William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum

Attributed to George Michael Moser, after Mason Chamberlin, William Hunter, After 1769.DR WILLIAM HUNTER

‌The Hunterian opened its doors in 1807 making it the first and oldest museum in Scotland. It is the legacy of Dr William Hunter (1718 - 1783), a ground-breaking obstetrician and talented teacher with an international reputation.

Born locally, and a student at the University of Glasgow, Hunter prospered in London as a successful professor of anatomy and sought-after physician who counted Queen Charlotte amongst his patients. He used his wealth to build up a vast private collection which he bequeathed to the University in 1783, along with money to build a suitable museum.

Hunter created his museum to communicate knowledge and made it his life’s work to ensure that his ideas, as well as his collections, would be available to posterity for the purposes of research and teaching.

Gravid Uterus plate VI, George Powle, fl.1770.His will stated that the new museum should deliver what ‘shall seem most fit and most conducive to the improvement of the Students of the said University of Glasgow’.

‌‌‌Hunter’s original collection contained outstanding paintings (including works by Rembrandt, Chardin, and Stubbs) and works on paper, coins and medals, anatomical and zoological specimens, shells, insects, rocks, minerals and fossils, artefacts from Spain, the Middle East, and China, as well as items brought back from James Cook’s ‘first-contact’ voyages to the South Pacific, mediaeval manuscripts and incunabula.

His masterpiece of anatomical illustration, the Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus Exhibited in Figures (1774) contains 34 engraved plates depicting the pregnant human womb at various stages of development, and in progressive states of dissection, in graphic and stunningly naturalistic detail. It is regarded as a work of great aesthetic and scientific value, and as one of the most important medical atlases in the history of the genre.

Images: Attributed to George Michael Moser, after Mason Chamberlin, William Hunter, after 1769. Plate VI from the Gravid Uterus © University of Glasgow Library, Archives and Special Collections.