From William Hunter's Library
William Hunter (1718-1783), physician and collector, was unique amongst his contemporaries in several ways, not least in having had the foresight to bequeath his entire museological collections and library to his alma mater, thereby avoiding their dispersal in the salerooms. When in 1807 the collections of coins, paintings, minerals, shells, anatomical and natural history specimens, printed books and manuscripts were received, the University was given an incalculable boost, from which it is still benefiting. Hunter’s library alone, comprising some 10,000 volumes, not only augmented the University’s stock by fifty percent at a stroke, but also brought distinction and character to an adequate, but unremarkable academic collection.
Within the medical world Hunter was prominent in two areas, obstetrics and anatomy. As a man-midwife in London he developed his understanding of gynaecology and obstetrical anatomy, which enabled him to publish his most important work, The anatomy of the gravid uterus, Birmingham, 1774. The life size engravings in this volume, which derived from the detailed red chalk drawings of the medical illustrator Jan van Rymsdyk greatly assisted students and practitioners alike.
Although Hunter did not publish a similar illustrated work on general anatomy, he was active in teaching the subject, holding public dissections and also lecturing to artists at the Royal Academy of Arts, the first anatomist to do so.
Not surprisingly he possessed in his library the works of all the major writers on anatomy up to his own time, from which, within the scope of this exhibition, we have displayed only a handful.
Anatomical knowledge was gained from the careful dissection of cadavers, which until the nineteenth century were almost invariably the bodies of executed criminals. Post-execution dissection at the hand of the anatomist was dreaded almost as much as judicial dismemberment on the scaffold.
Feelings of sacrilege and abhorrence attending the penetration of the cavities of the skull, thorax and abdomen were also strong, even when practiced on dead bodies. This did not weaken in intensity until the twin problems of infection and pain were overcome in the course of the nineteenth century, thereby permitting surgery to be performed in these areas.
In contrast to the cadaver of the Banister painting, the musclemen or écorchés of Vesalius and other figures are depicted in living poses, voluntarily revealing the secrets of their interior space. By means of this convention which was further elaborated in the Baroque period, those depicted are freed from the negative associations of the gibbet and the dissecting table.
During the course of the seventeenth century Leiden University succeeded Padua as the principal centre of medical and anatomical study, attracting distinguished professors, many of whom had trained at the Venetian university. The success of Leiden also inspired the foundation of the schools of medicine at Edinburgh and Vienna.
In producing this exhibition the writer has relied heavily on the work of several writers, in particular, The fabric of the body: European traditions of anatomical illustration, by K. B. Roberts and J. D. W. Tomlinson. Oxford, Clarendon, 1992.