Hunter, John Irvine

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John Irvine Hunter

MB 1920 ChM 1920 MD 1924

John Irvine Hunter was the first to describe the dual innervation of muscle fibres. He was the Challis Chair of Anatomy within the Faculty from 1923 until his untimely death in 1924, aged 26.

Even before John graduated from Medicine, he had begun his career within the Faculty: from 1916 until 1917, he was a Prosector in Anatomy, becoming a Demonstrator in Anatomy in 1918. He held that position until his graduation with a Bachelor of Medicine and a Master of Surgery in 1920. Almost immediately thereafter, he was appointed Associate Professor of Anatomy.[1]

At the time of his appointment to the Associate Chair, the Sydney University Medical Journal remarked:

J I Hunter, the latest genius of our school, has excelled all in academic success and future promise… a born teacher with a faculty of sifting and marshalling facts in logical association, a keen sense of their practical value, a lucidity of expression, a power of inspiring enthusiasm in others – everything about him attracted students.

Later (1933), in the same journal, it was said, ”before the different courses of lectures were completed he generally had a profounder knowledge of the subject than the Lecturers themselves.”

John’s contribution to anatomical research included a study of ovarian pregnancy and, while with Elliot Smith in London (during a year’s leave of absence towards the end of 1921), a ‘true’ reconstruction of the Piltdown skull, a study of the comparative anatomy of the oculomotor nucleus, and a study of the Kiwi brain (under Ariens Kappers) for which he was awarded his MD. However, his major work, which he undertook together with N D Royle, was concerned with the innervation of skeletal muscle. John and Royle conceived (or at least elaborated on) the idea of a double innervation of muscle, the idea that the sympathetic nervous system controls ‘plastic’ (postural) tone and that sympathetic ramisection is a method of ameliorating spastic paralysis. The concept was supported by extensive experimental work that seemed compelling.

Delegates from the American College of Surgeons visited Australia in 1923, the year in which John had returned to take up his Chair in February. They were so impressed with John and Royle’s work that invited both of them to deliver the 1924 Doctor James B Murphy Oration, at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. In his letter requesting leave to take up this offer, John proposed that F A Maguire be appointed Acting Professor. He also arranged for Maguire to give his lectures on Descriptive Anatomy later in the term so that John could complete his own lectures on embryology before his departure. Following the oration in New York, John proceeded to London, where he died on 10 December, officially from typhoid fever, although it was later suggested that he died from sleeping sickness (encephalitis lethargica), which was rife in the USA at the time.

John’s career, terminated by his untimely death towards the end of 1924, was astounding and has continued to fascinate and give rise to speculation. There was an apparently unprecedented motion in the State Parliament regretting his demise, an official letter from the Mayor of Albury, where John’s early education had taken place, and, as late as 1982, an article in the Sun on his career. At the memorial ceremony held on 18 December 1924 by the NSW Branch of the British Medical Association, a message from the President of the Victorian Branch was read on the “passing of a genius who had already, though still very young, shed eternal glory on Australian medicine and research”. A E Mills gave an oration saying “the University of Sydney has lost her most gifted son, Science one of her most brilliant votaries and investigators”. He concluded with an adaptation of Milton’s Lycidas:

“John Hunter is dead; dead ere his prime, Young Hunter! and hath not left his peer.”

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Hunter, John Irvine. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Young, J A, Sefton, A J, Webb, N. Centenary Book of the University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine, (1984) Sydney University Press for The University of Sydney Faculty of Medicine.