William Hunter’s Library: who were the Trustees?

Hunter’s relationship with his brother and fellow anatomist John was famously strained so it is not surprising that John was not a trustee for Hunter’s estate. Hunter’s nephew, Matthew Baillie, along with Hunter’s business partner William Cruikshank, were the main beneficiaries in Hunter’s will with Hunter leaving them the use of his collections and library at Great Windmill Street for thirty years . At the end of that time, Hunter’s vast collections and books were to come to Glasgow. Three London-based physicians acted as Trustees for Hunter’s legacy.


Museum Records 3, f. 414: Matthew Baillie and Hunter’s Trustees’ signatures confirming it as an accurate record of Hunter’s printed books

The final leaves of Museum Records 3 – the Trustees Catalogue of Hunter’s Library – give details about Baillie’s potential use of the books as part of his uncle’s plan that he should take over his anatomy lecturing business. The leaves name the Trustees and set out the agreement for Baillie’s use of them. A signed and witnessed note on leaves 414 to 417 on MR3 confirms that Baillie took possession of Hunter’s books on 12 December 1785 and that he promised to ‘return the said Printed Books specified in the foregoing Catalogue safe & undefaced and in good plight & condition (reasonable use and wearing and all Damages done by Fire or other inevitable Accidents only excepted)’.

Hunter named three Trustees in his will: George Fordyce, David Pitcairn, and Charles Combe. All of the Trustees were to give priority to creating catalogues of Hunter’s extensive collections – including his printed books – but two, Fordyce and Combe, were given special tasks relating to their expertise.

‘George Fordyce of Essex Street Doctor in Physic’

George Fordyce (1736-1802), like Hunter, had been a student of William Cullen. After moving to London, Fordyce studied anatomy with John Hunter. His interest in chemistry was evident throughout his studies and his expert knowledge ensured that he was the obvious choice of editor for an updated edition of the Pharmacopeia Londinensis in the 1780s.[1]

Hunter had several of his publications in his library including two copies of his Elements of Agriculture and Vegetation (London, 1765) [now Sp Coll Hunterian Ei.1.6 and Sp Coll Hunterian R.7.19]; his Elements of the Practice of Physic (London, 1770) [now Sp Coll Hunterian Av.2.13]; and his A New Method of Assaying Copper-Ores (London, 1780) [now Sp Coll Hunterian Ek.1.11].

Hunter’s appreciation of Fordyce’s knowledge continued beyond the grave. His will stated that

…I do give…permission to Dr George Fordyce to come into my said House and Museum or any other place where my Fossils shells Corralls and dried Plants or any part thereof shall from time to time be deposited and to handle View and examine the same for the purpose of taking an Account or Accounts thereof or any part of parts thereof and printing and Publishing the same as he shall think fit. (GUA 45181, ‘Of the Will and Codicil of Dr William Hunter decd’, p. 5 [transcribed by Adam Swann])

‘David Pitcairn of Lincolns Inn Fields Doctor in Physic’

David Pitcairn (1749-1809) was a physician at the start of his career in the early 1780s. He was a popular physician who built up a large private practice alongside his post a phyician to St Bartholomew’s Hospitial. The youngest of Hunter’s Trustees, he became a close friend of Matthew Baillie. He bequeathed the famous gold-headed cane, inherited from his uncle, which passed down through generations of leading medics to Baillie.[2]

‘Charles Combe of Hart Street near Bloomsbury Square Doctor in Physic’

Charles Combe (1742-1817) was a physician and numismatist who met Hunter in the early 1770s. Hunter appreciated his knowledge of coins and classics and relied on his antiquarian skills to build his coin collection. Combe published a catalogue of some of Hunter’s coins in 1782 as Nummorum veterum populorum et orbium, qui in Museo Gulielmi Hunter asservantur, descriptio, figuris illustrata (now Sp Coll Hunterian G.3.16-17).

Sp Coll Hunterian G.3.16 title page

Sp Coll Hunterian G.3.16 title page

Sp Coll Hunterian G.3.16

Sp Coll Hunterian G.3.16 is interleaved with blank ruled pages

Like Hunter, Combe specialised in obstetrics and midwifery professionally. He also collected rare medical books.[3]

Hunter acknowledged Combe’s interest in numismatics in his Will. He wished Combe’s work on describing his collection to continue since he instructed that

…it is my Will and meaning that … the said Mr Charles Combe shall have full liberty and permitted at his free Will and pleasure at all seasonable times in the day to come into and upon my said House or Museum or the place where my Medals and Coins or any part thereof shall from time to time be deposited and to handle examine and view the said Medals in Order to form and Account or Accounts thereof or of any part or parts thereof that he shall think fit and to print or publish such Accounts thereof as he shall…think proper. (GUA 45181, ‘Of the Will and Codicil of Dr William Hunter decd’, p. 5 [transcribed by Adam Swann])

Sp Coll Hunterian G.3.17 coins

Coins illustrations in Sp Coll Hunterian G.3.17

Hunter did not always get on well with his fellow collectors and scholars. A letter found inside Sp Coll Hunterian G.3.17 defends Combe’s decision not to include another collector’s coins in his book after’s Hunter’s offer to buy them fell through.

Hunter Letter G.3.17

MS Hunter H542, Letter in Sp Coll Hunterian G.3.17: ‘The transaction was declared to be at an end, and the printing went on without your Coins.’

It is a tribute to Hunter’s Trustees that they maintained their relationships with him in his lifetime and beyond.

[1] N. G. Coley, ‘Fordyce, George (1736–1802)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/9878, accessed 16 Aug 2017].

[2] Norman Moore, ‘Pitcairn, David (1749–1809)’, rev. Claire L. Nutt, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/22315, accessed 16 Aug 2017].

[3] W. W. Wroth, ‘Combe, Charles (1743–1817)’, rev. C. E. A. Cheesman, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/6018, accessed 16 Aug 2017].

Find out more about William Hunter’s Library: a transcription of the early catalogues

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3 replies


  1. William Hunter’s Library: Who were the Trustees? – Karen Baston
  2. Dr. William Hunter – Thistle Do Beautifully

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