Hunters and dissectors

By Aviva Lowy

Image of John Hunter

Credit: Radius Magazine

“Few visitors to Boston of recent years have left so vivid an impression on our medical community as did the brilliant young anatomist whose untimely death from enteric fever on December tenth in his 27th year has recently been announced.”

– The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, January 29, 1925



'The brilliant young anatomist’, to which the publication refers, was John Irvine Hunter, and the epithet is far from exaggeration. Hunter, a University of Sydney medical graduate, had already been made Challis Professor of anatomy at the age of just 25. Even earlier than this, when Professor Wilson left to take up a position at Cambridge shortly after Hunter’s graduation, he strongly recommended that Hunter succeed him - in spite of his youth. At the time, Hunter was made an acting Assistant Professor.

Hunter’s student years were filled with accolades, and he managed to win many of the prizes and scholarships on offer. These would have been particularly important to him, as he came from a poor family without the means to support his studies. He was only able to enter tertiary education through a university exhibition - a kind of bursary - for the outstanding ability he showed at Fort Street High School. No doubt Hunter’s anatomical knowledge was improved by his financial hardship, for in order to earn money at university, he spent the last three years of his course working as a prosecutor and demonstrator in Anatomy. The typhoid infection which cut short the life and career of the stellar young professor, was contracted while on a trip with his new wife, during which he had been pressed by colleagues to present results of his studies in Canada and England.

The Boston M & S Journal concluded its obituary on Hunter with the words: “The loss which medicine has sustained in (his) early death ... is incalculable. But as it is, he is one of those few brilliant souls who, at an unusual age, through their personality and genius, manage to leave an indelible mark on their chosen profession.”

The story of Hunter might have ended with his death, had his ‘indelible mark’ not assumed a two-fold legacy: one establishing a family tradition of medical studies at the University of Sydney; the other, inspiring and encouraging a procession of bright anatomy students. Hunter’s son, Irvine John Hunter (now in his 80s), also chose to practise medicine, as did his grandson, David Hunter, who won the University’s 2012 Alumni Award for International Achievement. An epidemiologist, Dr David Hunter is Professor in Cancer Prevention and Dean for Academic Affairs at the Harvard School of Public Health. He has undertaken pioneering leadership in researching the variety of factors that cause cancer, principally through his creation of global studies that have built huge rich databases of information. Dr Hunter is also the principal investigator of a four-year grant, in 2010, from the US National Cancer Institute to study the genetic and biological mechanisms that contribute to breast cancer. He also collaborates with researchers in Tanzania in Africa to investigate the relationship between nutrition and the progress of HIV.

At the time of John Hunter’s death, nearly a century ago, his colleagues and friends established a fund to perpetuate the memory of his brief yet impressive career. The fund was first used to create a series of guest lectureships which would encourage imaginative student and faculty inquiry, sharing insights from research, scholarship and practice from around the world.

The inaugural John Irvine Hunter Memorial Lecture was given by Raymond Dart in 1950, who received 100 guineas to travel from South Africa. Subsequent lectures have been delivered by such world-class anatomists as Bradley Patten, William Trotter, Martin Raff and, most recently, Ray Guillery. This year’s lecturer will be decided by the anatomists of the discipline shortly.

Image of dissected bone

Credit: Radius Magazine


In 1990, an additional bequest from Mrs Dorothy Fuller, sister of John Hunter, allowed for the establishment of the Professor John Irvine Hunter Prize. The Prize is awarded to the best student prosection of the head and neck/or brain. A second prize was established in 2002 for excellence in postgraduate anatomical research. Kevin Keay, Associate Professor of Anatomy and Histology, is the principal administrator of the Prize.

“The winning head and neck prosection must be worthy of putting in the JT Wilson Museum of Human Anatomy,” says Keay. “The term ‘prosector’ is a conflation of ‘professional dissector’. You are awarded the title of prosector if you have achieved proficiency in dissection, such that the quality of your work can become a museum artefact. Professor Wilson first had the idea to bring in surgical trainees as tutors in anatomy. They would come here and teach for five shillings, and learn anatomy by teaching it, and go to hospital to learn surgery from the surgeons. Our students’ prosections are all done using classical dissection techniques. The dissecting assists them to acquire anatomical knowledge and exquisite fine motor skills.”

Keay says that students also acquire practice with surgical tools, which they are likely to encounter in the future when operating on patients. For a student prosection to win the Prize, it must exhibit high standards in three categories: demonstration of superb manual skills, a compelling intellectual focus on an anatomical region or surgical field, and an aesthetic quality. Aesthetic? Can a prosection be aesthetically pleasing? For Keay, there is no doubt that it can. “Personally, to observe a nerve in its anatomical position in its natural state - but in a somewhat unnatural context - there is a beauty in that.”

Judging of the prosections involves all the anatomists from the department, including the Head of discipline and the manager of the Anatomy Technical and Teaching Support Unit. The students have to write a report to accompany their prosections, saying why they
revealed the elements they did, how they did it, and they have to label their work as you would find in an anatomical atlas. The PhD Prize is no less rigorous in the judging. Students have to make a half-hour presentation to a board of assessors. “They have to give a great talk, have published a great paper, and give a great justification for how and why their work will have an impact on
understanding of the anatomical sciences,” says Keay.

Vindication of the judges’ choices can already be seen in the achievements of the prizewinners. Michael O’Connor, the first to take out the postgraduate Hunter Prize in 2002, is now an academic at the University of Western Sydney where he is working in the novel
and exciting field of regenerative stem cell transplantation. Cedric Bard (joint winner 2005) is working with Professor Fred Gage at the Salk Institute in San Diego on stem cell neurogenesis and Alzheimer’s. Daniel Vagg (2008), is a surgeon at Nepean. Paul Nash (2009), is at Stanford University’s Pain Clinic where he is at the forefront of employing MRI in
spinal imaging.