William Hunter (anatomist)

William Hunter FRS (23 May 171830 March 1783) was a Scottish anatomist and physician.

He was born at Long Calderwood near East Kilbride, South Lanarkshire, the elder brother of John Hunter. After studying divinity at the University of Glasgow, he went into medicine in 1737, studying under William Cullen. He was a leading teacher of anatomy, and the outstanding obstetrition of his day. His guidance and training of his ultimately more famous brother was also of great importance.

Early career

Arriving in London, Hunter became resident pupil to William Smellie (1741–44) and he was trained in anatomy at St George's Hospital, London, specialising in obstetrics. He followed the example of Smellie in giving a private course on dissecting, operative procedures and bandaging, from 1746. His courtly manners and sensible judgement helped him to advance until he became the leading obstetric consultant of London. Unlike Smellie, he did not favour the use of forceps in delivery. Stephen Paget said of him:
"He never married; he had no country house; he looks, in his portraits, a fastidious, fine gentleman; but he worked till he dropped and he lectured when he was dying."

Later career

In 1764, he became physician to Queen Charlotte. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1767 and Professor of Anatomy to the Royal Academy in 1768.

In 1868 he built the famous anatomy theatre and museum in Great Windmill Street, Soho, where the best British anatomists and surgeons of the period, including his brother John, were trained. His greatest work was Anatomia uteri umani gravidi [The anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures] (1774), with plates engraved by Rymsdyk (1730–90), and published by the Baskerville Press. He chose as a model for clear, precise but schematic illustration of anatomic dissections the drawings by Leonardo da Vinci conserved in the Royal Collection at Windsor: Kenneth Clark considered him responsible for the Eighteenth-century rediscovery of Leonardo's drawings in England.

To aid his teaching of dissection, in 1775 Hunter commissioned sculptor Agostino Carlini to make a cast of the flayed but muscular corpse of a recently executed criminal, a smuggler. He was professor of anatomy at the Royal Academy of Arts in London from 1769 until 1772. He was interested in arts, and had strong connections to the artistic world.

In 1770 he built himself a house in Glasgow fully equipped for the practice of his science, and this formed the nucleus of the University of Glasgow's Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery.

An avid coin and book collector

William Hunter was an avid antique coin collector and the Hunter Coin cabinet in the Hunterian Museum is one of the world's great collections. According to the Preface of Catalogue of Greek Coins in the Hunterian Collection (Macdonald 1899), Hunter purchased many important collections, including those of Horace Walpole and the bibliophile Thomas Crofts. King George III even donated an Athenian gold piece.

When the famous book collection of Anthony Askew, the Bibliotheca Askeviana, was auctioned off upon Askew's death in 1774, Hunter purchased many significant volumes in the face of stiff competition from the British Museum.

He died in 1783, aged 64, and was buried in London at St James's, Piccadilly.


He used to relate the following anecdote: During the American war, he was consulted by the daughter of a peer, who confessed herself pregnant, and requested his assistance; he advised her to retire for a time to the house of some confidential friend; she said that was impossible, as her father would not suffer her to be absent from him a single day. Some of the servants were, therefore, let into the secret, and the doctor made his arrangement with the treasurer of the Foundling Hospital for the reception of the child, for which he was to pay. The lady was desired to weigh well if she could bear pain without alarming the family by her cries; she said "Yes," and she kept her word. At the usual period she was delivered, not of one child only, but of twins. The doctor, bearing the two children, was conducted by a French servant through the kitchen, and left to ascend the area steps into the street. Luckily the lady's maid recollected that the door of the area might perhaps be locked; and she followed the doctor just in time to prevent his being detained at the gate. He deposited the children at the Foundling Hospital, and paid for each. The father of the children was a colonel of the army who went with his regiment to America and died there. The mother afterwards married a person of her own rank.


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