Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1131:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1131.

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 understanding.

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 they mend.

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 curiosity.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Nuland, S.B., The Doctors: The Biography of Medicine. New York: Vintage Books, 1989, Chapter 7, "Why the Leaves Changed Color in the Autumn."

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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