William Hunter, pioneering obstetrician and anatomist, died on the 30th of March, 1783.
William Hunter was a Scottish anatomist and physician who became one of the leaders in obstetric medicine in 18th Century London. He is recognised as one of the giants of medicine, a pioneer of the care that women receive during childbirth and as such, one of the 'founding fathers' of obstetrics, which, before Hunter, had been the domain of the midwife. Hunter's learned skill and methods helped elevate the discipline to a respected practice in medicine. Of course, in the 18th Century, the idea of a woman being involved in anything more complicated than mere nursing would've been scandalous, so only gentlemen had the opportunity, inclination and standing to practice such things. And practice is the key word, because
they were all novices, else they wouldn't have been 'pioneers'.
Anthony Kenny, curator of the museum of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said recently of Hunter and his contemporary, and fellow Scot, William Smellie, “They were the first proper obstetricians in the country because of their pioneering work practising what was then still a new branch of medicine.” Amongst Hunter's clientèle were many of the rich and famous of mid-18th Century London and, in 1762, Hunter became Physician Extraordinary to Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, and helped her to deliver the future George IV.
William Hunter was also a lecturer on anatomy, during a career that lasted almost forty years, working in London, where he rose to become Professor of Anatomy at the Royal Academy of London. As an anatomist, Hunter published on many subjects, including fossil elephants, but his most famous work is 'The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus', published in 1774 and which includes accurate descriptions, together with illustrations, of the parts of the uterus and of the placenta. In addition, William's younger brother, John Hunter, who was a surgeon, collaborated with his elder sibling in charting the system of the lymphatics.
Hunter's other major contribution is to have been the founder of Scotland’s oldest public museum, the Hunterian Museum, which began life in London, in 1768, intended to improve the teaching of medicine, surgery, and anatomy through illustration. The museum contained natural-history specimens and a fine library of rare books as well as anatomical and pathological specimens. On his death, Hunter bequeathed his museum into trusteeship to be given to the University of Glasgow. That city's university honoured his achievements in 1750 by the award of a medical degree.
William Hunter still inspires respect amongst doctors today, more than 250 years since he made his contributions to healthcare, but new light has since been thrown, casting a shadow on his reputation. Was he also a serial killer? Read on...
William Hunter was born in the old house of Long Calderwood, in Lanarkshire, on the 23rd of May, 1718. He was the seventh child of a large family, of which four died in childhood, and three more before the age of forty. Only three lived beyond middle age; William, his younger brother John and a sister, Dorothy. That might be considered the incentive he needed to enter the medical profession, but instead, at the age of thirteen, William entered the University of Glasgow to study theology. Then, after five years, he eventually decided to study medicine, mainly through the influence of his landlord and friend, William Cullen, a well-known physician.
Hunter spent three years with Cullen, attended the University of Edinburgh for a year and, in 1740, sailed to London. There he met fellow Scots, James Douglas and William Smellie, who encouraged him in anatomy and obstetrics respectively. After studying anatomy under Douglas, Hunter decided to teach and opened a series of private lectures on anatomy and surgery. lectures were announced in the London Evening Post from the 9thto the 12thof January, 1746.
The advertisement read: "On Monday the 1stof February, at five in the afternoon, will begin A Course of Anatomical Lectures. To which will be added, the Operations of Surgery, with the application of Bandages. By William Hunter, Surgeon. Gentlemen may have an Opportunity of learning the Art of Dissecting, during the whole Winter Season, in the same Manner as in Paris." In 1747, Hunter was appointed assistant to the accoucheur at Middlesex Hospital amd, in 1748, he became surgeon-accoucheur at the British Lying-in Hospital. An accoucheur, by the way, is just a fancy name for a physician specialising in obstetrics, which in turn, is just a fancy name for the midwifery appropriated by 18th Century male doctors; literally, in French, accoucheur means 'one who is present at the bedside'.
That’s the good bit, now for the bad. According to recent research published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine and reported in The Observer, the founding fathers of modern obstetrics, Williams Smellie and Hunter, may have rivalled the infamous Burke and Hare, in the name of medical science.
The paper reported that a historian, Don Shelton, believes that these giants of medicine may have been responsible for the ‘burking’ (murdering people to order) of women in late pregnancy for medical research. It’s true that, by 1755, rumours had been circulating that the women in Smellie's journal had been murdered. Associates had begun pressing him on their origins, although no police investigation was ever undertaken.
Shelton reckons the death toll commissioned by Hunter and Smellie was greater than the murders committed by Burke and Hare and Jack the Ripper put together. It seems that the pioneers were also serial killers. Who’s going to play them in the movie – would you suggest Depp and DiCaprio? Surely, it'd be Ewan Macgregor and Gerald Butler!
Whatever the truth of the matter, William Hunter died on the 30th of March, 1783. His legacy may be summed up by this quote of his, “To acquire knowledge and to communicate it to others has been the pleasure, the business and the ambition of my life.”