William Hunter: Recipe Collector

By Anke Timmermann

Historical collections provide wonderful glimpses into the minds of exceptional individuals. Objects, once placed into collection contexts, silently embody the interests and personalities of their collectors. Their organisation within a collection demonstrates a certain, historical way of navigating the world of knowledge. And taken individually, each object taunts us with questions about its raison d’être: how did this get here, and what does it mean?

The Hunterian, Glasgow. Image by Anne (I like) on Flickr.
The Hunterian, Glasgow. Image by Anne (I like) on Flickr.

I recently decided to trace the ‘collective’ history of an alchemical manuscript featured in my previous blog post. GUL MS Hunter 110 escaped the fate of damage by water, fire or other destructive, if not alchemical, elements, thanks to William Hunter (1718-1783), Scottish anatomist and founder of what is now The Hunterian at Glasgow University. During a lifetime spent mostly in London (eventually eclipsed by his younger brother, surgeon John Hunter), with strong connections to Glasgow and Paris, Hunter became famous in medical circles for his work on the gravid (pregnant) uterus. He was also a teacher both brilliant and popular with medical students. Alongside his research, practice and teaching Hunter gathered thousands of books and objects relating to anatomy, natural history and art, from familiar and far-away lands, and dating from various periods of time. The mentioned alchemical volume is only one of ca. 650 Hunterian manuscripts.[1]

Despite their humble appearance, Hunter’s manuscripts may be the most intriguing part of his collections. Acquired at a time when manuscripts were cheap and generally unappreciated, they include Western and oriental items, medieval, Renaissance and contemporary treatises, and cover medical and chymical, historical and theological and linguistic themes. Some of them are likely to have come to him as part of bulk acquisitions at auctions. But what motivated Hunter’s hunt for manuscripts in general, and how did they merge with his other collections, a material lexicon of world knowledge?[2] The recipes in Hunter’s manuscripts throw some light onto these questions, especially those situated between the disciplines of medicine and chemistry.[3]

Among the various items related to materia medica, pharmacy and prescriptions in Hunter’s collections, those written by his mentor, anatomist and accoucheur (‘man-midwife’) James Douglas are noteworthy. In addition to treatises on surgical procedures Douglas also produced notes on medicinal plants including tea, a history of chocolate and bibliographical notes on authors on saffron, and a very interesting record of ‘Chymical potions made by my order at Mr Durhams Laboratory in Cheesewell Street London. 1723’.[4] All of these would have been of interest to Hunter on the page, in his professional life in London, and as a legacy of a beloved teacher and friend – they were in his possession before his thirtieth birthday, seven years after Douglas’s death.

William Hunter, The anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures (1774)
William Hunter, The anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures (1774)

In some ways, Douglas’s medico-pharmacological writings, then, represent the logical core of Hunter’s more wide-ranging interests in recipes, which extended back to the twelfth century.[5] Hunter’s fragmentary copy of the ‘Pharmacopoeia Londinensis’ of 1650 (and thus predating Hunter’s medical practice by a century and by several reviewed versions of the edict), may be considered within this context: it shows a merging of Douglas’s contemporary interests and Hunter’s investigation of the history of pharmacy and its practices.[6]

In this light Hunter’s copy of the ‘Cursus Chemicus’ of Christopher White, Professor of Chemistry at Oxford (d. 1696), too, emerges as more than a noteworthy excursion into medico-chemistry. Continued by White’s son or later descendant (up to 1755), it contains generations of recipe reception: ‘sets of receipts, medical and culinary’, ‘receipts for Cattle Distemper’ with newspaper clippings, an advertisement for the cinnabar/quicksilver mines of Almadén and for a cure ‘for the bite of a mad dog’, among other things.[7] This accumulation of materials appears as wondrous as that of Hunter’s collected objects.

Here and elsewhere, it seems that Hunter’s books and things, recipes and materials intersect in various ways. Indeed, the thought of a history of collections written through the history of recipes seems positively gravid with possibilities. Might an interdisciplinary study of Hunter’s collections give birth to a more integrated history of science?


[1] Hunter’s DNB biography was written by Helen Brock, who has also published extensively on the man and his collections. Information on Hunter’s life mentioned throughout this blog post is based on the DNB article.

[2] See e.g. this recent talk on Hunter’s book collections: Francesca Mackay, ‘Hunter’s Book Collection: The man and his time’. Manuscripts from the library of William Hunter are listed with the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections.

[3] Recipes have not been researched in detail for Hunter’s collections to date: Neil R. Ker, William Hunter as a collector of medieval manuscripts (Glasgow: 1983), which I was not able to access, does not seem to consider the recipe genre in itself. This older but more inclusive article merely mentions ‘some medical prescriptions’ among sundry items within the collections: Charles Illingworth, ‘William Hunter’s manuscripts and letters: the Glasgow collection’, Med Hist. 15 (1971), 181–186.

[4] Presumably Chiswell St. GUL MS Hunter 624.

[5] Early relevant items are, in roughly chronological order, GUL MSS Hunter 64, 435, 190, 95, 117, and others.

[6] GUL MS Hunter 243 (Pharmacopoeia Londinensis and anonymous medical notes). See also, for example, GUL MS Hunter 626, for which one of Douglas’s children is listed as an amanuensis, entitled Catalogus Pharmacorum (with a section dedicated to a Catalogus Chymicum).


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