Sunday, 9 November 2014

The stolen, plagiarised and burned manuscripts of John Hunter (1728-93)

John Hunter, PD-art
John Hunter was an illustrious surgeon and naturalist who had lived from 1728 to 1793. He collected anatomical specimens and established a museum for them. He was no great writer, it seems, and could more easily illustrate his ideas through his museum. When he got seriously ill, however, he tried to write his ideas down, in order to preserve them for posterity. After his death, a Mr. William Clift F.R.S. became the keeper of this Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons and of Hunter's unpublished manuscripts until 1800, when he retired.

During this time Clift copied a number of these manuscripts before Hunter's brother in law, Edward Home, removed them unauthorized from the museum in 1812. The other trustees of the museum protested and requested that the manuscripts be restored to the museum, but Home claimed to prepare a catalogue for the museum as wished by Hunter. The catalogue was not forthcoming, however, and the other trustees were all dead by 1823. In that year Home told Clift that he had committed Hunter's manuscripts to the flames. In defence against accusations, Home now claimed that this had been Hunter's last wish, but nobody who had known Hunter believed him. On the contrary, why would Home not have burned them in 1812 or else why would he not have produced the catalogue first? This lead to rumours that Everard Home's numerous publications on comparative anatomy have been plagiarisms of Hunter's unpublished manuscripts (Ottley 1835, p. 152f).


Meanwhile, Clift tried to prepare for publication those manuscripts of John Hunter that he had copied, but did not manage to do so. Before he died in 1849, he placed his copies of Hunter's manuscripts into the hands of Richard Owen, who had succeeded him as conservator of the Hunter's museum. (This museum must not be mistaken with the so-called Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, which John's brother William Hunter bequeathed to the University of Glasgow in 1783). Owen edited and eventually published them in 1861 as Essays and Observations. As seems to have been customary for posthumous publications at that time, Owen placed before the papers by Hunter an "Advertisement" explaining their provenience. Owen did not mention what Home, later Sir Everard Home, had done with the original manuscripts. This can be read in the Hunter biography by Drewry Ottley (1835, Chapter 7, pp. 145-154).

We can assume that the contents of the Essays and Observations edited by Owen and published in 1861 must have been written before 1793, the year that John Hunter died. So let's take a look at these papers, which Hunter meant to preserve his ideas for posterity, after he had realized that his museum might not be the proper medium for doing so. It might be disbanded or the exhibits re-arranged.  

Surprisingly, this collection of Essays and Observations is far more than a mere comparative anatomy of a surgeon with a liking for anatomical specimens and monstrosities. It is a veritable cosmology and theory about natural history. Page 1 begins with a paper titled Observations on Natural History. It contains speculations about the nature of matter, but also clearly states that species are variable and domesticated species are more so than wild ones. A sub-chapters beginning at page 37 is particularly striking through its sub-heading and clearly states the idea of common descent. (The Statements in squared brackets are annotations made by Richard Owen):
"                            On the Origin of Species 
 "Does not the natural gradation of animals, from one to another, lead to the original species? And does not that mode of investigation gradually lead to the knowledge of that species? Are we not lead on to the wolf by the gradual affinity of the different varieties in the dog? Could we not trace out the gradation in the cat, horse, cow, sheep, fowl, etc., in a like manner?2
2 [The best attempt to answer this supreme question in zoology has been made by Charles Darwin in his work entitled "On the Origin of species by means of Natural Selection," etc. 8vo, 1859.]
"It may be difficult to find out the original of any animal that is not probably now found wild. It will be difficult to say which is the original cow, whether the East India cow or the European; but, as the East Indian has the least variety of the two kinds, it is therefore more probably the original cow than the European. Besides, this animal came from the East, and was more likely to go through varieties in new countries. [i.e. under new external influences] than in its original country."
Hunter thought that species used to be uniform initially, but then tended to vary because of external factors. But he clearly saw (some) variants as hereditary as he made clear in the next sub-chapter titled Varieties of Animals.

A new chapter beginning at page 39 is again striking for its title and the idea that humans are basically animals (Waved brackets are my annotations):
"                              On the Natural History of Man.
"{...first paragraph not shown...} Is not the Human Being a congeries of every animal? Has he not the instinctive principles of every animal, with this difference, that he chooses or varies the mode of putting those principles into action? He adapts the instinctive principle to the situation or to the whim. He must eat; but he varies the mode of eating: {...}
"Nothing shows more the superiority of the Human over the brute, than the variety of ways in which he shall perform any natural and instinctive action."
Although Hunter continues with arguments for the superiority of man, this was not the sort of superiority usually meant by Homo sapiens supremacists. The sub-chapter on "The Difference between Man and the Monkey" damages this H. sapiens supremacy even more by simply stating:
"The monkey in general may be said to be half beast and half man; it may be said to be the middle stage." (p. 43)
There's a lot of material of interest to behavioral ecologists. Hunter turns out to have been a good entomologist with a particular liking for studying social insects, he always had an eye on sexual organs and reproduction etc.

The part on natural history ends with a some thoughts on biogeography that are interesting as well:
"                                    Geographical Distribution of Animals
The locality of some animals would make us believe that their formation was of late date when compared to the world; or else that the present face of the globe was very old original. The first we can hardly suppose, and as to the last "very old," if that was the case it would still show that the origin of animals was progressive and of course local."
This part ends rather abruptly with a paragraph consisting of one mere sentence suggesting that Clift did not manage to transcribe the whole or Hunter did not finish his manuscript. The observations on physiology that follow may be of interest to the history of physiology and medicine. After all,  Hunter was famous as a surgeon during his life time. It is not my interest, here, and I leave it to the readers to take a look for themselves. Alternatively, Wendy Moore has written an award-winning biography of John Hunter, The Knife Man, that gives due attention to these aspects and many others.

Now, imagine that the above ideas inspired John Hunter, when he established, expanded and arranged his museum. Imagine further that the intelligentsia of London flocked to this museum. Wouldn't the visit have inspired many of them, in turn, to speculate about the origin and variety of species, their common descent or geographical distribution and other things evolutionary? And wouldn't they naturally think that whatever idea they conceived from these musings were theirs and not Hunter's? I think that this is exactly the way in which many evolutionary ideas were around in all sorts of cultural products, not just "in the air."

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P.S.: W.J. Dempster (The Illustrious Hunter and the Darwins. Sussex: Book Guild, p. 95) claims that Charles Darwin has read Hunter's unpublished papers between 1836 and 1844. He cites the notebook, wherein Darwin recorded which books he has read, as evidence. As far as I can tell, this claim is false. The notebook only mentions a collection of paper by Hunter that had previously been published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Richard Owen added notes and John F Palmer edited them before they were published as:
  • Hunter, John. 1837. Observations on certain parts of the animal œconomy, with notes by Richard Owen. Vol. 4 of The works of John Hunter, F.R.S. with notes. Edited by James F. Palmer. 4 vols. London. 1835-7.


One can gather as much by reading the advertisements of this posthumous collection. (The link leads to somewhere in the preface, you need to scroll up to the pages before the table of contents.)

After 1861, of course, Charles Darwin could read Hunter's previously unpublished papers just like anybody else, because Owen had edited and published them that year. And Darwin does not fail to cite Hunter in The Descent of Man. Part II of the book is on Sexual Selection. The very first page of this part (p. 253) states that Darwin's distinction of primary and secondary sexual characters is taken from Hunter.
"WITH animals which have their sexes separated, the males necessarily differ from the females in their organs of reproduction; and these afford the primary sexual characters. But the sexes often differ in what Hunter has called secondary sexual characters, which are not directly connected with the act of reproduction; for instance, in the male possessing certain organs of sense or locomotion, of which the female is quite destitute, or in having them more highly-developed, in order that he may readily find or reach her; or again, in the male having special organs of prehension so as to hold her securely." (Darwin 1871. The Descent of Man, p. 253)
This is of course as cryptic as citations often were at that time, but page 273 gives a fuller citation in a footnote:
"The female, on the other hand, with the rarest exception, is less eager than the male. As the illustrious Hunter13 long ago observed, she generally "requires to be courted;" she is coy, and may often be seen endeavouring for a long time to escape from the male....
13. 'Essays and Observations,' edited by Owen, vol. i. 1861, p. 194." (Darwin 1871, p. 273)
It is true, however, that Darwin also cited Hunter's distinction of primary and secondary sexual characters in the first edition of The Origin of Species (1859, p. 150):
"The term, secondary sexual characters, used by Hunter, applies to characters which are attached to one sex, but are not directly connected with the act of reproduction."
Unfortunately, the citation is again of the sloppy kind so prevalent at the time. However, this is no cogent proof that Darwin must somehow have had access to the unpublished papers of John Hunter before 1861, because Hunter also used the distinction in papers published during his life-time. This can be seen from pp. 45ff of the collection of papers previously published in the Philosophical Transactions and then re-published in 1837. (The link does again transport you to the preface instead of page 45. You need to scroll down this time.) Anyway, even if Darwin did not confer the original publications in the Philosophical Transactions, he had the collection of 1837 at hand and recorded it as read in his notebook list of read books.

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