The Hunter brothers were born in Long Calderwood, East Kilbride, in the early 18th century. There were ten children in the family, little money and a need for them to earn their own living. William, born in 1718 initially studied divinity at Glasgow University but changed to study medicine. William moved to London in 1746 to train with William Smellie at St George’s hospital to learn the skills of ‘man midwifery’. The London medical world in 1746 was a difficult place to make a living. There were no medical schools in London, almost no professional regulation, the surgeons had split from the barbers company in 1745 and the old guild structure was weakening. Conventional medical practitioners had to compete with numerous quacks, wise women, cunning men, foreign doctors and many others offering medical services in an open market.. William Hunter carved himself a niche by starting a private anatomy school. In particular, students were offered teaching in the French manner which meant that they would be offered hands on experience of human dissection.
Without anaesthesia or ability to control infection and blood loss most surgery in the 18th century consisted of treating, burns, boils ulcers and venereal disease. Surgeons would also perform bloodletting on instruction from physicians. Heroic surgery was rarely performed and a very detailed knowledge of anatomy was not essential for many practitioners. Changes in warfare, in particular the invention of guns and cannon balls, caused far more serious injuries to troops. The care of wounded fighting men required innovation and increased surgical expertise. The French surgeon Ambrose Pare had pioneered the use of the ligature to halt blood loss during amputations; a much less traumatic procedure than applying hot pitch to the stump, but requiring a better knowledge of anatomy since speed was of the essence. Since 1713 the 247 ships in the British navy had all had a ship’s surgeon and they were valued positions. William Hunter’s school was a success. William’s other medical practice was also thriving he delivered Queen Charlotte’s son, the future GeorgeIV; he required assistance with the rather grisly business of running a dissection room. In 1718 he asked his younger brother John to join him in London
John Hunter was a very different character. He had been a poor scholar whose formal education ended when he was 13 and his only work experience was being apprenticed to a furniture maker. He had a love of the countryside, an intense curiosity about natural history and approached his subject with accurate observation and experimentation. He used the methods of a modern scientist as opposed to accepting classical orthodoxy. John proved an exceptionally able anatomist but could also deal with the unsavoury duty of ensuring an adequate supply of corpses for the school
Prior to the anatomy act of 1832 the only legal supply of bodies were those of executed criminals. The Barber surgeons were granted 6 corpses from Tyburn per annum by royal warrant but other anatomists had to make their own arrangements. There were 8 hanging days a year at Tyburn with an undignified scrum taking place at the foot of the gallows. Anatomists would tussle with the relatives and friends of the recently deceased, undertakers were often bribed, occasionally the condemned man could sell his body to the anatomists in advance of execution. The number of executed criminals was insufficient to meet demand and anatomists would then turn to the resurrection men to supply them with bodies, the bodies of pregnant women being particularly prized specimens.
William arranged for John to study surgery with Cheselden at Chelsea hospital, an unusual arrangement as most surgeons would have served an apprenticeship. John had a very inquiring mind and applied modern scientific methods to problems. He clarified many anatomical issues, devised new operations and investigated the animal world. He had moderate success with tooth transplants between living donors. He prepared many exotic specimens including the skeleton of the Irish giant Charles Byrne against his express wishes to be buried at sea as well as the first giraffe in England; unfortunately the animal was too tall for the room so Hunter displayed it in his entrance hall minus the legs.
In 1783 John moved with his family to a large new house in Leicester Square. He had started his own anatomy school in the 1760s, he was a sought after surgeon, he had married the poet Anne Home and was at home in prosperous Georgian society. The front of the house was an elegant Georgian mansion; behind it Hunter had a lecture theatre and a museum to house his growing number of specimens. Behind the museum, with a separate entrance was the dissection area where corpses were delivered in the early hours of the morning. , A trapdoor could be lowered for the resurrection men and the resident medical students had their lodgings next to the dissecting room. The house provided the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson when he wrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Hunter also had a country house at Earl’s Court with large menageries of exotic animals roaming freely in the grounds, the inspiration for Dr Dolittle.