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Biographical entry Hulke, John Whitaker (1830 - 1895)

M.R.C.S., July 16th, 1852; F.R.C.S., May 23rd, 1857; F.R.S., 1867.

6 November 1830
Deal, Kent, UK
19 February 1895
General surgeon


Born on Nov. 6th, 1830, the fourth son of William Hulke, surgeon, of Deal in Kent, where the family had practised from the time it was driven out of the Low Countries by the persecution of the Duke of Alva two hundred years earlier. Young Hulke was educated in the Moravian College of Neuwied from 1843-1845 and gained in these years his intimate knowledge of German, his somewhat sombre Puritanism, and the groundwork of his acquaintance with natural history, whilst the Eifel district awakened his interest in geology. Returning to England he was sent to King's College School, where he remained from 1847-1848, and in 1849 he entered the medical department of King's College, London. He acted as dresser to Sir William Bowman (q.v.), who inculcated in him a knowledge of scientific ophthalmology which he afterwards put to good use. He assisted his father at Deal as soon as he had qualified, and was in attendance with him when the Duke of Wellington died at Walmer Castle in September, 1852. He drew up an accurate account of the Duke's illness which was published in the papers to prevent the appearance of sensational reports. He then returned to King's College Hospital to become House Surgeon to Sir William Fergusson (q.v.).

He went to the Crimea in March, 1855, and was detailed for duty in the English Hospital at Scutari. He left Smyrna for Sebastopol in September and spent the winter of 1855-1856 in the Crimea. He then returned to England and acted for a short time as Tutor at King's College Hospital, where he was elected Assistant Surgeon in 1857 for a term of five years. In 1856 he was one of the first to be appointed to the newly established post of Clinical Assistant at the Royal London Ophthalmic Hospital, Moorfields, and in the same year he was defeated by J. F. Streatfield at a keenly contested election for the office of Assistant Surgeon to this charity. In 1858 an additional Assistant Surgeoncy was made, Hulke being returned unopposed, as Jonathan Hutchinson (q.v.) retired in his favour. He employed 'perimetry' at the hospital as early as 1859. He was promoted full Surgeon in 1868 and Consulting Surgeon in 1890. He was elected Assistant Surgeon to the Middlesex Hospital in 1862 and full Surgeon in 1870, a position he retained until his death.

At the Royal College of Surgeons Hulke filled every office open to him, and died during his second year as President. Winning the Jacksonian Prize in 1859 with an essay upon "The Morbid Changes in the Retina as seen in the Eye of the Living Person and after Removal from the Body, together with the Symptoms associated with several Morbid Conditions", he was appointed Arris and Gale Lecturer upon Anatomy and Physiology, 1868-1871; an Examiner on the Board of Anatomy and Physiology 1876-1880; a Member of the Court of Examiners, 1880-1889, and of the Dental Board 1889. He was a Member of the Council from 1881-1895; a Vice-President in 1888 and 1891; Bradshaw Lecturer in 1891; President from 1893-1895, and Hunterian Orator in 1895. The oration dealt with Hunter's knowledge of botany and geology. His Arris and Gale lectures dealt with the "Normal and Morbid Histology of the Eyeball" the first year and with the "Minute Anatomy of the Eye" in the second course. There were twelve lectures in all.

Hulke was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1867, his claim being based exclusively on researches relating to the anatomy and physiology of the retina in man and the lower animals, particularly reptiles. He served on the Council of the Royal Society in 1879-1880 and again in 1888-1889. Elected a member of the Geological Society in 1868, he was President from 1882-1884, and in 1887 he was awarded the Wollaston Medal, the greatest honour the Society could bestow. He was Foreign Secretary of the Society from 1891 until his death. He was elected an honorary member of King's College in January, 1862, a corresponding member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, in 1878, and an honorary member of the Cambridge Philosophical Society in 1884. He was President of the Pathological Society of London from 1883-1885; President of the Ophthalmological Society of the United Kingdom, 1886-1887; and President of the Clinical Society, 1893-1894.

He married on Oct. 1st, 1858, Julia, daughter of Samuel Ridley, but there were no children. He died on Feb. 19th, 1895, of pneumonia.

A bust of Walter Merrett is in the Middlesex Hospital. Hulke appears in the Council group by Jamyn Brookers, 1884. There is a pencil sketch by Frank Rutley in the College collection and a photograph in the Council Albumn.

Hulke was a general surgeon who established a supreme reputation for skill and patience in the wards of the Middlesex Hospital. There are no brilliant departures associated with his name, but he was essentially painstaking and wise, and quick to see what surgical movements would stand the test of time. He was to some degree a pioneer in cerebral surgery, though his masters must have taught him that it was a very serious matter to meddle with the brain. In operating he was slow, but his cautious procedure was perhaps the result of minute anatomical and surgical knowledge. As a clinical teacher he was lucid, learned, and simple, a little intolerant of ignorance, however, just as in the examination-room he was a severe but undoubtedly telling cross-questioner, yet most anxious to be fair. He was a brilliantly versatile man, a good linguist and scholar, a learned Shakespearean, an excellent artist, a sportsman who shot or fished in the spirit of a naturalist, a splendid botanist, and a geologist of European reputation. His bibliography in the Royal Society's Catalogue of Scientific Papers fills more than a column, and he contributed nine papers to the Royal Medico-Chirurgical Society. He gained a permanent position in surgical literature as the active editor of the third edition of the System of Surgery, 1883 (see HOLMES, TIMOTHY). A natural talent aided by opportunity enabled him to make important additions to palaeontology, more especially in connection with the great extinct land reptiles (Dinosauria) of the secondary period. His investiagations were carried out in the Kimmeridge clay of the Dorset cliffs and upon the Wealden reptiles of the cliffs of Brook and its neighbourhood in the Isle of Wight.

In private life Hulke was one of the kindest and best of friends. His austerity completely disappered. His conversation was most interesting, abounding in knowledge of men and things. He was always willing to impart his knowledge to others and in a way which never betrayed any sense of superiority or presumption. He was in many departments of knowledge one of the most accomplished of men, and coupled a rigid integrity of conduct with a high sense of personal honour. As an examiner he was somewhat severe and unyielding if the student failed to show the knowledge he demanded from him; mitigating circumstances proved of little avail. He was in all things painstaking and thorough, and his devotion to duty led to his death while he was still at the helm in the College. He was called to the Middlesex Hospital in the middle of a bitterly cold night early in 1895 in order to operate for strangulated hernia. He went, and did not return till 3.30. Bronchitis followed. He neglected it and continued his work, became worse, and in a fortnight he was dead of pneumonia (Feb. 19th, 1895). As he lay on his deathbed the Hunterian Oration which he had prepared was read for him in his absence by Thomas Bryant on Feb. 14th.

Sources used to compile this entry: [Dict. Nat. Biog., xxiii, Supplement. MacCormac's Address of Welcome, 1900, 215. Treacher Collin's History and Traditions of the Moorfields Eye Hospital, London, 1929, with portrait. Middlesex Hosp. Jour., 1897, i, 27, with portrait as frontispiece, a good likeness.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England