23 May 1718 – 30 March 1783
William Hunter was born into a landed middle-class family at Long Calderwood, East Kilbride, 8 miles south of Glasgow. He first studied Divinity at the University of Glasgow but left without graduating and moved to the University of Edinburgh in 1737 to study Medicine under Dr William Cullen. He graduated MD in 1741 and moved to London, becoming a resident pupil and assistant of Dr William Smellie (also a former pupil of Cullen’s) at St. George’s Hospital. He remained at St. George’s for three years, specialising in obstetrics and anatomy, then went into private practice in 1744. From 1746 until his death 37 years later, Hunter taught a private class in anatomy and dissection that came to be viewed as the finest available in Britain. Assistants and demonstrators at what rapidly grew to become a school of anatomy included William’s younger brother John Hunter, his sororal nephew Matthew Baillie, and John’s future brother-in-law Sir Everard Home.
William began amassing a collection of preserved human anatomical preparations, comparative zoological specimens, antique books on materia medica, coins and medals over the 1740s and ‘50s. His fortunes were significantly advanced in 1764 when he was appointed man-midwife to Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the wife of King George III, overseeing the delivery of twelve of her fifteen children during the remainder of his life. His connections at court and subsequent reputation ensured the success of his private practice, and careful investment funded his one great vice – collecting, which expanded over the 1760s and ‘70s to also encompass shells and botanical specimens, geology, European fine art and antiquities, and finally, in the last ten years of his life, Pacific art.
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1767, and also moved his anatomy school into a large, three-story terraced townhouse at 16 Great Windmill Street, Soho; with the dissecting room downstairs, he lived on the first and second floors in apartments that also included a large private museum. From 1768 to 1772, he was elected Professor of Anatomy to the Royal Academy, and taught such notable painters as Reynolds and Zoffany. As well as regularly attending the auctions at Covent Garden nearby, and bidding aggressively, Hunter had a circle of close associates he would send in his stead when he himself was too busy; he was also a collector of collections and bought several notable private museums and libraries in their entirety, including those of Dr John Fothergill, Horace Walpole, Thomas Crofts and Anthony Askew.
Except for his all-consuming passion for collecting, Hunter was frugal and abstemious in all aspects of his private life. He had several close female friends, but neither married nor had any known lovers, and died childless in 1783. His nephew, Matthew Baillie, was nominated his principal heir, and continued to teach anatomy at Windmill Street for several years thereafter. Keppie (2007) remarks that, when Hunter died on the 30th March 1783, “the collection consisted of some 30,000 coins and medals, 10,000 books, 650 manuscripts, 7,500 insects, 1,500 minerals, 3,000 anatomical specimens, 5,000-6,000 shells and 200 ‘South Seas Curiosities’”. Of these 200-some “curiosities”, we can safely deduce (from various pieces of circumstantial evidence) that a significant minority originated on the Northwest coast of North America, and that many others (an entire wall display) were weapons. It is realistic to estimate that Hunter had acquired well over a hundred Pacific items from the three voyages of James Cook – from Sydney Parkinson via John Fothergill’s museum; from Johann Reinhold Forster directly; and from the 1781 auction of David Samwell’s collection.
Dr; MD; FRS
Date of Birth
23 May 1718
Date of Death
30 March 1783
Entry created on 28 August 2020