Art and the Brain: Chapter 8. Art, Anatomy, and the Hunter Brothers


William Hunter
John Hunter
Joshua Reynolds
Art and Science Education


Operating at the intersection of art and medical science, both William Hunter (1718–1783) and his younger brother John (1728–1793) were exceptionally well regarded in their medical and scientific pursuits. We also know that their lives and professional activities were interwoven with a broad range of artists. Moreover, just as there was a breach between them due to priority quarrels related to their medical research, slights to some of the artists in their employ are also easily identified. Because the contributions of these brothers touch on everything from art education to medical research that is a part of the historical trajectory of the neurosciences, they offer another robust point of entry into the 18th-century English mind. At the same time, the complex relationships they had with peers and employees reminds us of the degree to which generalized theories obscure the nuances of individual lives. As siblings, their similar genetic stock and shared professional interests aid in thinking about the degree to which both genetic and environmental factors shape life developmentally.

Even their deaths and their preparations for death highlight the contrast between these two brothers of shared parents and professional pursuits. William Hunter passed away first. He insisted on teaching his classes one day, even though he was severely ill and was advised not meet this obligation. It is said that William began to die during the lecture. He bowed at the end and then fainted from exhaustion. That night he had a stroke in his sleep. John requested permission to see his brother, and although it was granted, there was no real reconciliation to speak of when they met. Although William’s death was sudden, he had made plans in advance to insure that his body would be laid to rest without the kind of penetration by knives and prying eyes practiced in his classroom (Moore 2005).

John also died suddenly, of a heart attack. John, too, had planned for the event in advance. Unlike William, however, John donated his body to science. He had made sure that others were prepared to dissect and study his body once he was gone. The next day John’s brother-in-law and assistant Everard Home conducted the lesson in a class John would have taught had he lived (Moore 2005).

Moore points out that William’s tendency to take credit for John’s work began when John was his assistant and continued even after he left William’s employ (Moore 2005). In this case, we do know that William responded to John’s accusations immediately and John in turn issued a response to William’s efforts to reassert his claim. Although the Royal Society refused to weigh in on the incident directly, the dispute nonetheless severed the relationship between the brothers. They went their separate ways until William’s final days in 1783. John was also left out of William’s will. As it turned out, the discovery was actually made by Wilhelm Noortwyk, invalidating both claims of priority, (see Moore 2005).

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