This sketch depicts the house of famous surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793). Hunter’s house was possibly the model for Dr Jekyll’s residence in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Hunter was perhaps the most progressive and famous surgeon working in Britain in the 18th century. A Scottish ‘hands-on’ experimentalist, he claimed to have dissected thousands of cadavers in his exploration of human anatomy. His experimental methodology, which included animal vivisection, brought into surgical practice several procedures which were alarming to the medical establishment of the day, but which saved many lives in a period before anaesthetics and antiseptics. As a result of his success he achieved great renown, and kept a house in Leicester Square which was frequented by the great and good of the time; he was also surgeon to the King, and his collection of specimens was much visited, and became a museum after his death. However, his success and methods brought him many detractors.
The connection to Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
In order to teach and to gain knowledge about human anatomy, Hunter required human cadavers, many of them supplied by ‘resurrection men’, who robbed fresh graves. These were brought, usually at night, to the back entrance of the house, which had a drawbridge, leading to the preparation rooms and lecture-theatre.
Jekyll’s laboratory (cabinet) is at the back of the house. Stevenson, in describing the house in the novel, with preparation rooms and lecturing theatre, holds open the possibility of a connection to Hunter:
The far greater proportion of the building was occupied by the theatre, which filled almost the whole ground story and was lighted from above, and by the cabinet, which formed an upper story at one end and looked upon the court. A corridor joined the theatre to the door on the by-street; and with this the cabinet communicated separately by a second flight of stairs. There were besides a few dark closets and a spacious cellar. All these they now thoroughly examined. Each closet needed but a glance, for all were empty, and all, by the dust that fell from their doors, had stood long unopened. The cellar, indeed, was filled with crazy lumber, mostly dating from the times of the surgeon who was Jekyll's predecessor.
The previous owner of Jekyll's house is elsewhere named as ‘Dr Denman’. Dr Thomas Denman was a contemporary of John Hunter, celebrated for his pioneering work in obstetrics.