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John Irvine Hunter (1898-1924)

In Memoriam

John Irvine Hunter, M.D.

Challis Professor of Anatomy in the University of Sydney, Australia. 1898-1924

The untimely death of Professor John Irvine Hunter, briefly announced in the last issue of this Journal, was a bitter misfortune not only for his own University, in which he was greatly beloved, but for the science of Anatomy in general and British Anatomy in particular.

To those who knew him well, who looked forward with complete confidence to a career of activity and achievement in keeping with the notable contributions to science that he had already made, his unlooked-for death has brought a sense of irreparable loss,

"For can I doubt who knew thee keen

In intellect, with force and skill
To strive, to fashion, to fulfil—
I doubt not what thou wouldst have been.”

Remarkable from many points of view was the life history of this youthful Professor. It is unnecessary here to relate in detail the rather exceptional circumstances of his early life and education. These have been elsewhere admirably set forth with insight and appreciation by Professor Elliot Smith, himself a graduate, though of an earlier period, of the same University of Sydney. It will be sufficient to say that in spite of disadvantages, both physical and economic, which doubtless hampered his early development and concealed his native intellectual powers, and which might have seriously disturbed a less well-balanced temperament, he grew up, not merely normal, but refined and matured by experiences of difficulty and anxiety.

It is not surprising that in his school period the boy did not attain any very special distinction. He was nevertheless successful in gaining bursaries at the High School and University which provided the necessary foothold for further progress.

It was in teaching that Hunter really found himself—in the private tuition which was thrust upon him by the pressure of economic necessity. In this coaching of other students—often his seniors in academic standing—he attained remarkable success through the clearness of his apprehension of the essentials of the subjects he studied and taught and the equally clear and logical order of its presentation to his pupils. But the less settled problems which lie on the fringe of the accepted body of knowledge soon began to occupy his attention. The teacher became the critical enquirer and, when opportunity offered, the first-hand investigator.

Already during the later clinical period of his studies Hunter had undertaken additional duty as a Demonstrator of: Anatomy and had revealed unusual capacity for exposition both in the dissecting room and in the lecture room. When, on his graduation, a decision had to be made as between the clinical and the more definitely academic paths of medical science the choice was by no means-an easy one. For Hunter had shown a rare aptitude for clinical observation and for the correlation of the data of anatomy and physiology with clinical phenomena. He would undoubtedly have developed into a fine clinician. But he had been powerfully attracted by the interest of various problems of morphology, and the opportunity of devoting himself to their study, combined with his joyful interest in teaching, determined his final choice of a career in Anatomy.

The present writer ‘counts it a privilege to have succeeded in inducing the University of Sydney in 1920 to promote to the Associate chair of Anatomy this youth of 23 who had only taken his degree a few months before. Never was an appointment more completely justified, as was also the proviso made for an early leave-year for the purposes of study overseas for the new Professor.

Owing to the Challis:chair becoming vacant soon after Hunter’s appointment as Associate Professor, the latter was saddled almost from the outset with the practical responsibility for a large, and then greatly overloaded, department. This involved a heavy burden both of teaching and administration. Hunter not only bore it with apparent ease but lost no time in getting down to research work, not on one investigation but on several.

Before leaving Sydney the writer had handed over to Hunter a specimen of ovarian pregnancy which had been in his possession for several years. Within the year this had been worked up and the results embodied in a paper—his first original paper—which shows a mastery of the relevant literature and conclusively establishes the fact of a true primary ovarian implantation evoking a genuine decidual reaction in the surrounding connective tissue stroma.

Another of Hunter’s preoccupations during this inaugural year was an experimental investigation, in conjunction with Mr Royle, at the instigation of Professor Mills, to ascertain the part, if any, played by local vascular disturbance in the production of the symptoms of “spinal shock” in cases of traumatic transverse lesions of the spinal cord. The purely theoretical suggestion had previously been made by the writer that some of the features of so-called spinal shock might be found to depend rather on local vascular disturbance at the site of the lesion than upon mere interruption of conducting tracts. Hunter and Royle’s experimental work appears to show that in fact local vascular disturbances at the site of the lesion do play a part in the symptomatology of spinal shock.

This fruitful first year of Hunter’s activity produced yet another research in the widely different field of Physical Anthropology. It was carried on in conjunction with his friend and colleague Dr Burkitt and dealt with the Neanderthaloid characters of the Australian aboriginal skull. A joint paper on this subject was communicated to the Anatomical Society personally and appeared in the issue of this Journal for October 1922.

Meanwhile in August 1921 Hunter had set forth on his Wanderjahr, which was actually extended to an 18 months’ absence from Sydney. Few of those who for the first time encountered this keen ingenuous youth are likely to forget the impression of his personality. For him the period was one of almost feverish interest and breathless receptivity. But by no means of mere receptivity. Both at University College, London, where he had the privileges and opportunities of constant intercourse with its brilliant staff, and for a short period with Professor Ariéns Kappers in Amsterdam, he was busily occupied in actual research along various lines. These included investigations of the structure and relations of the oculo-motor nucleus of Tarsius; the forebrain of Apteryx; and on the problem presented by the Piltdown skull. In addition to all this he found time to carry out a programme of advanced study in various directions and to cultivate relations with other British anatomists and neurologists.

Hunter returned to Sydney early in 1922 by way of America, where he spent two or three months. He was thus enabled to make the acquaintance of a wide circle of colleagues and to familiarise himself with the scope and methods of other schools of anatomy, thus fulfilling to the letter the aim and purpose of this fertile period of travel and enquiry.

Even before his arrival in Sydney the University had itself set the seal of its approval on its young Associate Professor by spontaneously electing him to the vacant Challis Chair of Anatomy which he was destined to hold for little more than two and a half years.

After the Wanderjahr, the Meisterjahre—so few in number, yet so full of interest and activity, both educational and scientific!

Hunter had now not only to resume the ordinary duties and responsibilities of the full Professorship but he had to undertake the reorganisation of the anatomical teaching on the new basis of the inclusion of microscopical anatomy, so long unnaturally divorced from the study of naked-eye structure. He was enabled successfully to cope with the problems of accommodation and of staffing for the increasingly varied work of his department. In an incredibly short time he had organised his team of assistants and colleagues and had them. at work, either on independent research or on some subdivision of the subject which now became his own chief preoccupation, the innervation of muscle.

He had returned to Sydney familiar with the state of the case for the double innervation of striped muscle from his experience in London and Holland and eagerly interested in the questions involved. He found that Mr N. D. Royle, a former demonstrator in the department, with whom he had previously collaborated, was likewise interested in the same problem from the point of view of his orthopaedic practice. He had been struck with the possible importance of a double innervation of skeletal muscle in regard to the condition of spastic paralysis. Hunter and Royle therefore again joined forces in planning and carrying out an arduous programme of experimental investigation with the view of determining the relationship, if any, of the sympathetic in muscular contraction. This happy conjunction was no merely nominal one but a genuine collaboration, in which each of the partners was indispensable to the other.

As the work progressed it became evident that the workers were on the track of phenomena of far-reaching significance. The issues on the practical side by and by assumed a dramatically striking character when Royle was able to apply them to specific cases in human patients in the new operation of sympathetic ramisection.

This is not the place to attempt an evaluation of either the theoretical or the practical importance of this work of Hunter and Royle. That they have broken new ground by their labours few would now deny. And that the practical application of their work has at least an empirical value in appropriate cases is patent to all who have had the opportunity of witnessing its effects.

Doubtless much work remains to be done in confirming, possibly in modifying, the theoretical explanation of the phenomena themselves. Hunter himself was brimming over with schemes for further investigation. But when criticism and further enquiry have done their work the writer believes that the main result—the establishment of the authentic operation of tonic sympathetic nerve influence upon skeletal muscle—will remain secure. This conviction is based upon the results of certain of the animal experiments which appear to him to be crucial in their character and the conclusion from them inevitable.

Recognition of the practical importance of the work by the surgical world was almost immediate and evidence of this was soon forthcoming in the invitation to Hunter and Royle to deliver the John B. Murphy Oration in New York in October 1924. Hunter’s acceptance of the invitation was made possible by the liberality of his University authorities who rightly regarded it as an honour to Australian medical science as well as to the young investigators themselves. They were thus enabled to give lectures and demonstrations not only in New York but in other centres in the United States and Canada.

Hunter decided to return to Australia by way of England and thus had the opportunity on several occasions of expounding his work. And here also, alas! came the tragic end to his brief but brilliant lifework. It is a mournful memory of the writer that it was in his Department in Cambridge that his dear young friend and pupil made his last contribution—lucid and masterly in style—on the subject to which he had devoted the major portion of his short career as an investigator.

No account of Hunter could be adequate which failed to take note of his personal character. A radiant personality, utterly candid and sincere, he captivated the hearts, as: he won the admiration, alike of teachers, colleagues and pupils. His enthusiasm and devotion -were infectious and made easy for him the creation of a‘bratherhood of co-workers fired by his example.

Nor were either ‘his sympathies or his activities circumscribed within the areas of either scientific work or University and educational interests. He was keenly alive to all the varied interests of citizenship. His dutifulness in this regard and his public spirit were conspicuous.

Now this vivid spirit has gone and many hopes in Australia have gone with him. But he has left behind him a memory and an inspiration of priceless value to his University and to Australia. It is in the hope that this inspiration will yet bring forth much fruit that the writer would ‘“‘reach a hand through time to grasp the far off interest of tears.”


Cite this page: Hill, M.A. (2020, July 5) Embryology John Irvine Hunter.jpg. Retrieved from

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