The best teacher of anatomy that ever lived

This week we've installed a new display on our second floor gallery celebrating the outstanding Scottish-born surgeon, anatomist, collector and 'man-midwife' William Hunter (1718–1783).

St Andrew's Day in St Andrews Place

Born in East Kilbride and educated at the University of Glasgow, Hunter ran a hugely successful surgical and midwifery practice in London. He was physician-in-extraordinary to Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, attending all but one of her fifteen births.

Hunter’s brother, John (1728–1793), observed that William 'was the first in great Britain that taught publickly dissections' and the success of Hunter’s medical practice enabled him to advertise his first private anatomy course in 1746 where ‘Gentlemen may have the opportunity of learning the art of dissecting during the whole winter season in the same manner as in Paris.' The 'Parisian manner’ meant hands-on dissection of human corpses – a much desired commodity for eager anatomy students.

The dissecting room. Coloured lithograph by T C Wilson after Thomas Rowlandson, c1780

Hunter is described as ‘the most perfect demonstrator as well as lecturer the world has ever known’. The artist Thomas Rowlandson sketched Hunter in the dissection room of his Windmill Street school and the resulting print shows a bespectacled Hunter standing above a composite group of past and present students and colleagues including his brother John, Tobias Smollett and his nephew Matthew Baillie. A poster on the wall advertising ‘prices for bodys’ makes it clear that Rowlandson’s work is also a satire on body snatching - an accusation associated with Hunter throughout his career as 'the Scotch night man'.

Visit our William Hunter display on our second floor gallery which also features our famous portrait of Hunter lecturing to the Royal Academy by Johann Zoffany and a copy of Hunter's extraordinary Anatomy of the human gravid uterus, 1774.

Emma Shepley, RCP senior curator

Source: Helen Brock, ‘Hunter, William (1718–1783)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

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