Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

John Hunter, his wolf dogs, and the inherited smiles of Pomeranians

Stephen Martin
United Kingdom


Title of John Hunter's paper on wolf dogs
Fig 1. Title of Hunter’s Royal Society wolf dogs paper. © Author, from original, CC-BY 4.0

John Hunter, 1728-1793, was a polymathic doctor. Besides being an anatomist and clinician, he was also interested in early genetics, exemplified by his “Observations tending to shew that the Wolf, Jackal, and Dog, are all of the Same Species.”1 Hunter presented this paper to the Royal Society in 1787. (Fig 1) His breadth of thinking and the rich characters in his network say a lot about intellectual polymathy in the Enlightenment.

An accomplished writer and scientist, he was aware of inherited influences on animal behavior. Today, observed patterns of action stemming from genes are called behavioral phenotypes.2 Hunter grappled with the observation of horses and donkeys breeding sterile mules. We now know that this is because horses have sixty-four chromosomes and donkeys have sixty-two, a remarkably large genetic difference to still produce offspring.

His views fit the widely held modern concept of species definition coined by Ernst Mayr3 in New York in the 1940s, that of “groups of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations, which are reproductively isolated from other such groups.” Subsequent biologists have veered away from the isolation criterion.

Hunter also emphasized equal pregnancy gestation in species definition. He corresponded about several examples of dogs breeding with wolves or jackals and was interested in temperament, noting some wolf dog descendant pups to be “wild and unruly.” Hunter considered variation of barking between breeds. Aware of potentially affable temperament from hybridism, he kept at least two wolf dogs. One was a wolf-Pomeranian cross given as a pet by a London animal breeder, Mr. Brookes of the New Road. The president of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, inspected a wolf dog litter with Hunter and later helped him correspond to investigate owners’ experience of their behavior.4 Looking like a younger man, in a surviving portrait Hunter had an apparent wolf-mastiff cross. (Fig 2) Hunter described Pomeranians as “the shepherd’s Dog in Germany.” This breed was repeatedly painted with a real dog smile in the eighteenth century by Thomas Gainsborough, (Fig 3) including the pets of Jane Lady Whichcote5 and Carl Friedrich Abel.6

Portrait of John Hunter
Fig 2. John Hunter with one of his wolf dogs. © Museums at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, with kind permission to publish in Hektoen.

The more you look for it, the more convincing it is that smiling, in dogs that can, has the same social triggers and muscle actions as in humans. Judging by his pictures, Gainsborough seems to have appreciated this and to have done it full justice. Recent functional magnetic resonance studies in dogs have shown they have pathways of social cognition, recognizing human faces in their brains’ temporal lobes.7 Most impressively, five border collies, a Labrador, and a golden retriever were trained to lie still while wide awake in the noisy scanner, though the dogs did have ear plugs! Dogs have brain circuits that have been compared to human brain activity for human word recognition, which may link to pleasure, but it needs further research.8 Remarkably, even though they are smaller, modern Pomeranians still seem to have an inherited tendency for smiling. (Fig 4) Hunter’s Pomeranian-wolf dog cross was easily startled, though in wolf fashion, and was sadly killed in the street as her jittery reaction was mistaken for rabies. The Pomeranian of Mr. and Mrs. William Hallett by Gainsborough9 looks tired, panting, and of dampened expression. The morning walk, as the painting is alternatively titled, had evidently taken its toll, invalidating canine smile analysis from this picture.

We know of another piece of eighteenth-century Pomeranian behavior from a biography of Gainsborough.10 He had music lessons in London from the last great viola da gamba virtuoso and composer Carl Friedrich Abel, a lover of Pomeranians. Though still playing the bass viol, a late vestige of the Renaissance, Abel pioneered social chamber music composition, writing the earliest trio sonata for flute, harpsichord, and cello.11 It was through Abel that Gainsborough met his friend Johann Christian Bach and produced the most outstanding portrait of the Bach family, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London.12 There is always a sense that prominent people knew all other prominent people in the late eighteenth-century UK population of about eight million. Gainsborough can be viewed as the George Stubbs of dog portraits and he painted Abel’s dog twice—once with his master and his bass viol,13 now in San Marino, and in 1777 with her puppy.6

Portrait of woman with smiling dog
Fig 3. Smiling behavior. Jane Lady Whichcote and her Pomeranian by Thomas Gainsborough. © Burghley House Collections, with kind permission to publish in Hektoen.

Abel’s dog in the music room is half asleep under the table and is also excluded from our smile study, but she had a superb smile as a proud mother with her pup. When they showed the dog her portrait with the pup, she “flew at her own resemblance with such fury that it was found necessary to place the picture in a situation where it was free from her jealous anger.” That does not negate general affability, as she probably perceived an intruding dog with one of her litter, not recognizing her own image. Dogs can learn to ignore their own image, but do not recognize it. It takes the brains of some but not all dolphins, magpies, chimpanzees, gorillas, and elephants to learn to realize it is their own reflection.14 The choice of a Pomeranian for wolf-mating by Mr. Brookes might have been their common availability, their popularity at the time, or a wish to see what happened in true Enlightenment experimentation, by combining affability with the wolf’s contrasting wildness. Interestingly, wolf dog breeding had already occurred naturally. All black wolves have been shown to have a mutation that first occurred in domestic dogs. In the same vein, most Yellowstone wolves are apparently part coyote.

Proud of his discovery and obviously attached to his larger hybrid hound, the artist Robert Home (1752-1834) painted Hunter’s portrait with his wolf dog. The original is in the collection of the Royal Society and a later version (fig 2) is housed by the Royal College of Surgeons Hunterian Museum. This copy, by Dorofield Hardy (1853–1937), is faithful to the original. Dorofield was the maiden name of artist Frederick Hardy’s mother, under whose name he always painted. He trained in the Royal Academy Schools. His father was a Royal Court horn player and an artist with an impressive line of influence, taught by James Duffield Harding, a fine proto-impressionist landscape artist and pupil of Ruskin’s favorite, Samuel Prout.

Robert Home, Hunter’s original artist, was Hunter’s brother-in-law. At the age of fourteen, Home had the privilege of a very distinguished lodger with his family who had just arrived to work in England. This was the great Swiss artist Angelica Kauffman, who gave him painting lessons. Home was a versatile artist of wildlife, landscapes, and portraits. His best faces had a fresh realism, which can sometimes be hard to accept as works from the Regency and not modern portraits. The Hunterian Museum also has a beautifully mysterious picture by Home of a Malay woman in costume, reputedly one of Hunter’s patients with a psoas muscle abscess in her back originating from a kidney infection. This picture was earlier attributed to Kaufmann herself, but it does not match her more delicate intricacy. The sitter looks Eurasian and has been plausibly identified as Martina Rozells of Phuket, the Siamese-Portuguese wife of Captain Francis Light, founder of modern Penang.15

Pomeranian dog
Fig 4. Smaller, but still smiling 250 years on. Teddy, of Halifax Yorkshire, a modern Pomeranian, stealing the show after a smart haircut. © Waraporn Punkingtip, CC-BY 4.0.

Home painted in India from 1791 until his death. In the days before photography, the expression for having a portrait painted was also “having your picture taken.” In areas with little competition, artists could make a good living. Painters and musicians often left London in the late eighteenth century because supply outstripped demand. In India, one consequence was the evolving historical interplay of British and Indian art and architecture through the nineteenth century with very interesting mutual influences.

Using a Gainsborough-style parkland composition, Home showed Hunter looking relatively young, in breeches, coat, wess cot (as we still say in Northeast England), and tricorn hat, patting his affectionate pet with a cranial diameter about twice his own. The facial breadth and pendant ears fit a mastiff cross. It symbolized breeding pet dogs’ gentle behavioral characteristics into the giant frame of the wolf, a wonderfully clear visual statement. Affable or not, you still would not mess with the beast! The dog’s affinity to Home can be interpreted as pack bonding strategy and simply that he liked his feeder and groomer. Hunter’s nonchalant expression must hide the fun artist and sitter had in producing the image. Hunter’s face is a lot more studied in both paintings than his canine pal, suggesting it too would not keep still and was finished from a quick sketch. That explains the loss of perspective and contour in both versions, looking across the brow and the side of the dog’s nose. Hunter’s face, in contrast, though a little naïve, is entirely convincing and proportionate.

A good, full biography of Hunter and his brother William was previously published in Hektoen International.16 Aware of John Hunter’s interest in comparative anatomy, Captain James Cook gave him a stuffed giraffe, which had to have its legs taken off to fit his house, only to be reattached when he upsized to a more spacious residence. It may be a manifestation of behavioral genetics and the affinity of similar personalities that the author is acquainted with a present-day English gentleman, who houses English Haydn Festival concerts and did just manage to display a whole, stuffed, adult male giraffe up his stairwell. This chap went one step further, though, and wired stuffed baboons to his chandeliers. Captain Cook was the author’s six-times great uncle, about one potential chromosome in common.17 Perhaps the spirit of the Enlightenment lives on, in rare throwback pockets.



  1. Hunter, J. Observations tending to shew that the Wolf, Jackal, and Dog, are all of the Same Species. (sic) Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1787, Vol. 77, pp. 253 – 266. On JSTOR or Google Books for free access.
  2. Behavioral phenotypes can be normal—physiological, or stem from abnormal genetics—pathological. The genotype is the genetic part.
  3. Mayr, E. Systematics and the Origin of Species. Columbia University Press, NY, NY, 1942.
  4. Kane E. History Today. 23.1.19. Discusses more examples of the network of wolf dog scientists. Online at: https://www.historytoday.com/miscellanies/wild-wolf
  5. https://collections.burghley.co.uk/collection/portrait-of-jane-lady-whichcote-thomas-gainsborough-r-a-1727-1788/ Also, Gainsborough’s dog of Mary Robinson, George IV’s mistress, in https://www.rct.uk/collection/search#/5/collection/400670/mrs-mary-robinson-1758-1800 is a sketchier but similar composition of a Pomeranian smiler.
  6. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/gainsborough-pomeranian-bitch-and-puppy-n05844
  7. Cuaya L V, Hernández-Pérez R, Concha L. Our faces in the dog’s brain: functional imaging reveals temporal cortex activation during perception of human faces. PLoS One. 2016; 11 (3): e0149431. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4774982/
  8. Prichard A, Cook P F, Spivak M, et al. Awake fMRI reveals brain regions for novel word detection in dogs. Front. Neurosci., 15 Oct 2018. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00737 We feel the involvement of dog brains’ amygdalae suggests a wolf-like arousal during the recognition response—comparatively, that is not common in basic human word recognition. We also note that a human-type anterior cingulate hedonia (pleasure) center brain activation pattern was not found, but it was, again, only a small sample. Still, scanning twelve alert dogs was no mean feat. Do not miss this group’s picture of all the subjects with pet toy experimental objects!
  9. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/thomas-gainsborough-mr-and-mrs-william-hallett-the-morning-walk Queen Victoria had Pomeranians of Italian origin called Turi https://www.rct.uk/collection/search#/10/collection/450029/turi (Thuringia—Prince Albert’s boyhood homeland) and Marco, in the 1890s, interestingly in between the Hallets’ and Teddy in size and features. Victoria had a great time with young Albert in Coburg, formerly Thuringia, where she praised the beer and sausages. Albert’s home, Rosenau, remains sublime. Turi was white, Victoria’s carriage companion, and with her at her request when she died. (Timms E J. royalcentral.co.uk) White dogs are often the runt of litters with no markings and gentle behavior.
  10. Whitley W T. Thomas Gainsborough, London 1915, p 363. Also, in https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/gainsborough-pomeranian-bitch-and-puppy-n05844 Text by Terry Riggs, February 1998.
  11. Manuscript in Durham Cathedral library in the name of Gottfried Finger, by current consensus pseudonymical. Though not a great composition, it is flashy and fun to play on original instruments. Abel’s renown was changing key brilliantly off the top of his head, which J C Bach and Dr. Charles Burney found “astonishing.” (From Knape W, Charters M R in Abel entry, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, (Ed. Sadie S), Macmillan, London, 1980, Vol 1, pp. 11-14.).
  12. Bach’s son anglicized his name to John, living and working in London for twenty years, where his tuition was a major influence on young Mozart.
  13. https://emuseum.huntington.org/objects/274/karl-friedrich-abel?ctx=b0dc2231f5e1bc26160767c1c38d157c0e15dfe3&idx=0 Lady Whichcote’s, Abel’s, and the Hallets’ dogs were Spitz (peak nose/ear) type Pomeranians.
  14. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_test Accessed October 2021. A well-referenced review.
  15. https://www.quora.com/Who-posed-for-Robert-Homes-Portrait-of-a-Malay-Woman Analysis and arguments by the Malaysian barrister Yusrin Faidz Yussof.
  16. https://hekint.org/2020/06/11/two-great-scots-john-and-william-hunter/ A 2006 lecture by the late B. Herold Griffith.
  17. There were five other children from Redcar fishing families in the author’s Zetland primary school class, similarly related to Cook through his sister. This is not included for snobbery—Cook’s sister’s fishing family had a hard time after Cook died in Hawaii and Banks kindly bailed them out with £10.00. We found a record that their lawyer still took ten percent.



STEPHEN MARTIN is a smiling, affable, retired hybrid doctor, a dying species.


Acknowledgements: Thanks go to Hayley Kruger of the Royal College of Surgeons of England Museums for advice and permission to publish Hardy’s copy of the painting in Hektoen International, to Jon Culverhouse, curator of the superlative Burghley House, Stamford, England, and to Waraporn Punkingtip for generously allowing her outstanding photo of her client, Teddy, into full public domain through Hektoen International. Teddy’s consent is on file.


Fall 2021  |  Sections  |  Science

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