Episode 72: Drs William and John Hunter

The Hunter brothers may be names you know but how much do you know about their London lives?

Join Hazel Baker and Ian McDiarmid discuss these talented brothers whose individual skills and expertise lead to significant progress being made in anatomy, dentistry and obstetrics.

Drs William and John Hunter

Recommended Reading:

Medical Theory, Surgical Practice: Studies in the History of Surgery

William Hunter and the Eighteenth-Century Medical World, W.F. Bynum and Roy Porter

Bodies Politic, Roy Porter

The Knife Man, Wendy Moore

The Natural History of the Human Teeth: Explaining Their Structure, Use, Formation, Growth, and Diseases, to Which Is Added a Practical Treatise On The Diseases of the Teeth

Show Notes:

Your Host: Hazel Baker

Hazel is an active Londoner, a keen theatre-goer and qualified CIGA London tour guide.

She has won awards for tour guiding and is proud to be involved with some great organisations. She is a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and am an honorary member of The Leaders Council.

She has been an expert guest on Channel 5’s Walking Wartime Britain (Episode 3) and Yesterday Channel’s The Architecture the Railways Built (Series 3, Episode 7).


Ian McDiarmid


Guest: Ian McDiarmid

Ian qualified as a City of London tour guide in 2017 and has a particular passion for Roman and Medieval history, having in an earlier incarnation studied history at Cambridge and London universities.



Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History Podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike. 

Joining me in the studio today is City of London tour guide Ian McDiarmid. Hello, Ian.

Ian McDiarmid: Hi there.

Hazel Baker: We’ve got a really interesting episode today about the two brothers, Drs William and John Hunter.

Ian McDiarmid: It’s a subject that’s always interested me. I think the two Hunter brothers are probably best known today for the two museums named after them; the Hunterian in Glasgow, which is essentially based around William’s collection, and then here in London at the Southern end of Lincoln’s Inn Fields we have, or at least we normally have, the Hunterian at the Royal College of Surgeons, which is the collection that John Hunter left on his death to the notion he wanted the nation to have first refusal on it.

Eventually a reluctant British state stumped up, not quite as much money as he would have hoped, for the collection, but it went to the Royal College of Surgeons. Normally you can go around and visit that and it’s fascinating, isn’t it? However, the Royal College of Surgeons have been rebuilding their building as it were, and that project has taken a bit longer than they had anticipated. The Hunterian museum is now due to open in 2023.

The Hunters were controversial in their lifetime and controversial as well in the 19th century. Perhaps that’s something you can tell us about Hazel, because you’re a bit of an expert on that, but finally they are still controversial with letters to the Guardian newspaper on them.

So, but we can, we can come back to that.

Hazel Baker: Let’s start at the beginning. Who were William and John Hunter?

Ian McDiarmid: They were two brothers. William is the elder one. He’s born in 1718, and he is the second eldest son. And in total there will be 10 children and John will be the youngest. Their father, I should say, was a grain merchant. He’s often described as a laird as well, so members of the Scottish Gentry, so not badly off, but not terribly well off. And then there’s the problem of providing for ten children though. The great majority of them won’t survive very long unforced. William is packed off to Glasgow University to study Theology. And he’s there for about five years, but he never takes his degree. He looks as though he develops heterodox opinions whilst there. So he’s never actually going to be able to fit in really with the Church of Scotland. And it may well be that he just wasn’t cut out for a career in the church.

William later on used to like to maintain that a man (talking about men inevitably in the 18th century) could always get wherever he wanted if he applied himself with sufficient industry and effort. This is a bit of a distortion of his own career, because the key thing for him was actually his family connections and getting him going. And the key thing is that after ending his time at Glasgow university, he gets apprenticed to a local medical man, Cullen, and it’s from Cullen that he learns anatomy. And this is the crucial beginning. And then Cullen’s connections. Plus his families get him sent down to London in 1740, where he becomes an assistant to the leading obstetrician of the day William Smellie.

Shortly after that, he then moves into the circle of another obstetrician James Douglas and James Douglas will die fairly shortly. Hunter essentially becomes his kind of surrogate son. Douglas’, his own son is a bit of a probate and he leaves his practice, including his medical specimens, to William Hunter. And this really gets him going. William Hunter begins apart from developing his obstetrician practice. He also begins lecturing on anatomy, and this is going to be crucial for the development of his reputation.

And then in 1748, his younger brother, John Hunter, who has no real formal education to speak of, comes to join him in London. And John is absolutely brilliant preparing the specimens. So you’re, you’re dealing with. Anatomical classes, you need bodies to dissect, but you also need specimens for the students to pass around. These specimens can be divided into dry specimens, things like bones and bones, knee preparation as well that you’ve got to get rid of all the soft material you’ve then got to varnish them, maybe string them together. And then the wet preparations and wet preparations are the ones where the real skill comes in. And John is absolutely brilliant at this. William then goes on to develop. Obstetrics practice and he is amazingly successful at this. And it’s interesting really that he goes in for obstetrics. I mean, it’s partly because he’s got these family relationships, but there’s also, if you’re successful at it, it’s a brilliant way into the upper reaches of society.

Because if you become a successful obstetrician, you inevitably have. Intimate relationship with your clients intimacy in the obvious sense with the woman giving birth, but also with the family as well. William himself refers to him delivering, for example, the children of. An unmarried daughter of the aristocracy and then arranging for them to go into the family’s hospitals.

So you can imagine all these kinds of family secrets and confidences, and he becomes the obstetrician to the queen, Queen Charlotte, George III’s wife. And so he becomes the leading obstetrician and it’s very well paid. And one of the places connected with him is Drummond’s bank, which is still there at the top of Whitehall. Some of the records survive. And they indicate that he was extremely wealthy. He was probably getting in something in the region of 10,000 pounds a year, which is absolutely huge. And then John comes along and John works with William and then he later joins the army in 1760. And this is crucial because he goes to work as a surgeon. And once he’s worked as a surgeon in the army, he can then go and practice on other people. And he becomes one of the leading surgeons of the time.

Hazel Baker: So we’re talking about two leading anatomists, and this was time for major expansion in hospitals as well. So how do they fit in or was this important?

Ian McDiarmid: Well, they’re very interesting because they are basically exponents of private enterprise and the medical institutions aren’t that important at this time, at least not so much for the teaching of medicine. So you’ve got various institutions there: You’ve got the old ones, which are the college of physicians and the college of surgeons. And they’re sort of almost they’re getting on for to say that is a huge overstatement, but that they’re not that significant. The physicians are limited in number to about 50 and the surgeons have been pretty much irrelevant. Really.

The training and the practicing of medicine at this time you’ve got Oxbridge graduates who can study medicine, but they’ve dwindled to a trickle. And the Oxbridge medical degree is regarded as being old-fashioned not modern. And also it is restricted to Anglicans. People are members of the church of England.

So of the universities, the foreign universities are more important than the English ones, including within the foreign ones, for the sake of this argument, Edinburgh. And then in addition to that, you’ve got the hospitals you’ve got in London, you’ve got the two ancient hospitals you’ve got Bart’s and St Thomas’s and then you have this huge expansion, this period starting in the 1720s, you’ve got the five new London hospitals beginning with the Westminster and including guys, the London, the Middlesex, and these are largely charitable foundations in which subscribers agreed to subscribe money for the land, the buildings, and then for the running costs, guys is a little bit of an exception because it’s obviously Thomas Guy, he’s one man. And he puts the money up for it.

So you have this huge expansion of hospitals. And in addition to these big five general hospitals, you’ve also got a great expansion of what we would call maternity, what they called lying in hospitals. And you’ve also got St Luke’s, which is for lunatics. I’m using the language of the time and also the Lock, which is for venereal diseases.

These hospitals, I mean, they’re looking normally impressive, but the main interest for students coming to London is basically to go and subscribe to the private lessons of William and later John Hunter. They are remarkably successful. One of the reasons for this is their ability to procure cadavers. So this is quite a difficult thing to do. If you go to the lectures of William and John Hunter, you as a student can see what is being dissected and you will also get the opportunity to perform some kind of dissections yourself. So it’s a very valuable thing. The lectures are long. In the sense that there are lots of them, Williams lecture courses consist of about a hundred lectures. They run from October to April. This is basically in the winter, in this period of cool weather because of the constraints of temperature and the rapid decomposition of bodies if you do it in the summer. So you can’t really do this in the summer and they also do more lectures than anybody else. You get about a hundred lectures for your money. You pay about seven guineas. They’re better value than other lectures. And above all, these Hunters are so thorough. They are dissecting. They give you a very detailed course in anatomy, which is absolutely unrivalled anywhere else.


Hazel Baker: And apart from anatomy, what did they do?

Ian McDiarmid: Well, William, as indicated, was a preeminent obstetrician. And he’s interesting because he’s very successful but he’s also important for a couple of things.

The first is the professionalization of midwifery and its takeover by men. Now, his role in this has grossly been exaggerated in the past that there had been lots of. Midwives before this, but if we go back to the 16th century and before the role of the midwife was obviously undertaken mainly by women and it wasn’t professional in the sense it wasn’t taught by courses that weren’t sort of limits on who could practice in the rest of it. And you see from the early 18th century onwards, the professionalization of this, the men are taking over. You have to be qualified, you have to demonstrate experience. One aspect of this professionalization is the development of technology and in particular, in the 17th versus the dissemination of forceps.

Now, William Hunter is interesting because he argues in fact as a male midwife, one of the things you shouldn’t do is intervene too much. And he says at the forceps that every woman and every child that they save, they murder about 20. So he’s well known for being non interventionists, but nevertheless, he is part of this sort of professionalization.

Of obstetrics, he will publish a work: The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus’, which is basically an atlas really, with 34 copper plates showing the development of the fetus and later the baby in the womb. The ability to produce this ties in with their ability to get bodies because getting the bodies of women who are just about to give birth is extremely difficult because women at that stage don’t generally die just ahead of giving birth.

They died during birth and afterwards. And also there was you couldn’t by law, you couldn’t execute a woman who was pregnant. So felons who were one source of their bodies, that was ruled out, but they produced this great work and. Discovery. And this work is that the blood system going to the baby is absolutely separate from that of the mother.

And that’s one of the discoveries of the Hunter brothers and indigenous discovery that they will fall out over, over a big way, because it looks as though the groundwork for that, the act, the actual sort of anatomical work was done by John, but William claimed it as his, because William thought that work done under his roof should belong to him.

And this, this was one of the major fallings out that the brothers would have later on John. A leading surgeon. And in the 19th century, he came to be seen as the father of modern surgery. He thought surgery should be based on observation and experiment. So one of the things he was known for was his treatment of gunshot wounds, which comes from his time as a surgeon, he thought it was wrong to enlarge the wound, which was common practice at the time. And also a lot of surgeons thought that separation when the wound gets infected, it was actually part of the healing process. I thought that was a load of rubbish.

He was famous for using experiments and observation to develop new techniques. And one of his most famous ones was an operation on a popliteal aneurysm. The popliteal artery is the big artery running behind the knee. And if you had an aneurysm there, the basic treatments were either to leave it alone. In which case you would die, or to amputate John Hunter developed a technique that was relatively successful. He first tried making a ligature in the artery itself, but that wouldn’t work. And he then worked out through experiments on animals (vivisection) that you could actually make the leg ligature higher up. And he does that. And the operation’s relatively successful. He’s well known for the experiments he did. He believed, wrongly as it turns out, that gonorrhoea and syphilis were the same disease.

And he did an experiment in which he called a third party in which he injected the third party with puss from somebody, with gonorrhoea and then observed the development.

John Hunter showed that this person developed the symptoms of both gonorrhoea and syphilis. Now, in retrospect, what had happened with the needle or the knife had become infected with syphilis. So this was a bit of a blind alley, but it shows his approach to things. And it’s interesting because he never says who the third person was. And there’s a great deal of speculation that he did this on himself.

Hazel Baker: Hold on a minute, you haven’t even mentioned where he put this infection.

Ian McDiarmid: On the third person’s penis.

Hazel Baker: Thank you very much.

Ian McDiarmid:  He made a cut at the end of the penis, and I think maybe in the foreskin as well. So two little cuts. He supervised the first successful attempted artificial insemination, or at least. Successful attempt of which we have a record. And I forgot when mentioning Williams’ achievements William claimed to have discovered that the lymphatic system was a closed system and one in which fluids from the body were absorbed.

And he thought that this discovery put him on a par or even superior to Harvey who had discovered the circulation of blood as ever there was a priority argument with John on this, but also they had arguments with others. In particular, a young surgeon called Monroe who William believes had stolen the idea about the lymphatic system from him by attending his lectures.

Hazel Baker: Oh, I say it all kicks off.

Ian McDiarmid: Doesn’t it?! They were very argumentative and they were very concerned with priority. And as ever, when you look back on these things, you can say, well, actually in something like the lymphatic system, there’s indications of people discovering it before him. And also there are key discoveries later and its role in the body’s immune system, which he was at Bolivia.

Hazel Baker: They had a bit of a sinister reputation though didn’t they?

Ian McDiarmid: yes. And this comes back to their success as anatomists. You needed bodies and bodies. Weren’t that easy to get hold of. At the beginning of the period, there was one legal source for them. The college of surgeons was entitled to six bodies each year from executed felons that increased after the murder act of 1752, which makes available to anatomists all the bodies of executed felons. But there’s a problem that at Tyburn, which was the main site for executions in London at the time, there are about 50 people executed each year and they’re executed in batches as well. And this is never going to be enough to satisfy the demand for now.

The anatomies have three main sources for bodies: One is hospitals and if they have access to the people who work in hospitals, or if they work in a hospital themselves, they can quite easily pull strings to get the corpses of people who die. There, there are work houses where poor people die and you can bribe the people in the workhouses to get bodies.

But the main source looks as though it comes from. Grave robbers and there’s sediment debate as to the legality of great robbery, because there is a bit of a myth that you could actually take a body on its own was not illegal. Actually, people were prosecuted for this. When they were found guilty, they were given relatively light sentences. But anyway, this was a huge, huge business, but it was one that obviously was a black market and one that you didn’t want to discuss. So it’s very difficult to recreate. It must be the. That they got their bodies from the so-called resurrection men. And it looks as though John Hunter carried on this business for his brother William and this gives rise to an unusual feature of the buildings, John and William, first of all, set up shop at number One Grand Piazza, Covent garden, which I think is now an Apple shop, the address is. Anyway, that building backed on to what is now Floral street. I forget the name of it.

Hazel Baker: White Hart Lane.

Ian McDiarmid: Yeah. So it backed onto that. So they’ve gone back to that, and this is also a feature of a John’s house on Leicester square. So he moves to 28 Leicester Square and he buys the property at the back, which faces onto Castle Street, which is now Charing Cross Road. And Hazel, you mention this property on one of your walks because it fits in with Robert Louis Stevenson doesn’t it?

Hazel Baker: Yes, a hundred years later Robert Louis Stevenson is writing Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, and he’s taken his inspiration from some big names in history, including John


Ian McDiarmid:  Yes. As I understand it, they’ve got a plan or detailed notes written up of Hunter’s house in the British library and the correlation between these notes and Stevenson’s description is incredibly close. I mean, you’re the expert on this, but when I was, when I read footnotes in books, I just think. That could be, but here the, I mean, it’s just so detailed, isn’t it?

Hazel Baker: And yeah, and we do a Jekyll and Hyde walk for anyone listening and able to come into town. It’d be lovely to see you and to show you the history of London there.

Ian McDiarmid: And I should, in this context of being sinister, partly the model for a Jekyll and Hyde. John Hunter also performed vivisection and he also experimented with transplants. He worked quite a lot in dentistry and the main thing that they were doing in dentistry was transplanting teeth and transplanted teeth could actually stay in somebody’s mouth for a few years.

So, immediately obvious that this was a kind of dead end from a medical point of view. But again, pretty unpleasant because you’re ripping out the teeth of poor people who were selling their teeth and then sort of banging them into the jaws of wealthy customers. And if you want to know more, more about Georgia and dentistry, then you can listen to previous Episode 71. When we have guest Sarah Murden talking exactly about that.

Ian McDiarmid: There’s a little bit of controversy with the reopening of the Hunterian Museum.  One of the major exhibits in that was the skeleton of a man named Charles Byrne, who suffered from gigantism. He made money by selling himself as a kind of fairground attraction in which he claimed to be, I think 8ft 4 inches tall. He was actually a bit shorter than that, (2.31 metres (7ft 7in) but his skeleton was prior to place in the collection concert basically had him followed around and it looks as though Hunter tried to negotiate with him before his death to give him some money. So he could have his body dissected and Byrne didn’t want to do this. Byrne drew up a will saying, I want to be buried at sea. He got his friends to promise that they would bury him at sea so that he got away from anatomists and in particular could not be got by Hunter. Hunter undertook some kind of ruse whereby he basically took the body en route to the ship. It had stopped off somewhere, Byrne’s body was replaced with stones, the friends went on and buried the stones at sea and Hunter got the body. There’s a Gainsborough portrait of Hunter later in his career, and over his shoulder, you can see legs hanging down. Those are the legs of Charles Byrne and it’s controversial because Byrne specified that he did not want to be cut up.

There was a letter from the author, Hilary Mantel to the Guardian newspaper saying that when the Hunterian Museum reopens they should not display this because it was against his wishes and also because it’s wrong to show human remains in this way. The problem with that is that the museum is absolutely full of human remains and I think that the people who think he shouldn’t be displayed or in some ways, privileging skeletons over soft tissue. The Collection is made up of anatomical specimens, many of them human. And if we were analysing the consent given by the people’s whose specimens there, they would all be very dubious at best; they were people in hospital, and the understanding was that if you were getting free treatment, that the anatomist could do what they liked with you. Would that pass muster today? I doubt it. Also a lot of them come from people whose bodies were dug up, they clearly hadn’t given their consent.

Hazel Baker: Okay. But this time, not only is it clear that he did not give consent, he had in his will written that he did not give consent and that his body was essentially stolen. So why don’t we scan it, do a 3d print of him and bury him at sea which is what he wanted?

Ian McDiarmid: I think the debate will rumble on.

Hazel Baker: I think so. Let us know what you think. Get in touch, leave a voicemail on our website londonguidedwalks.co.uk. It’d be lovely to hear what you think. Thank you, Ian.

Ian McDiarmid: My pleasure.

Hazel Baker: That’s all for now. See you next time.

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