The Natural History of the Teeth 1771, 1773, 1778,1780, 1803, 1815, 1839, 1841, 1843, 1861, 1865 editions.
John Hunter (1728-1793)
One of the seminal works of dentistry and dental anatomy, The Natural History of the Human Teeth was part of the prolific and impactful scientific medical legacy left behind by its author, John Hunter (1728-1793). This book, first published in 1771, details the form and structure of the dentition, jaws, and related muscles, how the teeth develop, their customary appearance when healthy as well as their presentations when diseased or pathological, and assorted other information that Hunter deemed important and necessary to a proper comprehension of oral anatomy and the treatments available at the time for its maladies. Throughout the work, the author displays a keen attention for detail and impressive knowledge of anatomy no doubt gleaned from his thousands of dissections and experiments, all with a view to finding newer and better ways to treat patients using a reasoned empirical approach. For example, Hunter proposed dental transplantations and orthodontic devices for treating malocclusions. Perhaps even more importantly, he was the first to propose a classification system to describe the teeth, referring to them as incisors, cuspids (canines), bicuspids (premolars), and grinders (molars). This system is more or less the system in use today by dentists around the world. The impact of this work on the science of dental medicine can scarcely be overstated thanks to the intrepid and incisive curiosity of John Hunter.
Hunter was born in Scotland in 1728, the youngest of ten children. Despite not having much in the way of formal education, he exhibited a natural inquisitiveness since childhood that would continue undiminished throughout his life. He never finished university and like many surgeons of that period, he did not attempt to become a medical doctor. Instead in 1748 at the age of 20, he arrived in London, where he was hired by his older brother, William, as a dissection assistant. William Hunter was already a renowned anatomist who had made a name for himself in the field of obstetrics. John soon demonstrated his own prowess as a surgical anatomist and eventually began lecturing to dissection classes on his own, all the while continuing his own experimental studies in anatomy.
During the following two summers after his arrival in London, Hunter undertook to learn the techniques and practice of surgery from William Cheselden, a famous surgeon who was roundly respected in the London medical community at the time. In 1754, Hunter qualified in surgery and soon began working at St. George’s Hospital. Already regarded as a master of anatomy, he was promoted from assistant to full surgeon in 1758. As his reputation grew, so did the opportunities available to him. Hunter received a military commission to serve as an army surgeon from 1760-1763. During this time, he collaborated with the dentist James Spence on tooth transplants and other experimental dental procedures. Upon returning to London, he continued teaching and lecturing along with his private practice until his death. By 1767, his fame and repute earned him an invitation to become an esteemed Fellow of the Royal Society, which effectively was and still is the national academy of sciences for the United Kingdom. Furthermore, in 1776 he was named Surgeon Extraordinary to King George III. Throughout all of this, John Hunter continued to lecture, conduct experiments and publish medical treatises. And in the process, he effectively elevated surgery to the level of a respectable scientific profession.
In addition to his private practice and teaching duties, Hunter amassed an extensive collection of human, animal and plant anatomical specimens, which he studied with relentless vigor. Throughout his life, he published a number of volumes dealing with a broad array of medical conditions such as battle wounds and venereal disease. It was in the area of dentistry however that Hunter found his niche amongst London’s surgical elite. He is most remembered for his landmark treatise, the Natural History of the Human Teeth, which he published in 1771. It was an immediate commercial success and became the standard reference text for dental treatment at the time. The volume had seen at least ten editions in the next 100 years. In addition to the first, our collection includes republications from 1773, 1778,1780, 1803, 1815, 1839, 1841, 1843, 1861, and 1865, for a total of 28 copies.
John Hunter died in 1793 at the age of 65. Although he is most remembered today as the “father of modern surgery”, John Hunter’s contribution to surgical dentistry was likely the most impactful part of his legacy.
- The Natural History of the Teeth 1771, 1773, 1778,1780, 1803, 1815, 1839, 1841, 1843, 1861, 1865 editions. >>>
(Based on research and essay by Robert D Spielman, class of 2024 as part of his assignment in the Elective in History of Medicine and Dentistry Course Fall 2020). Edited by Andrew I Spielman.