Today, the history of medicine provides a strange
hero. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Sherwin Nuland tells the
story of John Hunter, born in rural Scotland in
1728. Hunter was the coarse younger brother of a
suave London surgeon. When he was twenty, his
brother gave him work managing the dissecting room
of his anatomy school in London.
Legend has it that Hunter wasted his youth and
arrived in London crude and uneducated. The crude
part is true enough. He never did learn tact or
social grace. Nor was he any kind of scholar. But
his youth was not wasted. He'd spent his time
outdoors, observing and questioning. Why do leaves
turn color, how do animals function? He arrived in
London with a highly-honed scientific sense and the
dissection room made a perfect laboratory.
He showed such talent there that his brother urged
him off to Oxford. That was a disaster. Hunter
couldn't stand the place. Like many really bright
people, he was an unteachable learning-machine.
His abilities eventually buoyed him into medical
prominence. He was a terrible lecturer and a superb
mentor. He settled into a country house where he
kept a huge zoo of animals, living and dead, and a
coterie of medical students. In that intense world
of his own making, he began to expand medical
When he broke his Achilles tendon, Hunter cut the
tendons of several dogs. Then he killed them at
intervals so he could analyze the healing process.
He showed how bones and tendons mend, how the body
generates a gluey osteoblast substance that turns
into scarlike material and cements them together as
In Hunter's most famous experiment, he did with
himself much what he'd done with those poor dogs.
He infected himself with syphilis. Then he traced
the course of the disease and its treatment with
mercury and cauterization. His book on syphilis
remained a classic even after Ehrlich invented his
so-called Magic Bullet.
Hunter went far beyond venereal disease itself and
found his way to the general character of
inflammation. He was one of the first to fully
explain the role of inflammation in healing.
Still, he couldn't bridle his furiously churning
mind -- his uncontrollable curiosity and temper.
When Joshua Reynolds tried to paint him, he
fidgeted. Painting Hunter was hopeless until he
started thinking about a problem and wandered off
into a brown study. Reynolds saw what was
happening, turned the canvas over and quickly
captured what he saw. The result is a marvelous
portrait of Hunter -- deadly earnest, with his face
rapt in thought.
Hunter suffered angina when his temper was up. Some
rascal, he wrote, would sooner or later do him in
by riling him. Sure enough, he died of a heart
attack in 1793, after an argument at his hospital.
The Royal College of Surgeons has, ever since,
sponsored an annual lecture in Hunter's memory.
It's given by doctors who've succeeded in more
conventional ways, who celebrate all he did, but
who remain puzzled by the relentlessness of his
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds