The Natural History of Human Teeth -John Hunter

John Hunter. Painted by John Jackson in 1813

John Hunter. Painted by John Jackson in 1813

Would you believe it if someone told you that there once lived a man that was involved in the dissection of over 2,000 bodies; established circulation of the placenta; traced the nerves of smell; explained causes of congenital hernias; demonstrated circulation of the lymphatic system; wrote numerous papers on treating gunshot wounds, descent of the testis, and physical digestion; described the role of inflammation in the healing process; set up the foundations for bypass surgeries; and revolutionized dentistry? As hard as it is to believe, a man like this did exist, and his name was John Hunter, a distinguished scientist and a surgeon of his day.

Early Years

John Hunter was born to his father John Hunter, in Scotland on February 13, 1728 (he observed his birthday on the 14th and died on October 16, 1793), the last of 10 children. Of his childhood John Hunter is quoted as stating, “I watched the ants, bees, birds, tadpoles and caddisworms; I pestered people with questions about what nobody knew or cared anything about.” This quote shows the curiosity that led him to become such a prolific contributor to scientific knowledge in the different branches of medicine.”

Medical Training

John Hunter had a famous brother, William Hunter FRS (May 23, 1718 – March 30, 1783), who was a Scottish anatomist and physician. He was also considered a leading teacher of anatomy and the outstanding obstetrician of his day. William Hunter played a big role in the development and eventualsuccesses of his younger brother John by putting him in charge of the dissecting room of his anatomy school after John moved to London in 1748. John worked at his brother’s anatomy school for 11 years. During this time he learned from leading surgeons of that time, such as William Cheselden and Percivall Pott, while being involved in vital research and spending most of his time studying anatomy, including comparative anatomy.

Surgical Practice

In 1760 John enlisted in the army as a surgeon after sibling tension and professional rivalry made it hard to work with his brother William. He returned to England in 1763 and set up a surgical practice and worked as a dentist, popularizing tooth transplants by taking healthy teeth from poor people and transplanting them into the mouths of rich paying patients. During this time, John Hunter realized that what was needed in the practice of surgery, and what he needed to pursue, was a total understanding of life, an understanding of both normal physiology and of the processes of disease, both in humans and in the entire animal kingdom.

Most Notable Works

This led him to delve into some of his most notable works including:

  •  Observing in his notes, his own injury of ruptured Achilles tendon.
  •  Undertaking experiments in dogs to learn about healing and repair by cutting their tendons and observing the healing process. This led him to     conclude that scaring was part of the healing process.
  •  Inoculating himself with gonorrhea pus and ending up contracting both gonorrhea and syphilis. During this time he made close observations of these diseases, learning that inflammation was necessary for the cure of a patient but that this process also did harm and thus contributed to the symptoms of the disease.
  • Demonstrating collateral circulation through an experiment in which he tied one of the carotids arteries in a stag, which caused the antler on that side to become cold and to stop growing. However, within a few weeks the warmth had returned and the antler started growing. The animal was later dissected and the collateral vessels were found. The observations for this experiment were later used to create an operation to bypass vascular aneurysms.
  •  Performing the first artificial insemination by inseminating via a warm syringe the wife of a man suffering from hypospadias.

John Hunter left a legacy of challenging his pupils to try and test medical procedures, introducing into practice only those that were proven. He also encouraged them to continually seek improvements in their methods.

The Natural History of Human Teeth

Another legacy he left was his book The Natural History of the Human Teeth, published in 1778. In the book John Hunter details how teeth develop from birth, addresses structure and composition of teeth, proposes a form of transplantation and a device for treating malocclusions, and becomes the first to scientifically introduce classifications such as cupsids, bicupsids, molars and incisors. The P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library owns a copy of this book.

For more information on the Nixon Library and John Hunter’s book, contact Lisa Matye Finnie, Special Collections Librarian, at finnie@uthscsa.edu or 210-567-2406.

Sources:
1. Lakhani, S. “Early clinical pathologists 4: John Hunter (1728-1793).” Journal of Clinical Pathology. 44.8 (1991): 621-623. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC496749/>.
2. “William Hunter (anatomist).” Wikipedia. N.p., n. d. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Hunter_(anatomist)
3. “John Hunter 1728-1793.” Annals of The Royal College of Surgeons of England. 60.1 (1978): 4-5. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2491564/>.
4. Moore, Wendy. “Moore W (2009). John Hunter (1728-93).” JLL Bulletin: Commentaries on the history of treatment evaluation. The James Lind Library, n. d. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. <http://www.jameslindlibrary.org/illustrating/articles/john-hunter-1728-93>.
5. “Hunter, John (1728-1793).” UAB Reynolds-Finley Historical Library, n. d. Web. 27 Feb. 2015. <http://www.uab.edu/reynolds/histfigs/hunter

Images:
Jackson, John. John Hunter. 1813. Photograph. WikipediaWeb. 27 Feb 2015. <http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a3/John_Hunter_by_John_Jackson.jpg>. In public domain.

–Manasseh Ngigi, Nursing school student

Image of the an illustration within John Hunter's The Natural History of the Human Teeth. P. I. Nixon Medical Historical Library.

Image of the an illustration within John Hunter’s The Natural History of the Human Teeth. P. I. Nixon Medical Historical Library.

Image of the title page of John Hunter's The Natural History of the Human Teeth. P. I. Nixon Medical Historical Library.

Image of the title page of John Hunter’s The Natural History of the Human Teeth. P. I. Nixon Medical Historical Library.