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Nature volume 63, pages 454458 (07 March 1901) | Download Citation



WE have assembled here to-day in order that we may commemorate the merits of John Hunter and such other persons whose labours have contributed to the extension of our knowledge in comparative anatomy, physiology, or surgery. Hunter's life in all its various aspects has been so frequently dwelt on in former orations delivered in this theatre that it is beyond my power to throw any fresh light on this subject. His fame is attributable to his having possessed an intense love of science, indomitable energy, and a self-reliant, manly character. If we turn to his portrait hanging on the walls of this theatre, it would seem that at the time when this likeness was painted Hunter was engaged in the study of the craniology of man and anthropoid apes, for on the table before him there is an open volume, and on its pages we see clearly drawn a human skull and the skull of a chimpanzee. Hunter is portrayed, pen in hand, in deep thought, having just turned away from the book he had been studying, and though his notes on comparative anatomy were unfortunately destroyed with his other manuscripts, we can hardly doubt that craniology was a subject in which he was deeply interested, or it would not have held so prominent a position in this famous picture. It would, therefore, seem that on an occasion such as the present we can do no higher honour to Hunter's memory and to that of some of the able men of science who have followed him than by endeavouring to give in as few words as possible a résumé of their labours, with especial reference to the subject of craniology and the light it is capable of throwing on the prehistoric inhabitants of western Europe and of the evolution of the race of men to which we belong. One of the most brilliant and original thinkers who has occupied the presidential chair of this college, Sir William Lawrence, in his ever-memorable lectures on the natural history of man, delivered in this college in the year 1819, from his researches in comparative anatomy, foreshadowed the idea that man and apes were derived from common ancestors. Lawrence's opinions were received with a storm of adverse qriticism. Mr. Abernethy, for instance, charged him with “propagating opinions detrimental to society and endeavouring to enforce them for the purpose of loosening those restraints on which the welfare of mankind depend.” Time, however, has proved that Lawrence was right, and in the course of lectures delivered in this theatre in February 1899, Prof. Keith, from a careful analysis of the maximum number of anatomical characters common to man and apes, arrived at the conclusion that they are derived from an identical or a kindred stock. While admitting without reserve that man and apes are structurally almost identical, nevertheless, as pointed out by Prof. Huxley in the year 1863, tney differ very materially as regards the relative weight of their brains. The carcass of a full-grown gorilla is heavier than that of an average-sized European, but it is doubtful whether a healthy adult European's brain ever weighed less than 32 ounces, or the brain of the heaviest gorilla ever exceeded 20 ounces in weight. Although at the present time there is this marked relative difference between the weight of the brain and the form of the skulls of Europeans and apes, this was not always the case, for the calvaria of the earliest discovered human beings were in form not very far removed from those of contemporary anthropoid apes. This fact leads us to inquire into the nature of the conditions which have led to the increased capacity of the human cranium and to the vast superiority of man's intellectual endowments over those of all the other primates. If we turn to Hunter's preparations in our museum we find among them some remarkable specimens which he describes as “compressed,” “unsymmetrical” human crania, which he believed were the result of premature consolidation of one or more of the sutures of the skull. Since Hunter's day various authorities have devoted much time to the subject of the abnormal closure of the cranial sutures in man; prominent among them are the names of the chief of England's craniologists, Dr. Thurnam and Dr. Barnard Davis—the splendid collection of prehistoric and other skulls made by the latter gentleman are now in the possession of our college. From evidence of this nature we have come to learn that the size and form of the skull depends to a large extent on the growth of the bones of which it is formed along the lines of the various cranial sutures.

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