William Hunter’s Library: the Is and the Js

As all viewers of ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ know, there is no ‘J’ in the Latin alphabet. In Hunter’s Trustees’ catalogue (and in the earlier catalogues compiled in Hunter’s lifetime), there is no separate section in MR 3 for ‘J’ titles and authors are listed with the heading ‘I’.


One topic is very evident in this section of the catalogue: inoculation. The entries for ‘Octavo (Inoculation) Pamphlets’ in MR 3 run over two pages and are comprised of 52 titles.


Octavo Inoculation Pamphlets (MR 3, f. 214)


Octavo Inoculation Pamphlets (MR 3, f. 213)

The publications represent a variety of viewpoints but are mostly favour the practice of inoculation. Smallpox was one of the most dreaded diseases in Hunter’s time. Patients who survived were likely to carry the scars for life. There was no cure for smallpox, but a practice that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a survivor of the disease who had lost a child to it, had observed when her husband was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire offered a chance for increasing the chances of survival while decreasing the potential for scarring and other long-term effects.

Patients who were inoculated were deliberately infected with a ‘mild’ form of the disease by having pus from a smallpox pustule inserted into an open wound. The pus was selected from a patient who exhibited mild symptoms. The newly infected patient would benefit from acquiring a less virulent variant of smallpox and, if he or she survived, would have immunity from smallpox for life. Ideally, the scarring would be less, too, than if smallpox was naturally acquired. Lady Mary brought the practice back to Western Europe in the early 1720s.

Controversy arose on several fronts. How was the suitability of the source smallpox to be determined? Would engaging in the practice defy God’s will? What if the patient died of the disease instead of surviving to enjoy the benefits of the practice? What was the best way to administer the treatment? Should the pox be heroically plunged dramatically into the patient or would more gentle means serve the purpose just as well?

Parties on all sides of the debates used pamphlets to disseminate their research and opinions. Hunter had several volumes of collected pamphlets on inoculation in his library. His correspondence shows that he advised family members on the practice. On 7 October 1770, for example, his brother-in-law James Baillie reported that

Immediately upon receiving your last we would have followed your Advice in inoculating Jackey[1] for the second time: But She had caught a cold with a severe cough, which still continues….While in this state the Surgeon, who inoculated her before, thinks it not proper to do it again, till her health is perfectly reestablished. Mr Jack Surgeon in Hamilton, who has as good a reputation as any in the place, saw her when in Bothwell, and thought the Disease, which she had then was the true Smallpox; And Mr Hamilton in Glasgow, from the Description given him of it, made no doubt of its being the true Smallpox.[2]

This letter shows the difficulty in diagnosing smallpox even at the most experienced levels of the medical profession: ‘Mr Hamilton in Glasgow’ was the professor of anatomy at the University there.


Contents list for a collected volume inoculation pamphlets published in the 1720s when inoculation was controversially introduced into Britain found in Sp Coll Hunterian Ci.2.13

Hunter had a long-standing interest in smallpox. In 1761, he wrote to his mentor William Cullen on behalf of the Society of Collegiate Physicians to request information about the ‘present state of inoculation’ in Scotland:

Query 1. Whether innoculation [sic] continues to be practiced in Edinburgh and the neighbouring town with the same success as in London, and if the practice gains ground daily or not?

Query 2. Whether the fear of spreading contagion has not prevented innoculation becoming so common as it would have been, especially in market towns?

3. Whether any cases have been certainly observed of taking the true smallpox a second time, either after the natural or inoculated smallpox?

4. Whether the success of inoculation at the breast has been in general equal to that at three or four years of age? In what proportion have the numbers been? at what month of their age generally have the little creatures been inoculated? and do you have any objection to this practice from good authority, I mean observation?[3]

Hunter’s annotations on two pamphlet title pages are bibliographical rather than medical. His planned survey of Scottish inoculation never appeared.


Pamphlet in Sp Coll Hunterian Ci.2.12 with bibliographical note by Hunter

For a study of later developments to combat smallpox, including the introduction of vaccination, see ‘The child whose town rejected vaccines’ at the Wellcome Trust’s series of blogs on ‘Outsiders’ and disease by Anna Faherty.

James Jurin

A notable inclusion in this section of MR 3 is James Jurin (bap. 1684, d. 1750), a physician and natural philosopher known for his promotion of the practice of inoculation. Jurin was a secretary of the Royal Society of London and he placed an advertisement in the Society’s journal, Philosophical Transactions, requesting readers’ experiences of inoculation. Using the data collected from the responses, Jurin proved statistically that the chances of survival for inoculated patients was much higher than for those who acquired the disease naturally.[4] Hunter’s request for information from Cullen shows that the controversies were still being debated more than a decade after Jurin’s death.


Pamphlet by Jurin in Sp Coll Hunterian Ci.2.13 with bibliographical note by Hunter

Hunter had several of Jurin’s pro-inoculation works in his collection of pamphlets. He also had Jurin’s Newtonian works on mathematics and optics. Jurin’s ‘Abstract of his Case relating to his Lexivium’, as it is described in MR 3, of 1752 is one of the pamphlets he wrote defending his unsuccessful use of lixivium lithontripticum, a medicine he had used to cure himself of bladder stones, in an attempt to cure the dying Robert Walpole.[5]

Samuel Johnson

Hunter acquired many of his books, both medical and on other topics, as gifts. Among these is a copy of Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Isles (Sp Coll Hunterian Bo.3.25) which Johnson gave to Hunter along with another copy for Hunter to deliver to the king.


Sp Coll Hunterian Bo.3.25

Sources and notes

[1] Hunter’s niece Joanna.

[2] James Baillie to William Hunter (7 October 1770) in Helen Brock (ed), The Correspondence of Dr William Hunter, 1740-1783 (1993), pp. 823-4.

[3] William Hunter to William Cullen (10 Feb. 1761) in Helen Brock (ed), The Correspondence of Dr William Hunter, 1740-1783 (1993), pp. 253-4. In a nice example of research serendipity, in the same letter Hunter mentions the inheritance Mary, the daughter of Edward and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whose recently-deceased father had left her a fortune (p. 252). During an epidemic outbreak of the disease in England in 1721, Lady Mary had Mary (b. 1718) inoculated to demonstrate the benefits of the practice. Isobel Grundy, ‘Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley (bap. 1689, d. 1762)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/19029, accessed 12 July 2017].

[4] Andrea Rusnock, ‘Jurin, James (bap. 1684, d. 1750)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/15173, accessed 11 July 2017].

[5] Ibid.

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2 replies


  1. William Hunter’s Library: the Is and the Js – Karen Baston

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