Who's Who

John Hunter and the Anatomy of the Museum

Simon Chaplin describes the extraordinary personal museum of the 18th-century anatomist and gentleman-dissector John Hunter, and suggests that this, and others like it, played a critical role in establishing an acceptable view of dissection.

John Hunter painted by his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1786In February 2005, the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England re-opens to the public after a two-year closure for refurbishment. At the heart of the museum lies an extraordinary collection of over 3,500 anatomical and pathological preparations, specimens of natural history, fossils, paintings and drawings assembled by the Scottish-born surgeon and anatomist John Hunter (1728-93).

Collecting appears to have been something of a family trait. John's elder brother, the anatomist and man-midwife William Hunter (1718-83) bequeathed his museum to his alma mater, the University of Glasgow. In contrast with its sibling institution, London's Hunterian Museum has hitherto been largely the preserve of a medical audience. Purchased by the government in 1799 and placed in the care of the College, it has been regarded as a resource celebrating the tradition of 'scientific surgery' that John Hunter is credited with founding. Yet the collection also has a role to play in uncovering the historical context of anatomical study, As the centrepiece of the r house-cum-anatomy school which he occupied with his wife, the poet Anne Home Hunter (1742-1821), and their children in London's Leicester Square from 1783 until his death in 1793, John Hunter's museum played a vital role in mediating the social and moral tensions that surrounded the practice of anatomical dissection in Georgian London.

Hunter achieved a measure of success in his career that was unsurpassed by his contemporaries. Despite an unpromising start - he was the youngest of ten siblings, fatherless from the age of thirteen and a notoriously poor student - he had risen to the head of his profession. He began his career as a dissecting room assistant in the anatomy school of his brother William, who in 1746 was one of the first to exploit the relaxation on the rules governing anatomical dissection that followed the split of London's Barber-Surgeons' Company the previous year.

Having mastered the arts of dissection and the making of anatomical preparations with William, John went on to train as a surgeon. After serving with the army in France and Portugal he established himself in private practice in London in the mid-1760s. By the end of the decade he had consolidated his reputation, gaining election as a Fellow of the Royal Society and as a staff surgeon to St George's Hospital. In 1775 he advertised a course of lectures in the 'Principles and Practice of Surgery' that was repeated each year until his death, with lessons in 'practical anatomy' added from 1785 onwards. By the time of his death he was Surgeon-Extraordinary to George III and Surgeon-General of the Army and was widely recognised as London's leading teacher of surgery and anatomy.

Hunter's publications included medical tracts on the treatment of venereal disease, gunshot wounds and the disorders of the human teeth, together with contributions on topics as diverse as the natural history of whales, the 'internal heat' of plants and animals and the crossbreeding of wolves and dogs. Yet his renown rested less on his ability with the pen than with his unparalleled skill in dissection, which found application in a host of disciplines that helped elevate the status of anatomical study. As one contemporary biographer noted:

If a body were to be embalmed, John Hunter was sent for; if a virtuoso solicited a dissection or preparation, to him he applied; if anything strange in nature occurred, the explanation of it came from him.

Hunter performed post-mortems for the eminent physician John Pringle (1707-82), who while recognising the value of autopsy confessed he had the weakness 'not to be able to see the dissection of a friend' and instead turned to that 'curious and most experienced anatomist, John Hunter' who, he said, had 'an excellent hand for the business'.

Hunter also conducted examinations of rare animals, including many brought back by Joseph Banks (1743-1820) from his own voyages to the Pacific, and applied his expertise to the study of objects such as fossils and mummies on behalf of antiquarian collectors. When the royal family sought a selection of anatomical preparations to add to the collection of natural philosophical apparatus at the Royal Observatory in Richmond Park it was John Hunter who obliged; when they sought an embalmer for Princess Amelia in 1786, he again stepped forward.

The results of Hunter's labours were made manifest in dramatic fashion in his museum, which from its completion in 1785 provided a public demonstration of his varied interests. Although time has taken its toll on the collection, it has lost none of its ability to surprise and impress. In towering cases the organs of pangolins and foetal kangaroos jostle with fractured bones and syphilis-ravaged skulls. The beak of a giant squid hooked from the Pacific Ocean by James Cook's crew stands neatly alongside the madder-stained bones of pigs from experiments carried out at Hunter's own country estate at Earl's Court. Paintings by George Stubbs (1724-1806) show some of the exotic animals studied by Hunter - a rhinoceros, exhibited at Clark's Menagerie near Exeter 'Change in 1790, and a grumpy ape paired with an albino baboon known as 'The Child of the Sun', whose scrofulous glands are also preserved in the collection. Other paintings include portraits of Mai, or Omai, the Tahitian 'Noble Savage' brought back to London following James Cook's second voyage to the Pacific and Caubvick, one of a party of Innu who travelled to London with the trader George Cartwright (1739-1819) in 1772.

The latter were early visitors to Hunter's collection, then still housed in cramped apartments in Jermyn Street. Cartwright subsequently recalled how, after dining, one of the men of the party found his way into a room 'in which stood a glass case containing many human bones' and with 'horror and consternation' asked whether they were the remains of those who Hunter had 'killed and eaten'. Placating the guests, Cartwright asserted that they were:

... the bones of our own people, who had been executed for certain crimes committed by them, and were preserved there, that Mr Hunter might better know how to set those of the living, in case any of them should chance to be broken; which often happened in so populous a country.

Cartwright's disingenuous response belied the true source of many of these bones. Although, under the terms of the Act of 1752 'for Better Preventing the Horrid Crime of Murder', judges were able to add dissection by surgeons to the sentences of condemned felons, the demand for bodies far exceeded the supply of cadavers from the gallows. Between 1745 and 1800 over forty individuals advertised lectures in anatomy in London, while many more taught subjects ranging from surgery to midwifery that also involved some element of anatomical dissection. In the face of such stiff competition, anatomists sought to secure the corpses of hospital patients - sometimes with the assent of Hospital Governors, but more often through surreptitious payments to hospital porters - and, failing this, turned to London's 'Resurrection Men' or grave-robbers to meet their requirements.

Despite operating on what was, at best, the periphery of the law, the complicity of anatomists in this gruesome trade appears not to have attracted the outrage that might be imagined. It certainly drew widespread popular opposition from the poor, whose bodies were, after all, those most likely to end up in the anatomists' clutches. Mob violence against the surgeons who attended at executions to claim their allotted bodies was commonplace, while similar feelings were sometimes excited by grave-robbing. In 1784 the surgeon Henry Watson (1702-93) had his anatomy school on Tottenham Court Road burned out by a mob protesting at his involvement in the resurrection business. It is therefore not surprising that John's brother William Hunter enjoined the students attending his lectures that

... in a country where liberty disposes the people to licentiousness and outrage, and where anatomists are not legally supplied with dead bodies, particular care should be taken to avoid giving offence to the popular or to the prejudices of our neighbours.

Nor was popular violence the only threat to anatomical study. Anatomists were occasionally subject to legal sanction: the surgeon Thomas Young, for example, was charged in 1785 for receiving bodies for dissection at his school in Fenchurch Street and Andrew Marshall's anatomical theatre in Thavies Inn was raided in the same year.

Nevertheless, given the scale of the trade and the number of anatomists involved, such events were comparatively rare. Among those able to influence the policing of such matters there appears to have been a widespread tolerance of dissection, with the concomitant trade in cadavers regarded as a necessary evil. Out of more than 2,000 public debates organised by London's flourishing debating societies between 1776 and 1799 only six dealt with bodysnatching, and of these most were resolved in favour of its necessity. Wealthy private patients increasingly valued the expertise in diagnosis acquired through anatomical study, while family and friends were often minded to grant practitioners the right to perform postmortem dissections. The philosopher David Hume (1711-76) lauded John Hunter's ability to identify the cause of his fatal malaise:

John Hunter... felt very sensibly, as he said, a Tumor or Swelling in my Liver; and this Fact, not drawn by Reasoning, but obvious to the Senses, and perceived by the greatest Anatomist in Europe, must be admitted as unquestionable, and will alone account for my Situation.

While Hume's beliefs might have made him more inclined to favour the primacy of such direct investigation, there does not appear to have been a deep-seated eschatological opposition to dissection even among members of the clergy. The Hunterian Museum still contains portions of (in order of ecclesiastical merit) the Archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Cornwallis (d.1783); the Bishop of Durham, Thomas Thurlow (1737-1791); and the Vicar of St Martins-in-the-Fields, John Vivian (d.1771), whose remains were displayed among Hunter's collection of 'morbid anatomy'.

As the historian Susan Lawrence has shown, evidence from rate books, insurance valuations and court directories suggests that anatomy was taught at respectable addresses. William Hunter's tenancy agreements for his first anatomy school in Covent Garden reveal a pragmatic approach to the potential problems of domestic dissection, with clauses allowing for termination by mutual agreement if Hunter disturbed his neighbour, or if his teaching was in turn disturbed. Steven Shapin, discussing the rise of experimental natural philosophy in the early modern period, has suggested that its acceptability as a proper practice for gentlemen depended in part on it not being regarded as a solitary or secretive pursuit. In other words, to maintain a sense of propriety, dissection had to be seen to be managed correctly by both neighbours and peers.

It was this need for cautious exposure that makes the organisation of Hunter's house and the role of his museum within it more than a matter of passing curiosity. The safe management of dissection relied heavily on discretion and on its separation from the public life of the household. Yet at the same time, the successful pursuit of anatomical study relied on its virtues being made visible to a wider audience. Whether by luck or intention, the central location of the museum provided the perfect solution to this problem.

Nothing survives of Hunter's house: the last of the original buildings was demolished in the 1890s. However the layout was recorded by Hunter's assistant, William Clift (1775-1849), and this has been used as the basis for a reconstruction of the house prepared by the designer John Ronayne for the new display. His drawing reveals the extent of the physical separation between the dis section rooms, in the attic of 13 Castle Street, and the piano nobile, the main social space of the house, on the first floor of 28 Leicester Square. The latter provided the venue for Anne Hunter's weekly salons, which the scholar and divine William Beloe (1756-1817) later recollected 'were for the most part conversation parties, though music was occasionally introduced', attended by

... elegant individuals of both sexes, whose acquaintance was generally cultivated for their abilities, their knowledge or their taste [including] Horace Walpole, Chief Baron MacDonald, and his very accomplished wife, Lady Louisa, Mrs Montagu, Mrs Carter, Lady Herries, Joanna Baillie [and] Sir Charles Blagden.

One of Hunter's students, the American Thomas Shippen, emphasised Anne Hunter's role in the social life of the household in his letters home:

I am sure I do no injustice to Mr Hunter in giving Mrs Hunter the sole credit of the elegant arrangement of everything that I saw at the house and I might also say that I had seen nothing so elegant as the entertainment of this day since I have been here.

Shippen's view offered a sharp contrast to the more usual experience of his fellow students in their lodgings in Castle Street. Writing to his sister in 1793, James Williams recorded that:

My room has two beds in it and in point of situation is not the most pleasant in the world. The Dissecting Room with half a dozen dead bodies in it is immediately above and that in which Mr Hunter makes preparations is the next adjoining to it, so that you may conceive it to be a little perfumed.

He went on:

There is a dead carcase just at this moment rumbling up the stairs and the Resurrection Men swearing most terribly. I am informed this will be the case most mornings about four o'clock throughout the winter. There is something horrible in it at first but I am now become reconciled.

Williams's stoical note also reveals the role that temporal routine played in separating dissection from the social life of the house. Bodies were brought in under cover of darkness, while the dealings with graverobbers formed an extension of the largely invisible work of the servants upon whose discreet labour the smooth running of any large Georgian household depended. Carelessness on their part could have dire consequences. In the winter of 1792 John Hunter enjoyed a narrow escape when a new carter failed to hide the hampers of body parts in a cart bound from Castle Street to be buried at his country estate at Earl's Court. William Clift later recounted how local youths, 'being aware that Apples and other fruit were usually brought from Earl's Court, soon mounted the sides of the Cart' where they found 'the Putrid half dissected arms of a Man'. A 'hallo-balloo' ensued, in which the resident students were called from the dissecting rooms to come to the defence of the house.

The drawing room and dissecting rooms can thus be seen as representing the poles of an 'axis of propriety', along which physical, temporal and social strategies combined to isolate the private business of dissection from the public life of Hunter and his family. Situated halfway between these extremes, the museum formed a transitional space in which the noisome labours of the dissecting room were rendered presentable to the polite audience of the salon.

Since before his time in Jermyn Street, Hunter's collection had formed a valuable resource for his resident pupils, who had access throughout the year, and for those attending his lectures, who enjoyed similar rights for the duration of each course. Following his move to Leicester Square, however, Hunter widened access to the museum. As well as opening it each autumn to tempt in prospective students he also threw open the doors for one month each year for:

... the inspection of a considerable number of the literati ... [including] members of the Royal and Antiquarian Societies, the College of Physicians and many foreigners of distinction.

Here a non-medical audience could encounter the products of dissection, rendered presentable as mounted skeletons and bones, as dried and varnished tissues or 'wet' preparations preserved in spirits of wine. Around the walls of the lecture theatre Hunter's specimens of morbid anatomy served to underline the association between anatomy and medical education, while the famous names inscribed on the lids of jars or engraved on metal tags fixed with wire springs round their necks implied a sanction on the part of enlightened patients towards postmortem dissection. Upstairs, the juxtaposition of human remains with Hunter's extensive collections of fossils and shells, the preserved skeletons and stuffed skins of animals, paintings of exotic people and a bewildering variety of other curiosities reinforced the connections between anatomy and the more broadly understood and accepted fields of natural history and natural philosophy. According to one newspaper report from 1788, the experience of visitors to the museum was heavily influenced by Hunter's own narrative, delivered as a 'peripatetic lecture' which demonstrated his 'genius and ardent zeal in his profession', while the collection itself revealed 'the wisdom of Providence in its works'.

Just as the exhibition of anatomical preparations served to link the dissecting room with the museum, so the display of other kinds of objects connected the museum to the social spaces of the Leicester Square house. Entering the museum building, visitors found themselves in a room that, while devoted to meetings of John Hunter's medical society rather than to Anne Hunter's salon, was opulently decorated with tapestries and paintings. Elsewhere, curiosities and paintings were scattered throughout the house. While George Stubbs's natural history paintings of exotic animals were hung in the museum, other examples of his work lined the passage that led from the front door of 28 Leicester Square to the museum yard. Even the Hunters' dining room chairs were made from wood brought back from Australia by Captain Cook, while in pride of place in the drawing room hung a portrait of John Hunter by his neighbour and friend Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), in which the surgeon was depicted lost in philosophical reverie, surrounded by the evidence for his work in the form of notes and specimens.

Although John Hunter's house presented an elegant solution to the practical difficulties of private anatomy teaching in Georgian London, it was neither unique nor original. The basic scheme - house at the front, museum and lecture theatre in the middle, dissecting rooms behind had already been proven successful by William Hunter, who had first presented his 'ideal plan' in his proposal for a national anatomical academy in 1763. Although this failed to reach fruition, William instead used the plans as the basis for his school in Great Windmill Street which opened in 1768. It seems certain that John was following his brother's lead when he came to the design of his own school, and may even have used the same architect, their brother-in-law Robert Mylne (1733-1811). In addition, at least two other anatomists of the period are known to have adopted a similar scheme: the surgeons Joshua Brookes (1760-1833), whose anatomy school and museum on Great Marlborough Street also incorporated a vivarium, and John Heaviside (1748-1828), whose museum, built between George Street and New Bond Street, is documented in a drawing preserved in the archives of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

While many of these schools, including John Hunter's, found other uses after the death or retirement of their proprietors, some demonstrated a remarkable longevity. The Great Windmill Street School, for example, remained in use well into the 1830s. It was only the Anatomy Act of 1832, which outlawed grave-robbing and restricted the legal supply of corpses to teaching hospitals and universities, that finally signalled the decline of private anatomy teaching in London. They were, however, to enjoy a brief literary revival in the late nineteenth century as the setting for Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, first published in 1886.

The fictional house of Dr Jekyll, 'bought from the heirs of a celebrated surgeon', plays a crucial role in Stevenson's narrative. With its respectable façade overlooking a square of 'ancient, handsome houses' and, separated from the main house by a lecture theatre and the doctor's 'cabinet', the anonymous and sinister rear entrance though which the brutal Hyde disappears, presages the dark connection between Jekyll and his alter-ego.

Whether or not Stevenson had the Hunters or any of their contemporaries in mind, he was certainly conscious of the moral ambiguity inherent in the practice of dissection prior to the Act of 1832. Jekyll's torment was foreshadowed by that of the former surgeon Fettes in Stevenson's earlier 'crawler' The Bodysnatcher, who was wracked by the persistent guilt of a career founded on the dis section of stolen bodies. Whether by luck or intention, the architectural device seized upon by Stevenson for his 'Strange case' represented a model structure designed to cope with a social "and moral pressure analogous to that endured by Stevenson's Victorian physician.

Yet in contrast to the unlucky Jekyll, his real-life Georgian counterparts were not crippled by dark secrets, for in their museums they found the perfect outlet through which to balance their antithetical roles as both gentlemen and dissectors. As John Hunter's collection returns to exhibition in yet another incarnation, in an age in which medical science has become increasingly divorced from the everyday lives of patients, and in which medical practitioners face renewed criticism for a perceived lack of transparency, it is a salutary reminder of the effort that eighteenth-century anatomists put in to making their work acceptable not only in the eyes of their peers, but their neighbours - a true domestication of the art of anatomy.

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