fearlessness or folly?

John Hunter (February 1728 – October 1793) was a Scottish surgeon regarded as one of the most distinguished scientists and surgeons of his day. He was right about a good many things but sadly mistaken when it came to STDs

Hunterian Museum found here

He thought that gonorrhea and syphilis were caused by a single pathogen. Living in an age when physicians frequently experimented on themselves, he inoculated himself with gonorrhea into incisions he had made in his own penis, using a needle that was unknowingly contaminated with syphilis. When he contracted both syphilis and gonorrhea, he claimed it proved his erroneous theory that there was only one venereal disease. The characteristic nodule of the pox which appeared on his penis was later designated the “Hunterian chancre”.

image found here

To cure his pox Hunter repeatedly swilled his mouth with corrosive sublimate and toxic mercury. These substances give mouth ulcers, loosen the teeth and produce pints of black saliva. Some hospitals had “salivating wards” where one could dribble in private

He included his findings in an illustrated Treatise on the Venereal Disease which was so graphic it even put James Boswell off sex for a week. Because of Hunter’s reputation, knowledge concerning the true nature of gonorrhea and syphilis was retarded, and it was not until 51 years later that his theory was proved to be wrong.

James Boswell found here

In 1791, when Joseph Haydn was visiting London for a series of concerts, Hunter offered to perform an operation for the removal of a large nasal polyp which was troubling the great Austrian composer. According to one account, “Haydn, on his visit to London in 1791, wrote folksong arrangements, including The Ash Grove, set to words by Mrs Hunter. Haydn had designs on Mrs Hunter. Her husband … had designs on Haydn’s famous nasal polyp. Both were refused.”

Haydn found here

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42 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. They must have the hottest nurses in the Salivating Ward!

    • Hot nurses that smell of bacon

      • LOL!

  2. The Romans had sulphur baths which cured the sores of STD’s but did not know of the brain damage caused by syphilis. Perhaps that is why so many emperors were irrational , brutal and cruel monsters. Lead poisoning gottem too.

    • those were very dark days

  3. Another wince-inducing post. And it’s only 6:47 a.m. out here! Too early for this sort of frivolity.

    Off sex for a whole week?!?! Oh, the poor thing. Wait ’til he gets married.

    • Yes. Without doubt this is one of your most eye-watering pieces.

      • I’ve got another eye-watering piece coming up but I try to space them out a bit

    • Boswell was married and chased skirts all over the place, paying the “ultimate price” almost 20 times.Maybe Hunter treated him?

      • I don’t know but it’s possible

  4. a cracking read AGAIN

    • John, I really wish your link took me straight to your blog :-(

  5. Can you pick up STD’s playing Connect 4?

    • It depends on what you’re using to move the counters

  6. Wonder why death masks fell out of favor.

    • I guess we can just take photographs now

  7. “syphilis:The causative organism, Treponema pallidum, was first identified by Fritz Schaudinn and Erich Hoffmann in 1905″ from wikipedia.
    John Hunter still would have had to wait over 100 years his death for science to find the answer.

    • So near and yet so far

  8. Ach the way bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics I wonder how long it will be until doctors are back to using lunar caustic and the like!

    • I’d opt for chastity before I’d submit to any of those treatments

  9. i’ll have to remember not to “click” when eating breakfast. oy.

  10. Ugh!! Sadistic much?

    • I think he was more masochistic than sadistic. Or maybe he was neither and did it purely for the research

  11. Ouch. Double whammy.
    (And that’s one book I don’t plan on reading.)

    • Did you ever get the book you ordered from amazon Beth?

  12. They say corrosive sublimate and toxic mercury tastes a bit like chicken.

    • Well, THEY would know

  13. Eep: ‘Hunter repeatedly swilled his mouth with corrosive sublimate and toxic mercury.’

    I’ll stick to single malt.

    • Merlot for me, thanks!

      • Gin and tonic over here please

  14. On my last visit to London one year ago this week a friend and I visited the Hunterian museum of which you write. It was FASCINATING. You enter and are immediately confronted with the floor-to-ceiling skeleton of an Irish giant. The whole museum seems to be dedicated to showing you just how awful your sexual organs will look if you expose them to the wrong people. If you go, don’t miss the second-floor display on brain surgery. The video is best eaten on an empty stomach.

    • …SEEN on an empty stomach. :-)

      • I would love to go there one day

  15. Good ol’ Boswell nailed anything in reach showing marginal signs of life, so this treatise must be really gross. But what else would you expect from a man who rams an infected needle in his own membrum virile, for the flucking sake of science of c(o)urse …
    Have you ever heared of Oskar Panizza, just popped up in my head? Casanova mentions in his memories the mercury cure, and I think most of Nietzsche’s blab – besides all the falsifications his terrible sister later worked in – can be explained with brain damage by syphilis. I once came upon (no pun intended) over a history of the condom, there were early exemplars made from sheep bowels, with a nice little “Bändel” to fix it. Really popularized the gum thing was through WWI, at least on the continent … Magnus Hirschfeld should have written something about it. You are an historian too?

    • Sorry to stumble in again – the Haydn link does not work. Is he in Friedell’s Das letzte Gesicht?

      • Oh I’m sorry the link no longer works. I don’t remember where I found the image now :-(

    • I hadn’t heard of Oskar Panizza so I just wiki’d him. Fascinating

  16. Ya know, you don’t find that level of dedication in doctors these days. Then again, you do see a lot more doctors still alive these days.
    Based on my experience with doctors, not sure if that’s a win or not. ;)

  17. Ooh, great post. As always!

  18. I’m at Starbucks right now. I’m going to order a orrosive sublimate and toxic mercury frappuccino.

    Just kidding. It’s too cold for a frappuccino.

  19. This makes me feel better about my frequent bouts of abstinence.


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