Saturday, 3 October 2015

The Great Dissector of Leicester Square: John Hunter

Few visitors to London's famed Leicester Square know that it was once the site of huge numbers of dissections of human and animal bodies. During the late 18th century, it was the location of the anatomy school of the renowned (and reviled) surgeon John Hunter. 

Hunter's bust graces the central area of the square, but it is unlikely that many visitors give it more than a passing glance. They are usually there for other reasons, which I won't go into here.

The younger brother of anatomist William Hunter, John learned his trade working for William, including the art of body snatching, which was the main source of corpses for dissection until 1830's. After serving as an army surgeon for several years, he set up his own school, which eventually settled at the Square. The building, which also contained his house and extensive anatomical museum, now houses a pub. (below)

Across the square lay the house of his friend the artist Joshua Reynolds, who had a strong interest in anatomy. Reynolds' house is now an All Bar One. Don't knock Progress.

John Hunter dissected everything he could lay his hands on. His subjects included the famous Irish Giant, Charles Byrne or O'Brien, whose corpse he acquired against the deceased's wishes by bribing the man who had it, allegedly for the then enormous sum of 500 pounds. In the painting of Hunter below, one can see part of the giant's skeleton at top right.

Animals of all kinds, lower as well as higher, went under John's dissecting knives. He kept a large menagerie of animals at his suburban house at Earl's Court, including kangaroos he received from naturalist Sir Joseph Banks. 

Hunter married poet Jane Home, who wrote the lyrics to some of Haydn's English songs. John Hunter died of a heart attack in 1793 during a heated argument with the governors of St. George's Hospital, where he was head surgeon. 

His enormous anatomical collection, or what survives of it, now resides in the Hunterian Museum, at the Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln's Inn Fields. Among the exhibits is the skeleton of O'Brien seen above.

It's fascinating stuff, but definitely not for the squeamish.

Further Reading:

Wendy Moore, The Knife Man (London: Penguin, 2006)
Druin Burch, Digging up the Dead  (London: Vintage, 2008)

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