When worlds Colide

Hunterian Museum

John Hunter's collection was purchased by the government in 1799 and given to the Company (later The Royal College) of Surgeons. The collection formed the basis for a museum constructed as part of the new Royal College of Surgeons of London's building on the south side of Lincoln's Inn Fields. This first museum, designed by George Dance and Nathaniel Lewis, was soon found to be inadequate; as early as 1829 William Clift complained of a 'great inconvenience' from 'want of space'. It was decided that the whole building should be redesigned, and Charles Barry was selected as the architect for the project. The museum closed in April 1834 and reconstruction began. Elements of the Dance/Lewis structure were retained but the original gallery was extended and a second gallery added - these were known as the East and West museums respectively and were completed in February 1837. Continued expansion of the collections forced a further extension, again to Barry's design, which started in 1851 and was completed in 1852. This created a third room with the three now designated as the East, Middle and West museums. Further minor alterations to the structure and more significant reorganisations of the displays took place between the mid 1850s and the late 1880s, when two further galleries were added (these were begun in 1888 and completed in 1892). They were completed in the same style as Barry's earlier rooms, and the five galleries were numbered I-V. In addition there were several smaller rooms that were variously used as workrooms or display areas annexed to the museum. They included rooms used for the display of the growing collection of surgical instruments, as well as rooms for items such as mummies and other objects that did not fit into the main collection series. A major addition to the museum took place in 1909 when the College received on loan the collection of the Odontological Society of Great Britain. It was housed in a new gallery under the existing Room II. Further subterranean extensions were made in 1921, when a room was added under the Instrument Room at the rear of Room V to house the Army Medical Collection, and in 1925, when the osteological series was accommodated below Room I.

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John Hunter (1728-1793) came to London in 1748 at the age of 20 and worked as an assistant in the anatomy school of his elder brother William (1718-83), who was already an established physician and obstetrician. Under William's direction, John learnt human anatomy and showed great aptitude in the dissection and preparation of specimens. William also arranged for him to study under the eminent surgeons William Cheselden (1688-1752) and Percivall Pott (1714-88).

Hunter was commissioned as an army surgeon in 1760 and spent three years in France and Portugal. As well as developing new ideas on the treatment of common ailments - such as gunshot wounds and venereal disease - Hunter spent time collecting specimens of lizards and other animals. On his return to England in 1763 he began to build up his private practice. His scientific work was rewarded in 1767 when he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1768 he was elected Surgeon to St George's Hospital, and in 1783 he moved to a large house in Leicester Square, which enabled him to take resident pupils and to arrange his collection into a teaching museum.

Hunter devoted all his resources to his museum. It included nearly 14,000 preparations of more than 500 different species of plants and animals. As his reputation grew, he was supplied with rare specimens such as kangaroos brought back by Sir Joseph Banks from James Cook’s voyage of 1768-71.

While most of his contemporaries taught only human anatomy, Hunter's lectures stressed the relationship between structure and function in all kinds of living creatures. Hunter believed that surgeons should understand how the body adapted to and compensated for damage due to injury, disease or environmental changes. He encouraged students such as Edward Jenner and Astley Cooper to carry out experimental research and to apply the knowledge gained to the treatment of patients.

By the 1780s Hunter enjoyed widespread recognition as the leading teacher of surgery of his time. However, the acclaim did little to mellow his blunt-speaking and argumentative nature. His temper was to be his downfall: Hunter died in 1793 after suffering a fit during an argument at St George's Hospital over the acceptance of students for training.

Hunter is today remembered as a founder of `scientific surgery'. He was unique in seeking to provide an experimental basis to surgical practice, and his museum is a lasting record of his pioneering work.

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William Hunter

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In 1938, with the threat of war looming, the basements and sub-basements of the College were strengthened to provide secure storage for the Hunterian and other historical parts of the collection. However, the bulk of the museum collection remained in-situ. On the night of May 10 1941 the College was badly damaged by bombs. Rooms IV and V were completely destroyed with their contents. Room III was partially demolished, and there was considerable damage to the other areas. The Odontological Collection, housed in the basement, survived unscathed, but other parts of the basement were damaged by fire and some of the Hunterian Collection was lost.

Rebuilding the College after the end of the war was a slow process. With much of the collection lost, the new College building took a different form, with more space given over to research. Separate museums were created to house the Odontological Collection (linked to the newly formed Faculty of Dental Surgery) and the modern teaching/research collections. The latter were created as three (later two) museums funded by the Wellcome Trust, which became known as the Wellcome Museums of Anatomy and Pathology respectively. The new Hunterian Museum, in a much reduced form and once again recentred on John Hunter's original collection, was opened in 1963. It retained some of the design features of the prewar museum, but was of entirely new construction.

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The Hunterian, Odontological and the two Wellcome Museums remained in use until the late 1990s. Initially run as separate departments within the College, they were gradually combined into a single management structure. In 2001 the Wellcome Museums were merged into a single space, now designated as the Wellcome Museum of Anatomy and Pathology. In 2003 the Hunterian and Odontological Museums were also merged as part of a £3.1m project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Wellcome Trust, MLA and the Garfield Weston Foundation. The new Hunterian Museum opened to the public in February 2005.

The following links contain more information about the history of the museums and their collections.

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John Hunter

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William Hunter was born at Long Calderwood Farm near Glasgow in 1718. He matriculated at Glasgow University in 1731 and later studied medicine at Edinburgh. In 1741 he moved to London.

William Hunter quickly became well-known as a physician, especially as an obstetrician and built up a distinguished clientele, which included members of the Royal Family. He also established himself as a teacher of surgery and anatomy, and assembled a collection of anatomical and pathological specimens, which were used to support his teaching work.

In 1768 he opened a medical school at his house in Great Windmill Street. As his reputation - and wealth - grew, Hunter also collected works of art as well as coins, books, manuscripts and curiosities. After his death in 1783 William Hunter bequeathed his entire collection to Glasgow University, where it formed the basis of the Hunterian Museum which opened in 1807.

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