Meyer - The Hunters in Embryology 3

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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 III

By A. W. Meyer, M.D.

Stanford University

Part I of this paper was printed in the November issue, page 420 ; Part II, in the December issue, page 492

WILLIAM HUNTER deserves great credit for regarding the decidua as a growth of the lining of the uterus instead of a coagulum. It seems that the idea that it was a coagulum was attributed to William through the text of 1794 to the Gravid Uterus, written by his brother John and Matthew Baillie.[1] The idea hence became current as that of William instead of John, perhaps because the 1794 text appeared later and had a wider circulation than the famous atlas itself. It is noteworthy that even von Baer,[2] in his observations on the development of man, which appeared in 1835, spoke of the Membrana decidua hunteri as a layer of unorganized secretion lying upon and between the elongated villi of the pregnant uterus. V on Baer thought the blood vessels invaded this layer, growing around the villi and forming so complete a plexus that he could not distinguish the arteries from the veins. He believed that this indicated that the relation of the decidua to the uterus is that of an inflammatory exudate to the injured tissues, and added that he hesitated to regard the human decidua as a “proliferation of the mucosa as Seiler recently had done, and shared the more generally accepted opinion that it is a coagulum.” In discussing the idea further, von Baer brought together a number of facts which he believed supported a view also held by Purkinje[3] (1834).[4] It may have been fortunate that John was probably unaware of the views of “eminent anatomists” referred to by Haller on this matter, unless he could also have known what Aranzi[5] and others had thought, and what Falconnet[6] and others had done, in order to solve the vexed problem of the utero-placental circulation. Concerning the controversy between the two, Teacher regarded the account of William more probable than that of John. One cannot contemplate the rejoinder of William to John, made to the Royal Society on February 3, 1780, without noting its evasion and ambiguity. It must be wholly unconvincing except to those to whom the possession of stolen goods is conclusive proof of their rightful ownership, for that is a form of reasoning resorted to by William. Moreover, one cannot help wondering what experience William had that caused him to declare to his students that “ . . . most philosophers, most great men, most anatomists, and most other men of eminence lie like the devil.” Moreover, it is well to recall William’s words regarding the fetal and maternal portions of the decidua as quoted by Teacher” (p. lvi), which are to the effect that the vessels of these two parts are separate because “those of the umbilical always ‘remained uninjected.’ ‘It was this appearance,’ he says (in his lectures of 1775), ‘in the cat and bitch that first led me into the apprehension that the human placenta was the same. I thought this a long time, but I never cared to assert it openly till within these few years.’ ”

Scrutiny of the Gravid Uterus does not seem to bear out the statement of Bilikiewiczs (1932) that William Hunter was the first to investigate the uterine and fetal membranes with the greatest thoroughness, and that he described them in every detail so as to satisfy the high exactions of contemporary anatomy. Bilikiewicz also spoke of numerous discoveries in the field of anatomy and the anatomy of pregnancy by Hunter, which affected the further development of theories of obstetrics and also those of embryology, but added that the text of the Gravid Uterus comprised the whole of Hunter’s anatomic-obstetrical science.

Place of William Hunter in Embryology

When considering the claims of William to a place in embryology, it must also be remembered that the Gravid Uterus contains some drawings of relatively young human conceptuses; one on Plate 33 being what Hunter quite correctly called an “eight—to-nine-week embryo,” for the specimen seems to belong to an 18-millimeter stage and hence is only a little younger. It is interesting that William thought that the decidua is expelled at birth and in abortion, and that he represented the yolk sac and knew of its presence in the mature placenta.

In addition to the above claims to remembrance in the history of embryology, William has others, however. One of the chief of these is the fact that he encouraged and financed William Cruikshank in his search for the mammalian ovum in the rabbit. That Cruikshank was unusually successful in this difficult task is shown by the fact that he obtained more than a score of such very young blastocysts that von Baer wondered why this fine accomplishment had not led others to anticipate his own discovery by many years. It is of special interest that the results of Cruikshank’s investigations upon rabbits had, according to his own words, been incorporated for nineteen years, in the lectures at the Great Windmill Street School, before they were finally reported to the Royal Society in 1797, through the instrumentality of Sir Everard Home, John’s brother-in-law. William’s third and strongest claim to remembrance in connection with embryology is the fact that he gave John the opportunity he sought, to join him at the School of Anatomy, and thus afforded him an opportunity to develop his interests in natural history. It seems that John was then an unlettered and untrained, even if not also a spoiled and uncouth orphan of twenty years. He had been a failure in life thus far, but was stimulated so deeply by the activities permitted him by his apprenticeship to William that he had undertaken investigations on generation by 1755. This was within a year of the time when he had the.exceptional opportunity to study and dissect a human uterus with fetus near term, injected by McKenzie, and the occasion on which John apparently rediscovered the independence of the maternal and fetal circulations. It seems that the cadaver had been injected through the uterine, and the unborn child through the umbilical vessels, and John said that he conceived the idea of the independence of the circulations while dissecting the placenta. Although he later wrote that his elder brother received the idea with “raillery,” when he broached it to him at the time, it is a well-known fact that William maintained that it was his own discovery, and that he always had incorporated the idea in the first and only public lecture in the fall of every year. Had William sponsored the idea of the independence of the two circulations before 1754, it is extremely unlikely that John would have remained unaware of it, and he hence would have had no occasion to think that he had made a discovery when dissecting the female body injected by McKenzie and so report to William. Moreover, according to Paget,[7] the manuscript notes taken by one who attended William’s lectures in 1755-1756 show “that William Hunter, even then, a year after the discovery of the placental structures, neither spoke of it nor understood the meaning of it.”— the uteroplacental circulation. These words also are in complete accord with those quoted above from Teacher, and also those from the anonymous auditor apparently written after the death of William, and if true, fully confirm John’s statement regarding William’s reaction to the idea. Moreover, careful scrutiny of the text written by William himself for his famous folio, published in 1774, twenty years after John’s rediscovery, confirms Paget’s view completely, for the independence of the two circulations is only implied, not represented or asserted there. However, it is not my purpose to cast lots between two famous men, but merely to show that John has better claims than William to a place in the history of embryology.

Fig. 1. The Reynolds portrait of John Hunter from the works of John Hunter, F. R. S., with notes, edited by James F. Palmer. Plates. London, 1837.

John Hunter’s Interest in Embryology

John’s interest in embryology was so enduring that he was still appealing for ostrich eggs almost forty years after he began his studies in embryology, and the very year of his death. Evidence of this is contained in a letter written by him to a friend traveling in Africa at that time. Since he had received only two ostrich eggs in thirty years, this certainly is eloquent testimony to his interest in the subject. I have considered the claims of John alone to a place in the history of embryology more fully elsewhere[8] and, in addition to the things mentioned, attention may also be directed to the collections which he assembled upon the subject. According to Ottley,[9] these illustrate various phases of comparative embryology, both normal and abnormal, and comprise 1,500 preparations illustrating reproduction in both plants and animals. The collection on the development of the ovum is said to be represented by three series:

“first, in plants which have no evident seeds; next, in gemmiparous animals, as the hydatid; next, in cryptogamous and phanerogamous plants; and lastly, in hermaphrodite animals,’ whether self—impregnating, as the asteria, the barnacle ; or mutually impregnating, as snails, slugs, and other gasterapods.” A sixth series of over four hundred fifty specimens is said to represent “the various conditions in which the eggs of oviparous animals are placed for the purpose of being hatched, and of the changes which take place in the young animal during the foetal state.” The seventh and eighth series of specimens are said to represent “the development of the ovum and its contents in. Mammalia,” and “the principal peculiarities of structure in the young animal during the foetal state, such as the yolk bag, and its connexion with the foetus; the foetal circulation in birds; thehorny knob on the beak used in breaking the shell; the reception of the yolk into the stomach; the‘ umbilical cord in Mammalia; the open foramen ovale; the ventricles of the heart of equal thickness; the situation and descent of the testes; the membrana pupillaris, and the large thymus gland." The ninth series is said to illustrate the growth of the young in both plants and animals, and the tenth, “various modes in which food and protection are furnished for the young animal.” There‘ also are said to be specimens in abnormal development illustrating the “preternatural situation of parts” and “the addition of parts.”

I do not know whether some of the specimens in this collection, which seem rather apocryphal, were prepared by John himself, but I have long been curious to see the head of a duck with a limb arising from it, and the case of the “double skull, which belonged to a child of six years of age. The skulls are united by their vertices; the upper one was supplied by blood vessels passing through the united portions; and from the account given by eyewitnesses, the upper head seems during life to have experienced sensations, and to have exhibited mental operations distinct from those of the lower head.” When one recalls the report given John by‘ an enthusiastic Philadelphian, of the frequency of the occurrence of double-headed snakes in America, and if one makes allowance for the early state of embryology at the time, it is not difficult to see that an enthusiastic collector and a very busy man such as John Hunter, may at times have been imposed upon. If so, the matter scarcely justifies. cavil now, for there can be no doubt about John’s scientific enthusiasm, and his experimental approach to the problems which confronted him deserves much praise. It seems to me that his abiding interest and his accomplishments in the subject of development greatly exceeded those of the so—called iconographers, and that in spite of the fact that the many fine illustrations on the development of the chick and goose remain unknown, John deserves a place in the history of embryology much more than his brother William, upon the basis of iconography alone. It is true that John never finished the text on the hen or the goose, but surely he is not alone in being found by Chronos with an unfinished task. Moreover, the writing of these texts would have been an unusually difficult task for one who lacked linguistic training. He might have encountered insuperable difficulties in devising new terms, regarding which he had said: “To coin new words would not answer the purpose, because then I must have a dictionary of my own.” Certainly no finer tribute could be paid John for his conclusion regarding the independence of the uteroplacental circulation in 1754 than the belief of Haller, in 1767, that “eminent anatomists” had proved that the two circulations were one.

Department of Anatomy,

Stanford University.

Literature cited

  1. Hunter, William: An anatomical description of the human gravid uterus and its contents, edited by M. Baillie. London, 1794, 4to.; second edition, by E. Rigby, London, 1843, five. (Cited after Bettany.)
  2. Von Baer (Karl Ernst): Beobachtungen aus der Entwickelungsgeschichte der Menschen. Aus einem Schreiben an den Herausgeber. Journal fiir Geburtshiilfe, 14:401-417. Leipzig, 1835.
  3. Purkinje (J. 13.): Das Ei. Anzeige aus dem “Encyclopadischen Worterbuche der medicinischen Wissenschaften.” Herausgegeben Von den Professoren cler medicinischen Facultat zu Berlin, Busch, Grdfe, Hufeland, Link und Miiller. X. Band. 1834. 8: Journal fiir Geburtshulfe. 14:375-399. Leipzig, 1835.
  4. Purkinje gives the following terms for decidua: Sandifort called it Decidua externa; Haller, Membrana externa ovi; Hunter, M. caduca or decidua; Mayer, Caduca crassa; Osiander, Membrana mucosa; Meckel, maternal ‘egg membrane (miitterliche Eihaut); Chaussier, Epiehorium; Danz and others. deciduous membrane (shedding skin); Bojanus. Decidua eellularis and spongiosae; Burdach. Nidamentutn; Velpeau. Anhiste; Bresehet, Membrana caduque primitive; Seiler, Membrana uteri interna evoluta.
  5. Aranzi, Giulio Cesare: De humano foetu, etc. Third edition, Venet.. 1587. first edition, 1564 (Rom.) or 1572. (Cited after Fasbender.)
  6. Falconnet, Camillus: Non est fetui sanguis maternus alimenta. Paris, 1711. Also in Haller’s Disputationes selectae, 1750. (Cited after Needham.)
  7. Paget, Stephen: John Hunter. Man of Science and Surgeon (1728-1793). With introduction by Sir James Paget. London, 1897.
  8. CALIFORNIA AND WESTERN MEDICINE, Vol. 43, AugustNovember, 1935: “Mr. John Hunter on Generation.”
  9. Ottley. Drewry: The Life of John Hunter. In lectures on the principles of surgery by John Hunter, with notes by James F. Palmer. Philadelphia, 1839.

Cite this page: Hill, M.A. (2024, April 24) Embryology Meyer - The Hunters in Embryology 3. Retrieved from

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