The Case of the Doctor Whose Brain Was Stronger Than His Heart

Albert B. Lowenfels, MD


December 07, 2012

A Brief Biography of the Patient

John Hunter (1728-1793) (Figure) was born in Scotland, where he spent the first 20 years of his life before traveling to London to work with his older brother, William, an established physician and lecturer. For several years, John's main job was to prepare anatomical specimens to illustrate William's lectures. The knowledge of anatomy acquired during these dissections formed the backbone of John's own medical education, enabling him to secure a post at age 32 as a military surgeon.

Figure. Portrait of John Hunter, by Joshua Reynolds. The skeleton of Patrick O'Brien, the "Irish Giant," is in the background. Courtesy of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow.

John Hunter was commissioned as an Army surgeon in 1760. As a result, he gained wide experience in treating gunshot wounds and other injuries sustained by soldiers engaged in one of England's recurrent wars against France.

Hunter left the Army in 1763 and spent 5 years as a partner to James Spence, a well-known London dentist, during which time he performed tooth transplants. Although always interested in trauma, Hunter soon became a respected surgeon who treated not only famous persons, such as the Scottish philosopher David Hume, but also ordinary workers and laborers. Eventually, Hunter became "Physician Extraordinary" to King George III. Much of Hunter's time was taken up with lectures and anatomical demonstrations, which was an important source of income.