John Hunter’s "Unwritten Book"

There is no April Fool’s prank here. Though this article includes the term "unwritten book" in its title, it does indeed belong in the Places category, for this particular "book" was actually a vast collection of anatomical specimens which were on display in Regency London. These specimens were all amassed by one man, over the course of the last half of the eighteenth century, at least some of them under questionable, if not illegal, circumstances.

The Hunterian Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields . . .

John Hunter, the man who assembled this vast collection of artifacts, was born in February 1728, the youngest child of ten. He was born into a very old Scotch family of Lanarkshire, possibly of Norman origin, on a small estate, Long Calderwood, about seven miles from Glasgow. Like his surviving brothers, John was sent to school, though it is reported that he was not a good student. Nevertheless, he was fascinated by nature. As a young man, he traveled to London to join his older brother, William, who had become a noted teacher of anatomy. John became his brother’s assistant, eventually taking over the teaching of the introductory classes. In between teaching classes, John was responsible for the care of the dissecting room, where he devoted himself to the study of anatomy for several hours each day.

The determination which John showed in his anatomical studies convinced his brother that he would benefit by further study. William arranged for him to become a surgeon’s pupil at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. In 1760, John Hunter was commissioned as an Army surgeon, a position which he held for three years. Upon his retirement from the Army, he went into private practice in Golden Square, London, in partnership with James Spence, a prominent dentist. During this time, John Hunter expanded his studies to dentistry, and attempted the transplantation of teeth, with some limited success.

In 1764, John Hunter dissolved his partnership with James Spence and opened his own anatomy school and private surgical practice. About the same time, he purchased two acres of property a couple of miles outside of London, near Brompton, which was called Earl’s Court. Here, he built a house and began to develop a farm cum menagerie where he kept an eclectic assortment of animals. Once he had mastered human anatomy, Hunter had expanded his studies to the anatomy of animals, studying any specimens which came his way. At Earl’s Court, John Hunter built a collection of anatomical specimens which he used in his anatomy school. He preferred to believe the evidence of his own eyes. One of his favorite phrases in anatomy class was "Don’t think, try; be patient, be accurate . . ." He wanted his students to be able to handle a real specimen of whatever they were studying, in order to learn as much as possible about each of them.

John Hunter began collecting anatomical specimens from at least the time he began working at his brother’s anatomy school in London. There were suspicions that the brothers were involved in the illegal acquisition of the bodies of deceased pregnant women, since both he and his brother, William, were studying pregnancy. Some even suggested he might have been involved in the killing of at least some of these women. However, today, most scholars believe that is highly unlikely, since the death rate among pregnant women in the second half of the eighteenth century was quite high. Most now believe the Hunter brothers interests were well-known among those who acquired corpses and were therefore offered specimens which met their needs. The women probably died of natural causes, but their corpses were almost certainly not acquired by legal methods.

Another large acquisition made by John Hunter was certainly unethical, even immoral, if not specifically illegal. In the 1780s, there came to London from Ireland a man known as the "Irish Giant." Charles Byrne stood well over seven feet tall and soon found work at Cox’s Museum as one of its living spectacles. He soon became the toast of London and made a good living. Sadly, he went out drinking one night, carrying all his savings. Before the night was out, he was robbed of all his money and turned to liquor to numb the pain of his loss. Charles Byrne died soon thereafter, at the age of twenty-two. Perhaps because he had made his fortune working in what amounted to a freak show, Byrne had a horror that his body would be dissected after his death. Therefore, he specified in his will that his body should be buried at sea. However, John Hunter bribed the fishermen who had been paid to bury Charles Byrne at sea. They pulled the body behind their boat and headed out to sea. After sunset, the fishermen returned to port and handed Byrne’s body over to John Hunter for £130.

Over the course of his life, John Hunter steadily added to his collection of anatomical specimens. He tried to collect as many different specimens as he could in order to provide as much information to his students as possible. Though he did write and publish a few articles in medical journals during his lifetime, he never took the time to write a book. Hunter believed that his collection of specimens provided much more detailed information to anatomy students than could be found in any book. He himself carried out a wide range of anatomical investigations, the evidence of which was part of his varied collection. It was for that reason that many referred to his great collection as Hunter’s "unwritten book." And it would be the only "book" ever made available by John Hunter. Hunter had thousands of pages of notes which he had compiled over the course of his life, but they would never be published, since they were destroyed by Sir Everard Home, his brother-in-law. Home collected all of the manuscript notes soon after Hunter’s death, used them to prepare his own publication on comparative anatomy, then burned all of Hunter’s notes in the hope of preventing his plagiarism from coming to light.

By the time of his death, in October of 1793, John Hunter had amassed a collection of more than 14,000 items. In his will, he requested that his entire collection be offered, intact, for sale to the British Government, in order to provide for his wife and family. Though there was some initial resistance to the purchase, and it took some time to complete the transaction, in 1799, Parliament voted £15,000 to purchase Hunter’s complete collection of anatomical specimens. Once the purchase was made, the entire collection was given into the care of the Company of Surgeons, which was chartered as the Royal College of Surgeons the following year.

The Company of Surgeons moved from Surgeon’s Hall, located in Old Bailey, to premises at 41 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in 1797. After they received their royal charter, they commissioned the architects George Dance, the Younger and James Lewis, to design a new building for the college. Construction began on the new Surgeon’s Hall in 1805, and, though the building was not completed until 1813, the exhibit gallery for Hunter’s anatomical collection was ready for use in 1811. A few years later, the Royal College of Surgeons also instituted the Hunterian Oration, an annual lecture on some aspect of anatomy. This oration was delivered at Surgeon’s Hall every year on 14 February.

The building at Lincoln’s Inn Fields which housed the "Hunterian Museum" remained standing until 1837. So it was that Hunter’s collection of anatomical specimens was on view in the Surgeon’s Hall exhibition gallery throughout the Regency period. However, despite the fact that the collection had been purchased with public funds, the gallery in which it was displayed was not regularly open to the public. In fact, only members of the Royal College of Surgeons had regular access, though many medical students were able to get permission to view the collections. Other interested parties could also request admittance to the gallery, but they would typically have to be sponsored by a member of the college, or a powerful member of the government. Even with official sponsorship, there is no evidence that women were ever granted permission to visit the Hunterian Museum, though it is possible that at least a few women might have managed to gain entry during the Regency.

In 1837, during the reign of Queen Victoria, the Surgeon’s Hall building which housed the Hunterian Museum was demolished and a new, much larger building was constructed on the Lincoln’s Inn Fields site. That building survived for more than a century, still housing all of John Hunter’s anatomical specimens, as well as many more which had been acquired over the years. Sadly, in 1941, that building was badly damaged by German bombs, and many of the specimens were destroyed. Surgeon’s Hall was rebuilt once again, after the war. In 1963, a new gallery was opened in which Hunter’s surviving anatomical specimens, including the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant, were put on display. That gallery is open to the public.

John Hunter was a very careful and talented anatomist, and his completed specimens were considered some of the finest anywhere. Because of his wide-ranging interest in the anatomy of all species, many of his specimens were unique in England, well into the middle of the nineteenth century. Therefore, any one interested in anatomy during the Regency would have been very keen to visit the Hunterian Museum in the Surgeon’s Hall at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. By the middle years of the Regency, the Hunterian Oration was delivered every February, on the 14th. The speaker each year was one of the top anatomists in the field, so there would have also been keen interest in attending that lecture.

Dear Regency Authors, might one or more of your characters wish to visit either the Hunterian Museum, or attend the Hunterian Oration in on of your upcoming novels? Could it be that the heroine, a secret student of anatomy, wangles her way into the gallery of Hunter’s specimens at Surgeon’s Hall? Will she be caught by the hero, or will he be the person to shield her so that her presence is not exposed? Or, could it be that the heroine has a precocious younger brother who is eager to study anatomy? Will the hero secure admittance to the Hunterian Museum for the young man, and invite him to join him for that year’s Hunterian Ovation, thus putting the heroine in his debt? How else might the Hunterian Museum or the Hunterian Oration become the setting for one or more scenes in an upcoming novel?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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10 Responses to John Hunter’s "Unwritten Book"

  1. As you know, I do write Regency mysteries, and I am thinking back to when Hunter was active, and maybe has acquired a corpse that is a key piece of evidence for to catch a killer, and the protagonists have to persuade him to let them examine the body [or even to admitting that he has it!] either to find out something about a kiiller or to identify a missing person…. this would not be my normal couple as it’s too early, but if there are other anatomists doing something inspired by Hunter that would also answer. Especially if a killer has disposed of a body by selling it to an anatomist. It’s rather too grisly a sort of place to consider romance for me…the smell of formaldehyde for preserving the specimens is about as offputting as one could imagine, I’m afraid, even if one can ignore the idea of foetuses at various stages of development staring mournfully out of bottles. [I took biology to A level so I know a bit about dealing with specimens] Though I suppose a woman of fortitude and less afflicted with sensibility than I am might manage romance over her anatomy studies…. I have a macabre sense of humour I’m afraid, and I have a sudden vision of the hero telling her to lie on the dissecting table and covering her with a sheet to avoid detection when someone in authority is about to catch her…

  2. Summer says:

    Having a surgeon character, I’m frankly confounded by the personality he’d have to have to become any good at it. Aside from the unconventional morality, I imagine these conflicting streaks of “I want to help you but I also kind of want to examine your tendons.” They say that even today, after the advent of anesthesia, surgery is one of the top five jobs that attract psychopaths.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      OMG!!!! I had no idea! I sincerely hope I never have to go under the knife!!!

      I tend to steer clear of anything too in-depth with regard to medicine, since the whole subject creeps me out. I wrote this article on the Hunterian Museum since I thought there would be folks would would like to know of its existence and location in Regency London. Beyond that, as you will have noticed, I pretty much skirted the issue of what made up the specimens in the collection. I will leave it to authors who choose to set a story there to do that.

      I don’t know if this will help you with your surgeon character, but I have a friend who is a paramedic. He is a very compassionate man and I once asked him how he could do it. He said that he had to ignore the fact that the individual he was helping was a person. He had to switch off his own feelings about their pain and focus only on their injuries and how best to treat them. Otherwise, he would be unable to do what was necessary to help them. So, it is almost like he is two people, one on the job, and one off.



      • Summer says:

        LOL. On that note, my brother is an orthopedic surgeon, I’ll have to ask him if he’s got that sort of dual persona or if he’s a psychopath. 🙂 What you said about your friend reminds me of a poem I once read that was written by a nurse, in which she describes working sort of like an automaton while in the more difficult part of her job, and going back to feel emotions after the work was done. So yeah, thanks, actually, that is helpful, and it suits this character, a fastidious, bookish, squirrely little fellow that you half expect to faint at the scene of the first big injury, but he nonchalantly looks it over and tells the patient he’s lucky it wasn’t *really* bad, and next you hear from him he’s rebroken this person’s leg. There are pretty much two of him already.

  3. Kalinya says:

    What a wonderful and most comprehensive article, Kat. Hunter sounds much like da Vinci or was it Michaelangelo? Sorry, my head’s rather done in today, but one of these great men – and I think it was Michaelangelo – also used the corpses supplied by grave robbers to to study human anatomy and refine his own skill at depicting the human form in its various forms and poses. Such activity may seem gross to us in today’s world, but without these driven, inquiring men of the past, we might well be not where we are today.
    And yes, I can well see how something like Hunter’s Oration or his collection could be used in a romance. There would have been intelligent, forward thinking young ladies who would be impressed by a gentleman with a keen mind and a thirst for knowledge, no matter what scenario is employed to use the Hunter Oration or collection.
    Thank you heaps for yet another very informative post.

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