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ALLEN, Elizabeth

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  • 7592

The case books of John Hunter FRS, edited by Elizabeth Allen, J. L. Turk, and Reginald Murley.

London: Royal College of Medicine Services Limited, 1993.

The edition also provides invaluable information regarding Hunter's life and work, and a discussion of the existing Hunterian manuscripts and the record of their survival or loss. As an account of the unique story of the partial survival and partial destruction of John Hunter's manuscripts I quote from the summary provided by the SurgiCat website of the Royal College of Surgeons as accessed in August 2016 at this link:

"The Destruction of the Hunterian Manuscripts:

John Hunter kept many manuscript notes of his dissections, cases, and research. Hunter employed a number of amanuenses so that fair copies of his rough manuscripts could be taken, the rough manuscripts often being destroyed after this had been done. Hunter published two major works on the teeth in 1771 and 1778, as well as many papers on a variety of topics. However there still remained a great deal of unpublished material after Hunter’s death in 1793. These manuscripts were kept at Hunter’s house in Castle Street under the care of William Clift. Over the next six years, William Clift copied many of the manuscripts for his own reference.

John Hunter wished his collection of specimens should be offered to the British Government. In 1799 the collections were offered to The Company of Surgeons, which became The Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1800. A museum was purpose built to incorporate these collections in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In December 1799, Sir Everard Home ordered that all the Hunterian manuscripts should be transferred to his own house.

Sir Everard Home, a Hunterian Trustee and one of John Hunter’s executors, was entrusted by the Board of Trustees for the Hunterian Collections, to use the manuscripts to compile a catalogue of the specimens. However, this catalogue never appeared. In 1823, Sir Everard Home spoke to William Clift of a fire at his home resulting in the fire brigade being called, which was caused by his burning of John Hunter’s manuscripts in the fireplace.

The Hunterian Trustees began to worry about the catalogue being completed and elected a committee to consider the catalogue at their meeting in February 1824. The Board of Curators of the Museum requested on the 5th March 1824 that the Hunter manuscripts be transferred to the College as soon as possible. Sir Everard Home responded that John Hunter did not consider his manuscripts to be seen by the public due to their imperfect state and that they should instead be destroyed. Home claimed that he had spent the last 30 years using the papers for the benefit of the museum, but due to his own ill health could not continue this, and ended his executorship by destroying them.

The Board of Trustees were astonished and correspondence followed between the Trustees, the Board of Curators, and Sir Everard Home. This resulted in Sir Everard Home presenting the Board of Trustees with a sealed parcel containing some of John Hunter’s descriptions of specimens, on the 27th November 1824. Sir Everard Home claimed these were all the records of Morbid Anatomy of John Hunter. The Board of Curators reported that the records were incomplete and William Clift revealed that the records when he had looked after them between 1793 and 1799 had been much more numerous. Sir Everard Home did not respond to the questions asked of him about these records, but presented the Cases in Surgery manuscripts to the Board of Trustees at the meeting on 19th February 1825.

The reasons behind Sir Everard Home’s destruction of the Hunterian Manuscripts has been discussed on numerous occasions, with several theories being proposed. Sir Arthur Keith suggested for example that Home destroyed the manuscripts out of piety due to the heretical content of some the papers. This explanation has been considered limited due to minority of papers that might be considered of a heretical nature. The theory now more generally accepted to explain the destruction of the majority of the Hunterian manuscripts is that Home was using the contents of the manuscripts in his own publications.

Evidence used to back up this argument includes comparisons between some of John Hunter’s works and those of Sir Everard Home, which contain striking similarities; the extent of publications produced by Home between 1793 and 1823 including an incredible amount of original work for such a short time period; and the fact that Home destroyed the Hunterian manuscripts a few days after receiving the final proofs of his work Lectures on Comparative Anatomy.

Following the presentation by Home of the manuscripts of records in morbid anatomy and cases in surgery, William Clift began to transcribe them. These transcriptions were completed by 1825, and were added to the transcriptions of other Hunterian Manuscripts undertaken by William Clift before the originals were destroyed. Other Hunterian manuscripts have been added to the collections over the years from various sources.

[Source: Elizabeth Allen, JL Turk, Sir Reginald Murley (eds) The Case Books of John Hunter FRS, London: Royal Society of Medicine Services Limited, 1993.]"


Subjects: SURGERY: General