William Hunter’s Library: the Gs

One name dominates Hunter’s library catalogue in the ‘G’ section of William Hunter’s library: Galen.

Claudius Galen (AD 129-216) was a Greek physician who served the Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, and Severus. His more than 500 medical treatises shaped medical training and practice for centuries. His most important discovery was that the arteries carry blood, not air. Galen’s name appears as author in the ‘G’ section of Hunter’s library in 76 of the 410 entries. His works and commentaries on them are also found throughout the whole of MR 3.

Hunter offered his assessment of Galen in the survey of the history of anatomy in the first lecture he gave to his students:

For those times his writings must be allowed to be excellent. What he principally wanted, to be truly respectable with regard to the more obvious parts of Anatomy, was, opportunities of dissecting human bodies: for his subject was most commonly some quadrupede [sic] whose structure was supposed to come nearest to the human. (Two Introductory Lectures, delivered by Dr. William Hunter, to his last course of anatomical lectures, at his Theatre in Windmill-Street: As they were left corrected for the press by himself (London: Printed by Order of the Trustees, 1784), Lecture I, p. 25.)

Galen’s influence proved to be problematic, however. Galen represented a moment when ‘Anatomy, for a long series of years, had been advancing to that degree of perfection…and from that time, it declined again’. And, Hunter noted, Galen was to blame:

We may observe, that when any man arrives at the reputation of having carried his art beyond all others, it seems to throw the rest of the world into a kind of despair. Hopeless of being able to improve their art still further, they do nothing. The great man, who was at first only respectable, grows every day into higher credit; till at length he is deified, and every page of his writings become sacred and infallible. This was actually the fortune of Aristotle in philosophy, and of Galen in Anatomy for may ages, and such respect shewn to any man, in any age, must always be a mark of declining science. (ibid.)

Galen’s dominance over anatomical studies remained until sixteenth century. Hunter identifies a revival of anatomy in Italy by Achillinus, Benedictus, Berengarius, and Massa but noted that ‘These first improvers…followed Galen almost blindly, when his authority had so long been established, and when the enthusiasm for Greek authors was rising to such a pitch’. (ibid., p. 40)


Galen quartos in MR 3

Galen’s influence gradually waned in the early modern period.  Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) challenged Galen’s observations if not his medical system. As Hunter explains, Vesalius was a genius in anatomical study who read widely and had excellent artistic skills.

He was equally laborious in reading the ancients, and in dissecting bodies. And in making the comparison, he could not but see, that there was great room for improvement, and that many of Galen’s descriptions were erroneous. …. he found so many occasions of correcting Galen, that his contemporaries, partial to antiquity, and jealous of his reputation, complained that he carried his turn for improvement and criticisms to licentiousness. The spirit of opposition and emulation was presently rouzed; and Sylvius in France, Columbus, Fallopius, and Eustachius in Italy, who were all in high anatomical reputation about the middle of this sixteenth century, endeavoured to defend Galen, at the expense of Vesalius. In their disputes they made their appeals to the human body; and thus in a few years our art was greatly improved. (ibid., 40-41)

Hunter’s library included works by all of the authors he mentioned in his ‘Introductory Lecture’. We will revisit it in future posts to discover Hunter’s views on anatomical discoveries and is opinions on how best to teach anatomy.

Works inspired by or connected with Vesalius appear in the ‘G’ section of Hunter’s library. Jacques Grévin (1538?-1570) produced the first adaptation of Vesalius in French (Sp Coll Hunterian Aa.2.23) and Thomas Geminus (-1562) the first edition in English in 1553 with copperplate engravings – an improvement on Vesalius’s woodcuts (Sp Coll Hunterian Ab.1.9). Hunter also had an edition in Dutch by Jacob van der Gracht published in 1613 (now lost due to damage sustained in the Second World War). There are also four works by Vesalius’s anatomy teacher at Paris, Johann Geunther (1505-1574). Geunther closely followed Galen in his teaching.

For Hunter, the study and teaching of anatomy was a narrative of progress. He saw his own time as the pinnacle of centuries of achievement. His collections – including his books – were part of the story.

Project update

We have now completed an initial transcription of all but one letter (‘T’) and checking is well underway. All of the team are now interacting more with the actual books in the Hunterian Collection now that the bulk of the transcription work is complete. We hope to find out more about how Hunter used his books and why he had them. (See the ‘D’ update for an example of the sort of thing we hope to find.)



Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library

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3 replies


  1. William Hunter’s Library: the Gs – Karen Baston

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