy. The death of Douglas in 1742 did not interrupt Hunter's residence with the family, and in 1743 he communicated his first paper to the Royal Society 'On the Structure and Diseases of Articulating Cartilages ' (Phil. Trans. vol. xlii.) In the winter of 1746 he succeeded Samuel Sharpe [q. v.] as lecturer on the operations of surgery to a society of navy surgeons in their room in Covent Garden, and by their invitation extended his plan to include anatomy. His generosity to needy friends, however, left him without means to advertise his second year's course. He afterwards learnt to practise great economy. On 6 Aug. 1747 he was admitted a member of the Surgeons' Corporation. In the spring of 1748 he accompanied his pupil James Douglas through Holland to Paris, visiting Albinus at Leyden, and being much impressed with his admirable injections, which he afterwards emulated. In September his younger brother, John Hunter, arrived in London, learnt to dissect under him, and next year superintended his practical class. This connection lasted till 1759, during which period William Hunter's lectures gained fame for their eloquence and fulness, and for the abundance of practical illustration supplied. His success in obstetric practice led him to abandon surgery. In 1748 he was elected surgeon-accoucheur to the Middlesex, and in to the British Lying-in Hospital. On 24 Oct. 1750 he obtained the degree of M.D. from Glasgow University, and about this time he left Mrs. Douglas's family and settled as a physician in Jermyn Street. In the summer of 1751 he revisited Long Calderwood, which had become his property on the death of his elder brother, James. His mother died on 3 Nov. of the same year. On 30 Sept. 1756 he was admitted a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of London, and soon afterwards was elected a member of the Society of Physicians, the parent of the Medical Society. He now applied to be disfranchised by the Surgeons' Corporation, but in 1758 he paid the surgeons a fine of 20l. for having joined the College of Physicians without their previous consent (Craft of Surgery, p. 284). Hunter had now become the leading obstetrician, and was consulted in 1762 by Queen Charlotte, to whom he was appointed physician extraordinary in 1764. To relieve him in his lectures he had engaged William Hewson (1739-1774) [q.v.] to assist him, and later Hewson became his partner. They separated in 1770, when W. C. Cruikshank [q. v.] succeeded him. In 1767 Hunter was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1768 was appointed the first professor of anatomy to the newly founded Royal Academy. In the same year he became a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. He had already formed a notable anatomical and pathological collection. In 1765 he formed a project for building a museum 'for the improvement of anatomy, surgery, and physic,' and in a memorial to Mr. Grenville, then prime minister, he offered to spend 7,000l. on the building if a plot of ground were granted to him, and to endow a professorship of anatomy in perpetuity. This request was not granted, but Lord Shelburne some time afterwards offered to give a thousand guineas if the project were carried out by public subscription. Hunter preferred to undertake it alone, and bought a plot of land in Great Windmill Street, on which he built a house, with a lecture-theatre, dissecting-room, and a large museum. He removed thither from Jermyn Street in 1770. His anatomical and pathological collections had become enriched by large purchases from the collections of Francis Sandys [q.v.], Hewson, Magnus Falconar, Andrew Blackall, and others. He now added to it coins and medals, minerals, shells, and corals, and a remarkable library of rare and valuable Greek and Latin books. Hunter's duplicates when disposed of in 1777 furnished material for seven days' sale. In 1781 Dr. Fothergill's large collection, under the terms of his will, was added to Hunter's at a cost of 1,200l. In 1783 Hunter calculated that his museum had cost him 20,000l.

Hunter had not been on good terms with his brother when they parted in 1760, and there was little intercourse between them in later years. William seems to have claimed for himself several discoveries made by John, and in 1780 their disputes about discoveries connected with the placenta -and uterus led to a final breach [see under Hunter, John]. In January 1781, after the death of Dr. Fothergill, Hunter was elected president of the Medical Society. He continued to practise, though he suffered greatly from gout in his later years. In 1780 he was elected a foreign associate of the Royal Medical Society of Paris, and in 1782 of the Academy of Sciences of Paris. On 20 March 1783, notwithstanding severe illness for several days and the dissuasions of his friends, he gave his introductory lecture on the operations of surgery, but fainted near the close, and had to be carried to bed. During his subsequent illness he said to his friend Charles Combe (1743-1817) [q.v.]: `If I had strength enough to hold a pen, I would write how easy and pleasant a thing it is to die.' He died on 30 March 1783, aged 64, and was buried at St. James's, Piccadilly, in the rector's vault. He was unmarried.

In a painting by Zoffany of Hunter lecturing at the Royal Academy, Hunter's is the only finished portrait. It was presented by Mr. Bransby Cooper to the Royal College of Physicians in 1829. A portrait of Hunter, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, is in the Hunterian Museum at Glasgow. Of another portrait by Chamberlin there is a good engraving by Collyer belonging to the Royal Academy. Numerous other engravings by different hands are extant.

Hunter by his will left his museum to three trustees, Dr. George Fordyce, Dr. David Pitcairn, and Charles Combe, each with an annuity of 20l. a year for twenty years, giving the use of it during that period to his nephew, Dr. Matthew Baillie [q.v.], together with 8.000l. for its maintenance and augmentation. After the twenty years it was to be given entire to the university of Glasgow. It now forms the Hunterian Museum in the university buildings at Gilmore Hill (see Glasgow University Calendar). He also left an annuity of 100l. to his sister, Mrs. Baillie, and 2,000l. to each of her two daughters. The residue of his estate and effects (including his paternal estate of Long Calderwood) was left to Dr. Baillie, who soon transferred Long Calderwood to John Hunter.

Hunter was slender but well made, and his face was refined and pleasing, with very bright eyes. His mode of life was very frugal. He was an early riser and constant worker, his antiquarian pursuits forming his chief amusement. He had a good memory, quick perception, sound judgment, and great precision. As an anatomical lecturer he was admirably clear in exposition, and very attractive by reason of his stores of apposite anecdotes. In medical practice he was cautious in making advances. His papers in 'Medical Observations and Inquiries' (vols. i-vi.) show sound reasoning, based on normal as well as morbid anatomy, but modern advances in microscopic anatomy and in physiology render much of his work out of date. His papers ' On Aneurysm ' (vols. i. ii. iv.), 'On Diseases of the Cellular Membrane' (ii.), 'On the Symphysis Pubis ' (ii.), 'On Retroverted Uterus ' (iv. v. vi.), and ' On the Uncertainty of the Signs of Murder in the case of Bastard Children ' (vi.) are still worth reading, and each of them has a distinct place in the advance of medicine. The latter paper has been several times reprinted in editions of Samuel Farr's edition of 'Faselius on Medical Jurisprudence.' For a controversy on his paper 'On Aneurysm' see ' Monthly Review/ xvi. 555 (1757), 'Critical Review,' iv. (1757), and 'A Letter to the Author of the Critical Review,’ anon., London, 1757, in Brit. Mus. 274 D 4.

Hunter's papers in the 'Philosophical Transactions' 'On the Articulating Cartilages' (xlii. 514), 'On Bones (now known to be those of Mastodon found near the Ohio, U.S.A.) '(Iviii. 34), and 'On the Nyl-ghau' (lxi. 170), are interesting as early accounts of subjects now much better known. His magnum opus, however, is his work (On the Human Gravid Uterus,' the material for which was collected with unremitting care during twenty-five years. In his preface Hunter acknowledges his indebtedness in most of the dissections to the assistance of his brother John. The plates and the descriptions attain a very high degree of accuracy and lucidity. Hunter had also intended to write a history of concretions in the human body, and collected much material for the work, which, with the intended illustrations, was considerably advanced at his death, but was never published.

As to his anatomical and other discoveries, Hunter was most tenacious of his claims. His 'Medical Commentaries' (parts i. and ii.), with the supplement and second edition, contain most of his contributions to the controversy with the Monros as to injection of the tubuli testis, in which the priority belonged to Haller in 1745; as to the proof of the existence of the ducts in the human lachrymal gland; and as to the origin and use of the lymphatic vessels. The latter were important discoveries, but both Monro and Hunter were anticipated in large part by Pecquet, Rudbeck, and Ruysch. Hunter deserves much credit for good work in demonstrating the course of the lymphatics and their absorbing powers. In reference to the controversy with the Monros, see also ' Observations, Physiological and Anatomical,' by A. Monro secundus, Edinburgh, 1758. Hunter assigned a comparatively low place to William Harvey as a discoverer, alleging that so much had been discovered before that little was left for him to do but 'to dress it up into a system '(Introductory Lectures, p. 47).

As a collector of coins, medals, &c., Hunter showed considerable judgment and great acquisitiveness. He secured from Matthew Duane the valuable series of Syriac medals, Roman gold and Greek royal and civic coins and medals, which had been part of Philip Carteret Webb's collection (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. ii. 280, iii. 498). They included a noble series of Carausius and Allectus (ib. v. 451). He also acquired Thomas Sadler's collection (ib. vi. 110), and part of Thomas Simon's (ib. ix. 97), and duplicates from Flores's collection through Francis Carter (ib. iii. 23). Carter, writing to Nichols (ib. iv. 607), referring to the fate of some coins, says: `In all probability they sunk into the Devonshire or Pembroke cabinets, as all now do into Dr. Hunter's. God grant I may be able to keep mine from their clutches. He had the impudence to tell me, in his own house, last winter, that he was glad to hear of my loss by the capture of the Granades, as it might force me to sell him my Greek coins' (cf. Charles Combe, Nummorum veterum Populorum et Urbium qui in Museo Gul. Hunter asservantur Descriptio Figuris illustrata,' 4to, London, 1783, with a dedication to the queen by Hunter). In natural history, besides Dr. Fothergill's collection, he purchased largely from John Neilson's collection (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. ix. 813). Hunter also bought manuscripts and books from De Missy's library (ib. iii. 314), the Aldine 'Plato' of 1513, on vellum, and other treasures, from Dr. Askew's collection (ib. iii. 404, 496), and the folio ' Terentianus Maurus,' Milan, 1497 (ib. iy. 514). A manuscript was left by Hunter giving full details of his purchases for the museum; a copy is in the department of antiquities in the British Museum.

Besides papers above referred to, Hunter wrote:

  1. 'Medical Commentaries; Part I. Containing a Plain … Answer to Professor Monro, jun., interspersed with Remarks on the Structure, Functions, and Diseases of the Human Body,' 2 pts., London, 1762-4, 4to; second edition, 1777.
  2. 'Anatomia Uteri humani gravidi Tabulis illustrata,' J. Baskerville, Birmingham, 1774, elephant folio, thirty-four plates; new edition by Sydenham Society, 1851.
  3. 'Two Introductory Lectures delivered by W. H. to his last course of Anatomical Lectures. To which are added some Papers relating to Dr.Hunter's intended Plan for establishing a Museum in London for the Improvement of Anatomy,' London, 1784, 4to.
  4. 'An Anatomical Description of the Human Gravid Uterus and its Contents,' edited by M. Baillie, London, 1794, 4to; second edition, by E. Rigby, London, 1843, 8vo.

Several volumes of Hunter's lectures, in manuscript, are in the library of the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society.

[Gent. Mag. 1783, vol. liii. pt. i. p. 364; S. Foart Simmons's Account of the Life and Writings of William Hunter, 1783; Macmichael's Lives of British Physicians; Medical Times and Gazette, 1859, i. 327, 391, 453, 502; Medical Circular, 1860, xvi. 176, 191, 209, 263, 283, 336, 353, 372, by Joshua Burgess, M.D.; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. 1813, multis locis; Critical and Monthly Review, 1757, 1758; Thomson's Life of William Cullen, passim; Brodie's Hunterian Oration, 1837; J.Matthews Duncan in Edinb. Med. Journ. June 1876, xxi. 1061-79.]

G. T. B.