It was during the Seven Years' War
? one of those conflicts that is hard to place and even harder to understand ? that the young army surgeon John Hunter was able to observe hundreds of men torn to shreds by bullets and shot. In 1794, he would publish his startling conclusions in A Treatise on the Blood, Inflammation, and Gun-Shot Wounds
Unlike other surgeons, Hunter would not "operate" (i.e., cut out the bullet without the benefit of antiseptic or anesthesia, which were still unknown) when such treatment could be avoided. He believed in the healing powers of nature and observed that, all too often treatment by a surgeon only made matters worse. His was a revolutionary and dangerous approach to medicine in the 18th century.
Medical treatment was ineffective, sometimes brutal, and, all too often, deadly. In the late 1700s, it might consist of a physician recommending sneezing to a woman in childbed to help expel a placenta. The text below is from the renowned obstetrician William Smellie's Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery:
No doubt this was a better method than having the doctor's unwashed hands and blood-encrusted instruments near the mother or child. Here is a plate from Andre Levret's Observations sur les Causes et les Accidens de Plusieurs Accouchemens Laborieux, printed in 1770, showing some of the medical instruments available to obstetricians at the time.
For centuries, medicine had been held hostage by the ancient teachings of Galen (ca. 129-200 A.D.). His theory of humorism dominated medical thought. Bleedings, purgatives, and enemas were the standard treatments of the time, no matter what the disease.
That way of thinking would be challenged, and ultimately changed, by John Hunter and the hundreds of students he taught in comparative anatomy and physiology.
Hunter's lively intellect wasn't confined to surgery and the human body. Many other Georgian-era gentlemen kept natural history "cabinets", but how many could say that they owned the skeleton of a whale? This is what a fraction of John Hunter's collection looked like:
Charles Darwin, after returning from his five-year voyage on the Beagle, donated fossils to the museum; he became a regular visitor. It is rather sad that Hunter never got to read On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. John Hunter died in 1793, but the first threads of Darwin's theory of evolution can be seen in some of Hunter's writing and in the way his cabinet of natural history was arranged.
Hunter was such a force in medicine, biology, and pathology that he is named as "one of the three greatest surgeons of all time" in Fielding Garrison's Introduction to the History of Medicine. The subtitle of Wendy Moore's highly readable biography neatly sums up Hunter's remarkable career: The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery.
In our 1828 edition of A Treatise on the Blood, Inflammation, and Gun-Shot Wounds, Hunter's frontis portrait is blood stained. What would be a fault in any other book is, in this one, rather fitting.