The Hunterian Museum
at the Royal College of Surgeons of England owes its start to the pioneering surgeon and anatomist John Hunter
(1728-1793). Born in Scotland, John Hunter moved to London in 1748 to assist his elder brother William at his
private anatomy school. William was initially reluctant to take on his younger brother, who had shown himself to
be an indifferent and undisciplined scholar; but John soon displayed his remarkable skills with a knife
and proved to be discrete and adept at acquiring bodies for the dissecting theatre.1
This was a time in which the public was decidedly squeamish over the idea of dissection. Many practising physicians
had never peered inside a cadaver and mostly left the unsavory practice of actually touching patients to the lowly
surgeons, who were considered only slightly superior to barbers. However, with anatomists like the Hunter's leading
the charge, surgeons were beginning to understand the need for personal observation rather than reliance on centuries-old
theories handed down from Hippocrates and Galen. Since the established medical schools were still very much lodged
in the official mindset of bodily humors and bloodletting, anatomists found it necessary to start their
own semi-secret schools. These schools needed a constant supply of fresh corpses — at least during the cooler winter months — and consequently there developed
a thriving trade in body snatching. It was John Hunter who managed this unsavory side of the business for William,
who conducted the daily lectures while John demonstrated with the scalpel. John also supplied his elder brother with numerous
anatomical preparations for use in the classroom (many of which would eventually find their way to the The Hunterian Museum named for
William at University of Glasgow).
While serving as an army surgeon in France and Portugal, John Hunter developed innovative surgical techniques for treating
gunshot wounds and experimented with new treatments for venereal disease — even serving as his own guinea pig.2
Upon his return to England, Hunter set up his own private practice and began in earnest the scientific enquiries that would
define his approach to surgery. He also devoted a great deal of effort to the building of his private museum, composed of
his own preparations and rare animals from around the world — including the first known example of a kangaroo, brought
back from Capt. James Cook's voyage.3 Hunter was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and later Surgeon to St.
George's Hospital, where he bucked the official curriculum and continued to put forward his revolutionary ideas of
scientific experimentation and observation. Much to the chagrin of his colleagues, Hunter proved such a popular mentor that
he broke with his elder brother and started his own anatomy school. In 1783, Hunter moved into a large house on Leicester
Square where he could display his growing collection of human and animal specimens and teach his resident anatomy students.
For all his important medical discoveries and reputation as a leading man in his field, John Hunter was considered a difficult
man with a short temper. His inability or lack of interest in playing political games often hampered Hunter's professional
success and ultimately became his undoing. During an argument at St. George's over new student admission policies intended
to spite him, Hunter rose from his chair, staggered into the next room and collapsed lifeless.4
At the time of his death in 1793, Hunter left his family deep in debt, having spent tremendous sums on the collection that
he left as their inheritance. The value of this collection was estimated at £70,000 (roughly £3.5 million today), and Hunter's
will stipulated that the collection be sold — preferably to the nation and in its entirety. However, timing was
against the Hunter family as Great Britain was presently at war with France and unable to part with the desired sum. It
wasn't until 1799 that the government would purchase Hunter's entire collection of over 13,000 preparations, but for the
decidedly bargain rate of £15,000. John Hunter's collection was given into the custody of the Company of Surgeons, which
became the Royal College of Surgeons the following year.5 The collection was installed in the Royal College of
Surgeons' new headquarters in Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1806, and formally opened in 1813.
The collection continued to grow after Hunter's death. By the turn of the 20th century, the museum contained nearly 65,000
specimens relating to anatomy, pathology, zoology and anthropology. Tragically, this collection was diminished by two thirds
when a German incendiary bomb landed in the galleries on 10 May 1941. Only 3,500 of Hunter's specimens survived —
about a quarter of the original collection. The College was rebuilt after the war, with a revived Hunterian Museum
appearing in 1963. In 2004, the Hunterian underwent another major transformation, with a sleek modern presentation.6
- 1 Moore, Wendy. The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery. New York: Broadway Books, 2005
- 2 ibid.
- 3 “John Hunter”, www.rcseng.ac.uk/museums/history/johnhunter.html
- 4 ibid.
- 5 Moore, ibid.
- 6 “History of the College museums”, www.rcseng.ac.uk/museums/history