Collection reveals how art informed science, science informed art

Johan Zoffany, William Hunter Lecturing, 1770–72, oil on canvas, Royal College of Physicians, London
Johan Zoffany, William Hunter Lecturing, 1770–72, oil on canvas, Royal College of Physicians, London

In 1726, a young Englishwoman named Mary Toft gave birth to 14 rabbits. Or so she claimed. A physical examination by an influential physician, who would go on to become the mentor of William Hunter — a founding father of obstetrics as well as the first professor of anatomy at the Royal Academy of Art — swiftly dispelled the medical hoax of the 18th century.

Hunter’s own life bore out the promise of that century, an era marked by Enlightenment thought and ever-increasing medical knowledge. Though he began his career as a mere “man-midwife,” by 1764 the Scotsman had become a famous London physician and Queen Charlotte’s personal accoucheur (the French way to say “man-midwife”), overseeing the successful delivery of her 14 healthy human children — not a single suspected rabbit among them.

It is Hunter’s eclectic collection of art, artifact, and assorted natural specimens, plus the groundbreaking obstetrical atlas of his own making, that is on view at the Yale Center for British Art through May 20 under the title, “William Hunter and the Anatomy of the Modern Museum.”

Visitors to the exhibition will experience the full breadth of Hunter’s collection — from ancient coins and medals to samples of minerals and zoological specimens to rare books and personal letters to prints and paintings, including a Rembrandt. A product of a six-year collaboration between the center and the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, this exhibition ruminates on the entanglement of science and art in a time when the debate over the nature of truth itself was still ongoing, according to the curators.

Since Hunter’s collection arrived in Glasgow from London in 1807, the increasing divide between art and science and the separation of scholarly disciplines have led to its gradual dispersal across the University of Glasgow,” explained Amy Meyers, director of the center, and Steph Scholten, the director of the Hunterian, in their forward to the exhibition catalogue.

The present project has provided a critical juncture at which to reassemble the many parts of the collection and reconsider the subtle interconnections among them and their relationship to 18th-century forms of Western knowledge, as well as how those forms of knowledge were influenced by systems of thought from across the world,” wrote Meyers and Scholten.

Allan Ramsay, William Hunter, ca. 1764–65, oil on canvas, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow
Allan Ramsay, William Hunter, ca. 1764–65, oil on canvas, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

Since the very beginning of his medical education in Scotland, Hunter was influenced by systems of thought from outside Great Britain. Hands-on teaching techniques, involving study via dissections and detailed anatomical illustrations, had become popular on the continent, especially in the Netherlands, before migrating across the English Channel and into the classroom of some of Hunter’s most beloved teachers, explained organizing curator Nathan Fils, head of exhibitions and publications and assistant curator of 17th-century paintings at the center. This practical way of teaching and learning medicine, via direct observation and tactile experience, permanently shaped Hunter’s own trajectory as physician, teacher, and collector as his career began in London.

Owing to these early experiences with observational and tactile learning, Hunter’s personal collection of art and errata was anything but random, said Fils. From the start, Hunter intended to entrust these objects, upon his death, to an institution of higher education as teaching tools for future scholars. In life, he had already made use of many works in his own instruction, according to the curators, including the collected paintings and other 2D media that hung on the walls of his London home and classroom, spaces that shared a roof.

Hunter’s collection contained both anatomical specimens and masterworks of art — the aesthetic blended into the scientific — anticipating the 20th-century development of the ‘New Humanities,’ where art informs science and science informs the arts,” said Dr. Thomas Duffy, professor emeritus of hematology and affiliate of the Programs for Biomedical Ethics and Medical Humanities at the Yale School of Medicine. On March 5, Duffy gave a gallery talk called “A Necessary Inhumanity: William Hunter’s Way of Life in the 18th Century” about the exhibition as part of the center’s “Art in Context” series.

In the 18th century, technical limitations kept the practice of arts and sciences close, the curators explained. In the absence of effective preservation technologies, the only way to give a dissection further pedagogical life was to have artists cast and illustrate from the body as physicians deconstructed it in real time. Simultaneously, the arts had begun to emphasize accuracy and realism in the depiction of the human form, and thus to require their students to learn scientific human anatomy.

Hunter brought to the academy his belief that art should be as realistic as objects in nature,” said Duffy. “He was described as a cartographer of the human body. The drawings are considered to be marvels of technique and stand alone as aesthetic pleasures.”

Via the Royal Academy professorship, Hunter benefitted from science’s influence on the arts in 18th-century Britain, but perhaps less obviously, he also benefitted from art’s influence on science.

As a young man in Scotland, Hunter had befriended Robert Strange and Allan Ramsay, who were studying as artists and were influenced by the same hands-on anatomical training as his own. Hunter would eventually enlist Strange and Ramsay to make life sketches during the stepwise dissections of bodies at various stages of pregnancy. Those completed drawings eventually became the plates for Hunter’s masterwork, the bound anatomical atlas called “The Gravid Uterus” (gravid means “pregnant” in Latin), on view in this exhibition. Though the initial dissections were occasions of instruction and learning, Hunter had higher hopes for the knowledge gleaned from them. By applying art to science, Hunter was able to preserve the body in paper and ink and make it useful to future scholars across the world.

Although medical ethics were not yet a defined concept in Hunter’s day, today’s scholars have raised ethical questions regarding the source of the bodies, explained Duffy. Review of Hunter’s letters reveal that his central role as the leading obstetrician in London would have positioned him to obtain the small number of bodies for these instructive dissections that gave the basis for “The Gravid Uterus,” he said.

To respond to these ethical questions raised by “The Gravid Uterus” and the plaster cast counterpart on display, the center commissioned four contemporary artworks that reflect on the “social and philosophical questions about the worlds of medicine and anatomical dissection.” The contributing contemporary artists are Selva Aparicio, Claire Barclay, Nate Lewis, and Maya Vivas.

Regardless of its ethical quandries, Hunter’s project did contribute to the advancement of obstetric medicine in the 18th century. “’The Gravid Uterus’ had value equal to that of Vesalius's ‘Fascicles of the human body,’” said Duffy. Vesalius was a 16th-century Flemish anatomist whose drawings revolutionized the understanding of general human anatomy. “It fit nicely into the burgeoning knowledge of female anatomy and reproductive physiology.”

Moreover, Duffy said, Hunter is considered by many to be the father of obstetrics. As teacher, physician, and scientist, he taught a generation of students, some of whom were American and cared for numerous women in labor, where he espoused natural childbirth. Hunter also made several original discoveries in his field, said Duffy, such as separate placental and maternal blood pools and the lymphatic system, and he also anticipated the Hungarian physician Semellweis’ theory of puerperal fever (a post-partum bacterial infection of the uterus with many causes, including practitioners not washing their hands before delivering a baby) a century early.

The final third of this exhibition reveals that Hunter’s interest in anatomy was not limited to the human body. The later bays feature triptychs of drawings from Hunter’s collection that describe the anatomies of both common and rare animals. George Stubbs, acclaimed naturalist painter and a personal friend of Hunter, authored many of those drawings at Hunter’s request. One of Stubbs’ anatomical explorations, “The Anatomy of the Horse,” was described by the curators as “the first correct record of the horse’s anatomy, and a triumph of both art and science” and is still used by veterinarians today.

Alongside Stubbs’ drawings, the curators have included a few of his famous wildlife paintings from both the Hunterian and the center’s collections. One of those paintings is the center’s iconic “Zebra.” It was actually Hunter who secured Stubbs access to this animal, the first zebra ever to live on English soil. Through his status as successful accoucheur to Queen Charlotte, Hunter was able to get his friend permission to paint the rare wildlife in the queen’s private menagerie.

George Stubbs, Zebra, 1763, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
George Stubbs, Zebra, 1763, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

In life and in death, Hunter hoped his collection would be used by scholars to advance research and knowledge, said María Dolores Sánchez-Jáuregui, the William Hunter Tercentenary Curator at The Hunterian, who assisted Fils and guest curator Mungo Campbell, deputy director of The Hunterian, in assembling this exhibition.

Three centuries later and across the ocean, Hunter’s collection is still serving this intended purpose from the galleries of Yale’s museum, where the contemporary curation of his collection highlights the indelible influence art and science have had on each other.

The Yale Center for British Art (1080 Chapel St.) is free and open to the public Tuesday - Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. It is closed Mondays and major holidays. For more information, visit the center’s website or call 203-432-2800.

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Media Contact

Kendall Teare: kendall.teare@yale.edu, 203-836-4226