HUNTER, John (1728-1793)
Plaque erected in 1907 by London County Council at 30 Golden Square, Soho, London, W1F 9LD, City of Westminster
Collecting and Antiquities, Medicine
JOHN HUNTER 1728-1793 Surgeon Lived Here
The plaque is situated at the far end of the building on Upper John Street. When the building was redeveloped in 1931 the plaque was re-erected, as noted by a supplementary tablet. This building was itself demolished in 1998 and both plaques were positioned on the new structure in 2000.
The Scottish-born surgeon John Hunter is commemorated on the site of his former lodgings in Soho, where he lived from 1765 to 1768.
The founder of scientific surgery
Hunter came to London from Lanarkshire in 1748 and studied surgery and anatomy under his brother, Dr William Hunter, and others. He gained experience of the most practical kind by working as a surgeon in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), which informed a later treatise he wrote on gunshot wounds.
Hunter’s main legacy lies in his dedication to scientific investigation to further medical knowledge. When his most famous student, Edward Jenner – the discoverer of the smallpox vaccine – asked him about a line of theory he was developing, Hunter replied
I think your solution is just. But why think? Why not try the experiment? Repeat the experiments … they will give you the solution.
Hunter made an important clinical breakthrough on the treatment of aneurysm and wrote an important treatise on dentistry. His advocacy of mercury as a cure for venereal disease, however, has lasted less well.
In 1776 he became surgeon-extraordinary to King George III, and in 1790, surgeon-general to the army.
The Hunterian collection
The healing power of nature was a key fascination for Hunter. It was to try to unlock nature’s secrets, and to investigate the relationship between form and function – in body organs, for example – that motivated him to become a prolific collector of specimens.
In all, Hunter assembled some 14,000 specimens from more than 500 different plants and animals, including items collected by Joseph Banks on his voyages with James Cook. The collection became the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons.
Golden Square and London
Soon after returning from the Seven Years’ War, Hunter began to live, practice and lecture in Golden Square. The 17th-century house he lived in was demolished in 1931, and his plaque and supplementary tablet currently mark a building that dates from the turn of the 21st century. They are located on the side of the building that extends down Upper John Street.
While living at Golden Square, Hunter’s anatomical research earned him election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1767. The following year, he became a member of the Company of Surgeons and joined the surgical staff of St George’s Hospital, at Hyde Park Corner.
Hunter moved to Jermyn Street in 1770 to accommodate his rapidly expanding collection of anatomical specimens, and in 1783 settled in his final London address – a large house that stood on the east side of Leicester Square. After their marriage in 1771, he lived with his wife, Anne, who was a prominent poet.
According to one early biographer, Hunter’s deficiency in ‘refined gentlemanly feelings’ meant he was never ‘a general favourite of the profession’ during his lifetime. Within 20 years of his death, however, his reputation soared, thanks to the great scientific collection he left behind. There have been claims in recent years that he was involved in foul play to obtain human specimens while training as a surgeon, but these are unsubstantiated.
Angina, coupled with his argumentative nature, proved to be Hunter’s nemesis: he died in October 1793 following a row about student admissions at St George’s.
Read more about John Hunter at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.