John Hunter1728–1793

Hunter’s Torpedo

The 18th century was the age of experiment and electricity. With his fascination in the variety of animal life and the anatomy of electric fish like torpedo, Hunter reflected both of these developments. He was drawn to the electric organs of the ray as a consequence of the experiments by John Walsh (1726-1795), who supplied the specimens that Hunter examined (both torpedoes and electric eels). Hunter was concerned with nerve function and transmission, and he provided an early indication of what was to become known as the doctrine of specific nerve energies: “For it is more than probable, that what may be called organs of sense, have particular nerves, whose mode of action is different from that of nerves producing common sensation; and also different from one another; and that the nerves on which the particular functions of each of the organs of sense depend, are not supplied from different parts of the brain…. it is more probable, that every nerve so affected as to communicate sensation, in whatever part of the nerve the impression is made, always gives the same sensation as if affected at the common seat of the sensation of that particular nerve”. Hunter was more sanguine about cortical localization, as was evident in an altercation with Andrew Marshal regarding the association between mania and the structure of the brain. Marshal claimed to have observed abnormalities when dissecting brains of those who died insane but Hunter denied this connection. He was a prime advocate of experiments and was an avid collector of medical specimens. Many of his experiments were self administered and he advocated experiment over thought. His huge anatomical collection became the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, London, which includes, among others, also the torpedoes specimens brought up by Walsh from La Rochelle in 1772.