Meyer - The Hunters in Embryology 1

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See also William Hunter

Arthur William Meyer (1873 – 1966)
Arthur William Meyer (1873 – 1966)
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The Hunters in Embryology 1

By A. W. Meyer, M.D.

Stanford University

The famous Scotchmen, John and William Hunter, have always occupied a prominent place in the history of medicine, and deservedly so. William also has usually been given a place in the history of embryology almost wholly denied John. Yet Duncan,[1] who championed William in his well—known volume, declared in the Harveian address of 1876 that William “left behind him scarcely anything to perpetuate his memory, except the work on the Gravid Uterus, which, though undoubtedly of great merit, has had no very extensive influence on the progress of knowledge, and cannot in any way be compared with what has been effected by his brother.” (p. 1077.)[2] However, Radl,[3] in his Geschichte der biologischen Theorien, barely mentioned John, merely listing him among some other comparative anatomists, and Bilikiewicz[4] only mentioned John in a footnote, although he used the name of his brother for a subtitle. Nordenskiold,[5] however, gave John, instead of William, a place in his History of Biology. He pointed especially to John's treatise on teeth and to his ideas regarding the blood and his comparative anatomical work. Need ham,[6] on the other hand, mentioned both William and John in his History of Embryology, referring to the former as an embryologic iconographer, and especially emphasized John’s connection with the idea of recapitulation.

It is not surprising that the unexcelled and sumptuous “elephant” folio on the gravid uterus,[7] for the “elaborateness” of which the author felt it necessary to apologize, attracted great attention at the time of its appearance in 1774, and that it has been extolled very often since that day. It will be recalled that this atlas on human pregnancy is composed of thirty—four excellent, large plates, 47 by 64 centimeters, the work of accomplished artists, and of engravers supervised by Robert Strange, who himself executed two of the plates, causing Hunter to say that Strange had thereby “secured a sort of immortality” for the plates. This atlas is characterized quite adequately by Choulant,[8] and also was commented upon with great appreciation by von Siebold[9] in his Geschichte der Geburtshiilfe.

William Hunter’s Dissections

William, who was famed as an obstetrician, apparently had dissected mammals late in gestation in order to enlarge his knowledge of the subject, and said that he projected the above volume when he met with the first favourable opportunity in 1751 of examining, in the human species, what before he had been studying in brutes. A woman died suddenly, when very near the end of pregnancy, the body was procured before any sensible putrefaction had begun, the season of the year was favourable to dissection. With “the assistance of many friends,” he was able to secure twelve more bodies in a similar state, in the preparation of which, for the artists, John played an important part. William expressed his indebtedness to John in the last paragraph of the preface to his treatise on the gravid uterus, for his skill in dissection. The latter’s share in the production of it hence received public recognition from the time of the appearance of this treatise, twenty—six years after he joined William, even if not from the very beginning of the undertaking.

In the Gravid Uterus, William said that he expected to publish an additional plate representing “a younger human embryo than he had seen heretofore, and also a tubal pregnancy which he had drawn,” and he added that if he “should be prevented from doing this by any unforeseen accident,” it would be “in the power of many gentlemen of the profession to do it” for him, because he had “constantly explained his observations on this subject in his public lectures.” He apparently never found the leisure for doing these things and his professional friends apparently failed him, for according to Teacher[10] (1900), “He never carried out this scheme, and there is no detailed description of either of these cases, nor sketches of the embryo in the museum. The embryo and placenta from the extra—uterine case are the original of the illustration in Quain’s Anatomy ‘after Allen Thomson,’ tenth edition, vol. i, pt. i, p. 104, fig. 124. Professor Thomson sketched it for the seventh edition, 1867, in which it appeared as Fig. 603.” (pp. lix—lx.) According to this, then, the drawing did not appear in the posthumous volume on the uterus which appeared in 1794.

The Name, Decidua

Fig. 1. Figure 5 of Plate 34, after the Atlas of 1774.

According to Teacher (p. lii), William invented the name decidua for the spongy chorion, and believed (p. liv) in 1775 that the placenta “ ‘is partly made up of an excrescence from the uterus itself . . . the internal membrane of the uterus, which I have named decidua, constitutes the exterior part of the secundines, or after-birth . . .’ ”' Moreover, from the text accompanying Plate 34 of the Gravid Uterus, which appeared in 1774, it is evident that William regarded the decidua itself as a conception, which also indicates that he regarded it as a growth. He had a correct idea of the gross relations of the chorionic vesicle to the decidua, and the decidua externa (vera) and reflexa long were known as the Hunterian membranes. However, as far as I have been able to learn, he did not use the term serotina, as von Siebold‘ (1902) said, but spoke of a larnella externa instead. Webster[11] (1901) said that John named the decidua serotina and plainly implied that it also was he who named the reflexa, while Williams[12] (1903), on the other hand, wrote: “The terms reflexa and serotina date from the time of William Hunter, who gave excellent drawings of the decidual membrane in his atlas. Unfortunately, the author died just after its appearance and before the completion of the explanatory text, which was prepared by John Hunter and Matthew Baillie . . .” (p. 106), and he attributed John's idea of the formation of the decidua to William. This statement was partly corrected in a later edition[13] (1931), but not without the introduction of other errors, as the following quotation shows:

The terms reflexa and serotina date from the time of William Hunter, who gave excellent drawings of the decidual membrane in his atlas. Unfortunately, the explanatory text was prepared by John Hunter and Matthew Baillie, who considered that the decidua represented a fibrinous exudate from the lining membrane of the uterus, which not only formed a complete cast of its cavity, but also covered the tubal openings. They supposed, therefore, that when the ovum reached the uterine end of the tube its further passage was opposed by the decidua vera, which it was obliged to push before it as it entered the uterus, whence the term reflexa; consequently, after the latter had been pushed forward, a new exudate was de veloped behind the ovum, to which the term serotina(late) was applied (Figs. 140 and 141). (pp. 137-138.)

The figures referred to are “Diagrams Illustrating Hunterian Theory of Formation of Decidua Reflexa,” after the manner of Carpenter[14] (1845), page 601.

It is perplexing that an anonymous auditor[15] of William Hunter’s lectures stated (p. 85) that William said he first called the decidua “Caduca,” but changed it to decidua when he found that it was temporary. According to this auditor (p. 99), William also declared in his lectures that

The decidua in the early months lines the uterus loosely with it, [.] at [At] the edges of the placenta. [,1 It [it] divides into 2 strata, one of these runs under the placenta, between it & the uterus, & the other is reflected over the membranes. The last is called the decidua reflexa.

It should be noted that this statement is in complete accord with that written by William and contained in the explanatory text accompanying the tables of the Gravid Uterus. A good statement regarding this matter is found in Fasbender,[16] who, however, attributed John’s idea of the formation of the decidua to William, perhaps because as Duncan[17] (1868) said:

In 1780, . . . John Hunter inaugurated the errors in regard to the decidua which have been finally overthrown only in our own time and which still maintain a lingering existence in obstetric literature. (p. 230.)

Fasbender called attention to the fact that Vesalius and Fabricius had represented the decidua, and that this was done also by Noortwyk, who thought that it formed part of the chorion (substantia fungiosa chorii), an opinion held even by Baudelocque (1746-1810), according to Meckel (I, p. 306, quoted by and from Fasbender). Meckel said that Baudelocque rejected the idea of certain anatomists who regarded the decidua as a separate membrane.

In the legend to Figure 5, Plate 34, which is a good representation of a decidual cast, William spoke of AA as representing A bristle passed through the cavity of the conception, through a hole at each of the upper angles, which was supposed to be the termination of the fallopian tube. BB.

The same bristles coming out through a large hole at the lower angle, supposed to be opposite to the cervix uteri. C. A small hydatide, supposed projecting through the surface of the decidua, which had slender branching filaments shooting from the surface, supposed to be the chorion.”

As indicated by the drawing, the hydatid mentioned by William no doubt was a chorionic vesicle, as he thought, and apparently was devoid of an embryo and probably also of an amnion and a yolk sac. The “slender branching filaments shooting from the surface” manifestly were “magma reticu1e,” often so abundant in conceptuses retained after their death.

(To be continued)

Literature cited

  1. Duncan, J. Matthews: On the life of William Hunter: The Harveian address, April 13 1876. Edinburg Medical Journal, 21 (Pt. 2), 1061-1079. 12576.
  2. This opinion of Duncan's is substantiated by the fact that such an outstanding embryologist as Charles sedgwick Minot did not refer to the Hunters in his discussion of the Decidua in the Reference Handbook of the Medical Sciences by Buck, 1894.
  3. Radl, Em.: Geschichte der bioiogischen Theorien seit dem Ende des siebzehnten Jahrhunderts. 1. Teil. Leipzig,
  4. Bilikiewicz, Tadeusz: Die Embryologie im Zeitalter des Barock und des Rokoko. Leipzig, 1932. (Arbeiten des Instituts fiir Geschichte der Medizin an der Universität Leipzig, Band 2.)
  5. Nordenskiold, Eric: The history of biology. Transgxeg fflpzrgi the Swedish by Leonard Bucknail Eyre. New Ypork, 1928.
  6. Needham, Joseph: A history of embryology. Cambridge, 1934.
  7. Hunter, William: Anatomia uteri humani gravid. tabulis illustrata (Anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures). Birmingham, 1774.
  8. Choulant, Ludwig: Geschichte und Bibliographic der anatomisehen Abbildung nach ihrer Beziehung aut anatomische Wissenschaft und bildende Kunst. Leipzig, 1852.
  9. Von Siebold, Ed. Casp. Jac.: Versuch einer Geschichte der Gleslgiértschiilte. Zweite Auflage. Zweiter Band. Tubingen, 1902.
  10. Teacher, John H.: The anatomical and pathological prepa!1'%1(§i)ons of Dr. William Hunter. Introduction. Glasgow, 1900.
  11. Webster, J. Clarence: Human placentation. Chicago, 1901.
  12. Williams, J. Whitridge: Obstetrics. New York and London, 1903.
  13. Williams, J. Whitridge: Obstetrics. Sixth enlarged and revised edition. New York and London, 1931.
  14. Carpenter, William B.: Principles of human physiology. Second American, from the last London edition. With notes and additions by Meredith Clymer. Philadelphia, 1845.
  15. Anonymous: A treatise on midwifery, as given by the late Dr. William Hunter in his lectures; with a. description and representation of the uterus and its contents, in the different stages of pregnancy. Also the treatment of women in time of labour, etc. (undated MS. notes occupying pp. 71-181 of volume with cover title, “Ray on Teeth. Hunter. Gravid Uterus.”).
  16. Fasbender, Heinrich: Geschiehte der Geburtshtllfe. Jena, 1906.
  17. Duncan, J. Matthews: Notes on the history of the mucous membrane of the body of the uterus. William and John Hunter. In Researches in Obstetrics. Chapter 6, pp. 222-242. Edinburgh, 1868.

Cite this page: Hill, M.A. (2019, April 22) Embryology Meyer - The Hunters in Embryology 1. Retrieved from

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