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J R Soc Med. 2001 October; 94(10): 555–556.
PMCID: PMC1282236

John Hunter's health

J Rosenberg (May 2000 JRSM, p. 260) refers to Everard Home's claim that poor health was the reason for Hunter's enlisting in the Army, and implies that Home's view is endorsed by me. In fact, my text1 goes on to point out that army service in those days was hardly a healthy exercise, and in my more recent study of the Home family2 I quote Drewry Ottley's rather similar story, probably derived from Home: ‘he was strongly advised to leave London, therefore, and seek a more southerly climate’3 with the comment that Hunter's enlistment ‘took him out of London, certainly, and to a more southerly climate as well, though we would have to wonder just how military service in the eighteenth century rated as a rest cure’.

In fact I am about as sceptical as Rosenberg concerning Hunter's choice of an army career as a cure for his health, though an open-air life may have appealed to him after some years in brother William's anatomy school. But how much ambition influenced him, or friction with William (we know they fell out later) we can only conjecture.

We do need, though, to recognize that Hunter's health in Portugal was less than perfect. In a letter dated 8 September 1762 to Lord Loudon, the British commander-in-chief, the commanding officer of Hunter's hospital, William Young, wrote: ‘Mr Hunter... does not downright say he is sick but that he is almost knocked up. He has had too much to do’.2

That said, Rosenberg's letter still raises a paradox. The syphilitic myth, propounded by Sir D'Arcy Power4 to his lasting discredit (and parroted by biographers such as Kobler, Gloyne and Gray) should have been forestalled by the evidence of Hunter's necropsy which—as Rosenberg mentions—showed evidence of widespread coronary and cerebral vascular disease. And that necropsy was carried out in 1793 by the same Everard Home who, a year later, wrote the biographical sketch which accompanied the posthumous publication of Hunter's final work5 and which Rosenberg inclines to ascribe to Home's ‘nefarious reasons’.

Even when Home misrepresented Hunter's intentions regarding his MSS—thirty years later and after the plagiarism and burning—he did not resort to maligning Hunter in other ways. In 1793-94 he had even more reason not to impugn Hunter, on whom his own somewhat dubious fame would be founded; and he had not yet entered into the friendship with the Prince Regent to which, directly and indirectly, I am inclined to attribute his later truculent alcoholism.


1. Beasley AW. Fellowship of Three. Sydney: Kangaroo Press, 1993
2. Beasley AW. Home away from Home. Wellington: CIT & Grantham House, 2000
3. Ottley D. In: Palmer JF, ed. The Works of John Hunter FRS with Notes. 4 vols. Longman Rees, 1835-37
4. Power D'A. John Hunter: a martyr to science. In: Selected Writings 1877-1930. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931
5. Hunter J. On the Blood, Inflammation and Gun-shot Wounds. London: Nicol, 1794. [PubMed]

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