How a surgeon’s 230-year-old diagnosis can help cancer fight
MORE than 230 years ago, the eminent Scots surgeon John Hunter had the foresight to diagnose a patient at a London hospital with a “tumour as hard as a bone”.
Mr Hunter, who was originally from East Kilbride, made his assessment based on samples from the individual and wrote up notes on the case in 1786.
His explanation for the man’s condition after he presented himself at St George’s Hospital with a hard swelling on his lower thigh also appears to have been spot on.
New analysis by cancer experts based on the samples and note, which were preserved at the museum named after him, the Hunterian in London, has confirmed Mr Hunter’s explanation was an accurate assessment of the disease.
He wrote of the man’s lump: “It appeared to be a thickening of the bone, it was increasing very rapidly ... On examining the diseased part, it was found to consist of a substance surrounding the part of the thigh bone, of the tumour kind, which seemed to originate from the bone itself.”
Mr Hunter amputated the man’s leg and he recovered briefly for four weeks.
“From this time he began to lose flesh and sink gradually, his breathing more and more difficult,” the notes continued.
However, the diagnosis came too late. The patient died seven weeks after the operation and it was found the tumours had spread to his lungs, heart lining and ribs.
Doctors at the Royal Marsden Hospital in the UK capital said his notes could throw up clues as to how cancer is changing over time.
“It started out as a bit of fun exploration, but we were amazed by Hunter’s insight,” Dr Christina Messiou, one of the experts, said.
Ms Messiou added: “John Hunter’s write up was amazingly astute and fits with what we know about the behaviour of the disease.”
Despite not having served a formal apprenticeship, he became King George III’s surgeon in 1776. He is among the surgeons given the credit for turning surgery into a science.
Mr Hunter became an expert at venereal disease, injecting himself with gonorrhoea as an experiment while writing a book on the subject.
He died in 1793 from a heart attack during a row over the admission of students to St George’s hospital.
The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London now houses the huge collection of books he wrote.