William Hunter’s Library: Transcribing the early catalogues (and the As)


From Hunter’s ‘Common Catalogue’: Hunter’s note of the number of shelves in his library in 1779 (Sp Coll MR2)

Dr William Hunter (1718-1783) –  anatomist, physician, man-midwife, and collector of books, specimens, and art – is a major figure of the eighteenth century and of the Enlightenment.

Hunter left his library and the rest of his varied collections to the University of Glasgow. His goal was to preserve his anatomy school and museum for public use but he built in a delay of 30 years so that his nephew and heir could develop his own medical and teaching career using the materials. It was not until 1807 that Hunter’s collections moved from London to Glasgow to take residence in the new Hunterian Museum which had been created for them.

Hunter’s library was an exceptional collection made up of the working medical collection that he used for research and teaching and books on general subjects that reflect his involvement in the world of the Enlightenment. This was a world where artists and natural philosophers worked together and universal knowledge was seen as an obtainable goal. (See An artistic reinterpretation of William Hunter and Skeletons and Injections: William Hunter’s Lectures on Anatomy and Aesthetics for more on Hunter and the arts.)

The Hunterian Library at Glasgow is made up of 10,000 printed books and 650 manuscripts. But which of these were actually Hunter’s?

The Project

‘William Hunter’s Library: A Transcription of the Early Catalogues’ is a one-year Wellcome Trust funded project that aims to determine which books now in the Hunterian Collection in the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections actually belonged to Hunter. The main goal is to enable analysis of Hunter’s original library by creating a fully searchable modernised catalogue of the library as it existed at the time of Hunter’s death in 1783.

Hunter did not use a bookplate and he did not mark his books an any particular way. Some of the books in the Hunterian Library are bound with his distinctive binding featuring a hunter’s horn but beyond this it is difficult to determine their provenance.

The first focus of the project is therefore on the book catalogue made by Hunter’s Trustees in 1783 to 1785. This manuscript, now known as MR3, provides a list of the books the Trustees found in his London museum and house after Hunter’s death in 1783. MR3 incorporates two earlier library lists developed in Hunter’s lifetime. MR1 lists Hunter’s medical books while MR2 lists his ‘common’ books, that is, non-medical books on various subjects. The Trustees may have used these earlier catalogues to create MR3. It is hoped that the current research will be able to confirm this. The decision to use MR3 as the starting point is based on the need to consider Hunter’s medical books as a part of his larger library. The modernised of the catalogue will be linked to current library catalogue records and to digitised pages of the original MR3 volume. Links will also be provided where relevant to other projects such as the Glasgow Incunabula Project.

You can follow the project’s progress on Twitter using #WHL1783 and on this blog.

A is for…

The pages for Books listed at ‘A’ in MR3 – folios, quartos, octavos, and pamphlets – have now been transcribed. Hunter’s interests in the classics, medicine, and typography are immediately obvious in the titles of the books in this part of MR3. Aristotle is the most well-represented author not just because of his content but because many of his works were printed by the Aldine Press. Hunter’s interest in acquiring early and quality printed books is evident. In a practice probably continued the earlier catalogues, Aldine books are described as ‘ap Ald.’, ‘Venet. Ald.’, or simply, as a place of publication with no other information needed, ‘Ald.’.

The problematic nature of the organisation of some of the entries in MR3 can be shown by a couple of examples:

A folio entry gives: ‘Athens. The Antiquities thereof by Stuart and Revett. Lond. 1762.’ Given that MR3 lists books in roughly alphabetical order by author and not by subject, would a modern user think to look under ‘Athens’? (I would not. I’d check under the authors’ names or the title.) And what if you do not know the size of the book? You would need to check five different sections of the list (folio, quarto, quarto pamphlets, octavo et infra., octavo pamphlets) which is not very efficient. A search on the modern catalogue finds the book easily. It is now Sp Coll Hunterian As.1.11. This project will provide the links needed to make the manuscript a fully searchable research resource.

Another problem occurs when titles are bound together. Works by Giralomo Fracastoro and Thomas Erastus are listed in the ‘A quarto’ section because they are bound after a work by Giulio Cesare Aranzi in a single volume. (All now found in Sp Coll Hunterian Au.1.5) Will these re-appear alphabetically at ‘F’ and ‘E’? Perhaps usefully, we can assume from this that the books were bound together when Hunter had them. Did he cause them to be bound together or did he acquire them that way? More research might tell.

Cross-referencing and sorting the titles listed in MR3 will help to clarify the relationships between the books listed in it and the modern Hunterian Library.




Categories: Archives and Special Collections

Tags: , , ,

10 replies

  1. Hello. Great post and exciting work coming up. If you haven’t already seen it, the Library & Information History Group is hosting its annual conference in Dundee this year. The theme is The Information Landscape in Scotland. The CFP is up now, with a deadline of 15 February. Full details are here: http://www.cilip.org.uk/library-information-history-group/events/2017-annual-conference-cilip-library-information-history-group.

  2. Congratulations for the post and the project!! I’m very much interested in the transcripts of the catalogue as I’m working with one of MS of WH’s collection and unfortunately we don’t know its provenance. I’m following the progress on Twitter, that’s great!! My special regards to all Special Collection staff, Happy New Year.

  3. I wonder whether consideration may have been given to extending such research towards some form of joint venture with the Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons, London? When visiting the Hunterian at Gilmorehill I have often wondered whether some of the wet and dry preparations displayed, may actually have been prepared by John Hunter? Perhaps some of William’s items may be in the Hunterian, London; we tend to forget that the Hunter’s worked as a single operation (the Hunter Medical School).

    Both brothers worked at the Great Windmill Street location; but after William’s death in 1783 John Hunter’s residence at 28, Leicester Square/Castle Street seems to have become more and more extensively developed as a seat of operations, with its own lecture/dissection room and other facilities. Who knows what transferred where, precisely, from Great Windmill Street and immediately after 1783; William’ direct family commitments were few, he eventually had a difficult relationship with his brother through a professional dispute, and he seems not to have been close to the family in Long Calderwood. He was ambitious, successful, and admired; but there is something elusive about William Hunter.

    By 1783 the great Hunter Medical School was a joint enterprise and by then John Hunter’s reputation was as great as William’s. Incidentally, if we wish to inspect the weaknesses of 18th century Trusteeship, we need look no further than the disaster that enveloped John Hunter’s MS and the scientifically important Earls Court experimental operation that followed his death in 1793.

    • I’m very much concentrating on W Hunter’s printed books – but who knows where this project might lead and where it might expand. It’s early days for me. Very useful to remember to consider both Hunters – it’s all to easy to focus on William only – to put their activities in context. Thank you!


  1. Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #22 | Whewell's Ghost
  2. William Hunter’s Library: a new project – Karen Baston
  3. Behind the Scenes: The Cataloguing Forum visit The Photographic Unit – University of Glasgow Library

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