Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Grave robber or father of experimental surgery: A look into the life of John Hunter

Julius Bonello
Kathy Slater
Peoria, Illinois, United States

Skeleton of Charles Byrne, Irish Giant, in John Hunter’s museum London, England, Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0.

That the true idea of Life existed in the mind of John Hunter, I do not entertain the least doubt.
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The silence of the graveyard was broken by the grunts of laboring men and the sound of shovels slicing through fresh ground. “Shhhhh, don’t be so loud. Someone will hear you.”

The full moon was almost up, and the men were working furiously to finish the job. The body was removed slowly from the ground, and the men dragged the corpse across the newly muddied ground.

“Careful,” John Hunter said. “Mind the head. That’s most important.”

“He’s a young one,” said another. “There’ll be extra pay for this.”

“Hurry up,” whispered John. “If we’re out of here by the time Ben strikes one, we’ll have time for a pint.” John then grabbed the corpse by the leg. “Another successful night,” he thought. “William will be thrilled.”

John Hunter (1723–1793), was born in E. Kilbride Scotland, seven miles south of Glasgow. He was the youngest of ten children, seven of whom did not survive to adulthood. His father was 65 when John was born.

In elementary school, John was an unsatisfactory pupil. Irascible and mischievous, he would have rather studied nature outside the classroom. His curiosity was endless. He would ask his teachers questions about cloud formation and how tadpoles become frogs—questions that could not be definitively answered.

At thirteen, his father died and his mother, not valuing his academic studies, took him out of school. At that time, John could barely write coherent English, a fact that caused him much regret later on in life. Manually skilled, John moved to London at the age of 20 to work as a cabinet-maker with his brother-in-law. Three years later, he wrote to his older brother William. William Hunter, who was ten years older than John, was an anatomist and had a successful medical practice of considerable repute. Studying under William Smellie, “the master of British Midwifery”, William Hunter had succeeded in establishing a flourishing obstetric practice. As a prominent anatomist, he spent time giving private instructions and practical demonstrations to various surgeons of London. William accepted his younger brother as an assistant in his newly developed anatomical rooms and at that point, a dramatic change came over young John. Stimulated by the influence of his older brother, John’s uneducated identity was overtaken by ambition. He became so proficient in the anatomy lab that soon he oversaw preparation of the specimens that his brother used in lectures. He soon acquired a reputation among his peers as an excellent anatomist.

Although private dissection by an anatomical school had been legal since 1745, there was still no legal way of obtaining enough bodies. One could obtain them claiming the body of an executed criminal, but there were not enough of these. Therefore, to supply the demand for bodies, there arose a group called the “Resurrectionists” or “sack ‘em up men” who were experts at robbing graves at night and delivering the bodies to the various anatomy labs. John, seeing that this was necessary for his brother’s classes, decided to join them. The lack of bodies ended in 1832 when Parliament passed the Anatomy Act, thus ensuring an adequate supply.

Because of John’s lack of education, William got him to enroll at Oxford College. However, after two months, John left this revered institution, saying, “Why they tried to make an old woman of me; they wanted to stuff me with Greek and Latin at the University but these schemes I cracked like so many vermin as they came before me.”

After returning to London, John was busy. He studied under William Cheselden, the most famous lithotomist of his time. He also studied under Perceval Pott at Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital. With his brother William, they did much original and valuable work in anatomy. They described the male testicle and its role in the reproductive system. They also charted the anatomy and most of the functions of the lymphatic system. Together with Pott, the Hunters clarified the surgical anatomy of the gravid (pregnant) uterus, which required almost 23 years of preparation and dissection of almost 400 bodies.

 In 1756, John obtained the post of house surgeon at Saint George’s Hospital but had to abandon his position later due to failing health from tuberculosis. He sought a change of air and obtained the position of staff sergeant with the army off the coast of France. There he obtained an excellent knowledge of gunshot wounds and wrote that the treatment should not include the removal of the bullet.

After leaving the army, John returned to London and started a school of anatomy with a group of students in apprenticeship. One of his students was Edward Jenner (1729–1825), with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship. When Jenner discussed with John the possibility of preventing smallpox through vaccination, Hunter replied, “Don’t think! Be patient and accurate and try it.” He did, and the results were very successful.

In 1764, he purchased a house in Earls Court, two miles outside of London, and started his large collection of anatomical specimens. He was fascinated by the human body and by all of nature. He studied mammals, birds, and reptiles. Fish, buffaloes, leopards, jackals, sheep, goats, bees, ostriches, and silkworms were also on his specimen list. He would ask friends and patients to bring him animals both common and exotic. In 1773, he studied animal electricity in the torpedo, a finding that helped Galvani twenty years later in his animal experiments. Today, the Hunter Museum holds almost 14,000 of his specimens. One of his specimens was Charles Byrne, the “Irish Giant.”

Charles Byrne was a 7’7” Irish man who appeared in traveling circuses and fairs during John Hunter’s time. When John saw him, he told Charles that he wanted his body after he died. Hunter would even pay for it. Charles was horrified and began to have nightmares. He arranged for his coffin to be dropped in the North Sea after he died. Hunter, however, managed to bribe the undertaker, and in the dead of night, exchanged the giant’s remains for stones. The next morning, a heavy coffin silently sank to its watery grave while a 7’7” cadaver traveled to Earls Court.

Another example of John Hunter’s wit was the paper he wrote in 1776 on the recovery of people apparently drowned. He presented the paper in front of the Royal Society of London in March of that year. It received scant attention, and there is little indication that the medical community ever attempted to follow the principles set forth. In the paper, he describes experiments where he used bellows to push artificial breaths into a dog. When he decreased the frequency of the bellows, the heart slowed and when he increased the frequency of the bellows, the heart returned to its vigorous state. He also mentioned in the paper that the heart may be stimulated by either intravenous medications or by electric shock. It is unfortunate that his practice did not permit him to apply this method clinically. If it had, the modern era of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) might have begun two centuries earlier.

John Hunter’s couch. St. George’s hospital in London, England. Photo by author.

Because of their surgical accomplishments, both John and William Hunter became famous in Britain. William became midwife to the queen of England and John later became surgeon to King George III. Their students became the leading English surgeons for the next 60 years. John Hunter had been experiencing chest pain since the age of 45. As he grew older, he had more attacks of chest pain, usually brought on by anger or argument. He often said, “my life is at the mercy of any rogue who chooses to provoke me.” How prescient.

On October 16, 1793, the hospital staff meeting at St. George’s Hospital started sharply at 9 am. John, an unusual participant, was there on behalf of two of his students who wished to study medicine. The faculty disagreed because the students had not fulfilled their educational requirements. The meeting had progressed, and the student subject was raised by the chairman. The faculty representative spoke first and argued against the applications. John stood up and shouted “But—” then suddenly, he grabbed his chest and collapsed. He tried to crawl to the door but collapsed again. The doctors carried him to the couch. Moments later, the most famous English surgeon at that time, surgeon to the King, father of experimental surgery, and naturalist John Hunter died. He was 65 years old.

On his death, John Hunter was buried at the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. 66 years later, he was reinterred at Westminster Abbey. The Hunterian Museum in London England, John Hunter’s unwritten “book,” is his lasting monument. The Hunterian Oration, founded in 1813 by the executors of John Hunter’s will, is a biennial lecture sponsored by the Royal College of Surgeons of England. It is delivered by a fellow of the Royal College on February 14, John Hunter’s birthday.

Once an uneducated teenager and body-snatching adolescent, John Hunter overcame these obstacles to become a world class naturalist, a mentor to over 60 world class surgeons, and the most famous English surgeon in the late eighteenth century.


  • Moore, Wendy. The knife man: Blood, body-snatching and the birth of modern surgery. London: Bantam Books, 2006.
  • Toledo-Pereyra, Luis H. “Birth of Scientific Surgery: John Hunter versus Joseph Lister as the Father or Founder of Scientific Surgery.” Surgical Revolutions, July 2011, 75–85. https://doi.org/10.1142/9789814335126_0009.

JULIUS BONELLO, MD, is a Professor Emeritus of Clinical Surgery at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria. Though clinically retired since 2020, he takes an active role in the education of medical students and continues to write on the history of medicine.  

KATHY J. SLATER is a Surgery Program Coordinator in Peoria IL. She has an AGS Degree and has been working with Dr. Bonello for several years editing and sometime co-writing articles. 

Winter 2024



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