Hunter, William (1718–1783)
Date, City, and Country of Birth
May 23, 1718, Calderwood, East Kilbride
Date and City of Death
March 30, 1783, London
History of Life
When a family has two siblings which decide to enter the medical profession, it can often be the case that they compete and that one can overshadow the other. On the surface, the same situation appears to have faced the Hunter brothers, William and his probably more famous brother John. However, although there is a museum named after John and his collection, and a popular book The Knife Man also written about him, his older brother also has significant achievements and contributions to medicine and pathology that are deserving of recognition.
In 1718, William Hunter was born at Long Calderwood Farm near Glasgow. He was the son of John and Agnes Hunter and was one of nine children. He originally opted for a religious occupation and studied divinity at the University of Glasgow. However, in 1737 he rethought his career plans and decided to study medicine. He found a willing tutor in Dr William Cullen who had established a practice a short distance away in Hamilton and became his apprentice. He was also a pupil of Alexander Munro and regularly attended his anatomical lectures. However, he then chose to leave his home in Scotland and move his career south and journeyed to London.
London provided a lot of opportunities for William. He lived with two Scottish doctors who became famous in medical circles in their own right. The first was William Smellie who wrote a treatise on obstetrics. The second was James Douglas who identified the “pouch of Douglas” and also described the synovial lining of joints. At this time, he also studied surgery at St Georges Hospital. He was admitted to the corporation of surgeons in 1747, and he received his MD from the University of Glasgow in 1750. Hunter received his licentiate from the College of Physicians in 1756 and started work at the Middlesex Hospital in 1748 in the Lying-in department and then in 1749 to the British Lying-in Hospital. He was also working in private practice throughout this time, which was successful. His appointment as physician extraordinary to Queen Charlotte in 1762 was an honour and marked him as a leading physician of his time.
As a man, Hunter was short in stature with an engaging and courtly manner. He was described as cheerful and unassuming, but he also was a doctor who inspired confidence in those who met him. He lived a very simple life. However, William Hunter’s personal life was unfortunately filled with tragedy. He had been betrothed to Martha Jane who was the daughter of James Douglas. However, 2 years after the betrothal she died, and he remained unmarried for the rest of his life, devoting his time to his work.
Accolades and honours were received by him in abundance. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1767, and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1768. He was appointed as a professor of anatomy to the Royal Academy in 1768, and he was also the president of the Medical Society of London in 1780. He also became the foreign associate of the Royal Medical Society of Paris in 1780 and the Royal Academy of Sciences of Paris in 1783.
In the final years of his life, William’s health began to deteriorate. However, he did not let this deter him from his work, and he remained dedicated to it and hardworking. He was giving a lecture in March 1783, but then collapsed suddenly and was diagnosed with a stroke. He died a few days later on the 30th March 1783 and was buried in the rector’s vault of St James’s church in Piccadilly. Before he died, he is thought to have said “If I had the strength to hold a pen, I would write how easy and pleasant a thing it is to die.”
Main Achievements to Medicine/Pathology
The achievements of William Hunter are many and significant, and he is deserving of his recognition as one of the pioneers of medicine and pathology. William eventually decided to specialize in obstetrics, and this is the field in which a lot of his achievements were made. He was particularly interested in the anatomy of the gravid uterus. In 1774 he published his work “An anatomical description of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures” which was dedicated to King George III and also contained prints by Jan van Rymsdyk. A second edition was published by Matthew Baillie (William Hunter’s nephew) 11 years after he died. The text brought many new breakthroughs to the field of obstetrics; his description of the spiral arteries had not been seen before, and he also described the decidua as a lining of the uterus rather than its former designation of being derived from the ovary. He also identified that the uterine veins did not have any valves and also used wax injections into the vessels that enabled him to argue that the fetal-placental circulation was independent of the circulation of the mother.
Extending from his work on the fetal-placental circulation, he also went further and described other aspects of the fetal circulation including ductus arteriosus, foramen ovale, and ductus venosus. It is clear that William had a lot of respect for his brother John and also worked very closely with him. In his text, he wrote “In most of (my) dissections (I) was assisted by my brother Mr John Hunter, whose accuracy in anatomical researches is so well known, that to omit this opportunity of thanking him for his assistance, would be in some measure to disregard the future reputation of the work itself.” However, a quarrel between the brothers resulted as John did not feel that this was sufficient and claimed the discovery of the fetal circulation as his own. Regrettably, it was not until William was on his deathbed that this quarrel was eventually resolved.
William frequently published his work. Although no original papers have survived, we have 15 manuscripts of his lectures, again dedicated to his passion for obstetrics. He was able to discuss the physiology of childbirth and recognized that it was not the baby that was responsible for the physiological changes of birth. However, some of the practices we see used today in obstetrics, Hunter was actually opposed to. He did not like the use of forceps during a challenging delivery and is reported to have said that “where they save one they murder twenty.” He was also opposed to the use of symphysiotomy.
However, it was not just the field of obstetrics which saw advances in knowledge, thanks to William Hunter. He worked as a dissector for James Douglas and therefore became heavily involved in the work Douglas was doing with bones. As a result of this work, Hunter’s first paper to the Royal Society in 1743 was on the articular cartilage and its diseases. Again, using a wax injection kit, he was also able to identify that articular cartilage is avascular, and he was able to recognize the destruction that purulence could cause in articular cartilage and that this was not repairable. Hunter also conducted a very ethically controversial experiment involving cutting the tendons in a patient’s finger which enabled him to identify that tendons do not have a nerve supply near their insertion.
William also left a large legacy for the immense amount of work that he did throughout his career. He founded a school of anatomy in Great Windmill Street in London and lectured there frequently. Like his brother, he was an avid collector and amassed a huge collection of anatomical and pathological specimens, including a book collection which consisted of 10,000 volumes. He owned an extensive coin collection, a collection of shells and a collection of ethnographic material which he obtained from the South Seas due to his friendship with Captain James Cook. His collections were inherited by his nephew, but were eventually donated to the University of Glasgow.
References and Further Reading
- Hunter, W. (1774). The anatomy of the gravid uterus. Birmingham: Baskerville.Google Scholar
- Hunter, W. (1794). In M. Baillie (Ed.), An anatomical description of the human gravid uterus and its contents. London: Johnson.Google Scholar
- Moore, W. K. (2005). The knife man: Blood, body-snatching and the birth of modern surgery. London: Bantam.Google Scholar