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Hunter, John Irvine (1898–1924)

by Michael J. Blunt

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

John Irvine Hunter (1898-1924), professor of anatomy, was born on 24 January 1898 at Bendigo, Victoria, third son of Victorian-born parents Henry Hunter, furniture dealer, and his wife Isabella, née Hodgson. After an attack of pneumonia when he was 8, he was brought up at Albury, New South Wales, by an aunt and was educated at Albury Public School (1906-12). A bursary enabled him to attend Fort Street High School (1912-14). Awarded an exhibition and bursary, he entered the medical course at the University of Sydney in 1915. In each year of his undergraduate career he won awards, and in his two final years, all the prizes, despite having to support himself by coaching. He was prosector in anatomy (1916-17), in residence and medical tutor at Wesley College (1917-20) and demonstrator in anatomy in 1918-20. In July 1918 he had enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force but was not called up.

After graduating M.B. and Ch.M., with first-class honours and the University medal in 1920, Hunter was appointed almost immediately associate professor in anatomy. In August 1921 he was given leave of absence to study in Britain, the United States of America and Canada. On his return, from 1 March 1923, he occupied the Challis chair of anatomy. In 1924 the university senate conferred upon him the degree of doctor of medicine with first-class honours, the university medal and the Ethel Talbot memorial prize. His thesis was on the forebrain of the kiwi.

Hunter was a prolific research worker and published twenty papers in medical and scientific journals. His earlier papers were chiefly on topics in embryology and neurology, but those of 1924 and 1925 were mostly concerned with the innervation of muscle. He considered that 'voluntary' or striated muscle fibres received nerve supply alternatively from cerebrospinal nerve fibres or from the fibres of the sympathetic nervous system, which is generally involved in the supply of glands and of the 'involuntary' or smooth muscle in the walls of viscera. He thought that a plastic tonus which had been noted in voluntary muscle could be explained by sympathetic innervation: this tonus might also be the basis of spastic paralysis appearing after strokes and other diseases of the central nervous system. In consequence, Hunter and his surgical colleague N. D. Royle made experimental and clinical attempts to treat spastic paralysis by sectioning sympathetic nerves.

Hunter's work on the dual innervation of muscle fibres was of much topical interest. In October 1924 he and Royle were invited by the American College of Surgeons to deliver the John B. Murphy oration in surgery in New York. From this engagement Hunter went to England to lecture at Cambridge and then in London. However, he fell ill on arrival in London and died of typhoid in University College Hospital on 10 December. He was survived by his wife, Hazel Annie, née McPherson, whom he had married at Summer Hill, Sydney, on 30 January 1924, and by a posthumous son born on 6 September 1925. He was an Anglican.

The hypothesis of double innervation of muscle, the most acclaimed part of Hunter's work, was disproved within five years of his death, and hope of his findings being applicable to the relief of spastic paralysis was subsequently abandoned. Nevertheless his research constituted a valid and highly stimulating contribution to an intricate dialectic concerning the innervation of muscle, in the context in which it was made. The nature of the plastic tonus in muscle, to which the work related, was not resolvable until the development of sophisticated electromyographic analysis in the 1950s.

The survival of the Hunter legend depended both on the quality of work and on the calibre of the man. He was loved and even revered by his mentors, peers and students on account of a particularly joyous and unselfish nature, modesty and deep spirituality. His intellectual brilliance attracted much comment. (Sir) Grafton Elliot Smith said of him, 'Had he lived, he might have become the foremost man of science of the age'. In a letter to Sir Arthur Keith he wrote, 'Hunter was the biggest man I have ever met'. Two future medical knights and chancellors of the University of Sydney, (Sir) Charles Bickerton Blackburn and (Sir) Charles McDonald, were among those who wrote of his genius and of the renown he brought to the Sydney Medical School.

Portraits by John Longstaff and W. B. McInnes were painted after his death; both hang in the Anderson Stuart building of the University of Sydney. Bronze medallions, sculpted by Rayner Hoff, are held at Wesley College, the university and Fort Street High School.

Select Bibliography

  • W. R. Dawson (ed), Sir Grafton Elliot Smith (Lond, 1938)
  • Lancet (London), 1305 (1924)
  • Sydney University Gazette, Oct 1958, p 225
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 13 Dec 1924
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12, 13, 19 Dec 1924
  • Australian Christian World, 12 Nov 1926.

Citation details

Michael J. Blunt, 'Hunter, John Irvine (1898–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hunter-john-irvine-6771/text11709, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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