John Hunter: “the father of scientific surgery”: Resources from the collection of the P.I. Nixon Library

Scottish anatomist and surgeon John Hunter is described as “the father of scientific surgery.”

Illustration of jaws and teeth from The natural history of the human teeth: explaining their structure, use, formation, growth, and diseases, by John Hunter, 1778.

The youngest of ten children, Hunter grew up on a farm on the outskirts of Glasgow and received only a basic education.  After spending several years as a cabinetmaker, he joined his brother William, a prominent anatomist and obstetrician, in London.  There, while preparing specimens for William’s anatomy lectures, John had dealings with the notorious ‘resurrection men’ who supplied medical schools with cadavers.  John’s dissection skills were so impressive that he was taken on as William’s assistant, and in 1753, after studying medicine, he became a master anatomist.

During the Seven Years’ War John Hunter served as staff surgeon in the British Army, gathering experiences he would later compile into his famous treatise on gunshot wounds.  Back in London, he returned to surgical practice and to his extensive collection of specimens, one of which was the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the legendary Irish pituitary giant.  Hunter’s reputation grew, and he eventually became a Fellow of the Royal Society and surgeon-extraordinaire to George III.

John Hunter was one of science’s most brilliant innovators.  He published breakthrough studies on venereal disease (inadvertently contracting syphilis in the course of his experiments). He also developed important new surgical techniques – among them, methods for repairing the Achilles tendon and for arterial ligature in cases of aneurysm.

The Natural History of Human Teeth, one of Hunter’s most important works, revolutionized the practice of dentistry and provided medical research with a new, scientific nomenclature for the teeth.  Hunter based his book on detailed observations of the anatomy of the jaw and mouth.  He described the tooth’s construction – bone, pulp and enamel – and examined the processes of tooth development in fetuses and children.  Hunter’s many valuable contributions to the advancement of medicine make him one of the greatest names in science.

The P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library owns all three of the Hunter classics mentioned in this article:

The Natural History of the Human Teeth

Treatise on the Venereal Disease

Treatise on the Blood, Inflammation, and Gun-Shot Wounds

Visitors can stop by the Special Collections Reading Room– Briscoe Room 5.078— to view these medical historical treasures.  Information about reading room hours can be found here.

Pennie Borchers
Special Collections Librarian

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