He was born in East Kilbride, the elder brother of John Hunter. After studying divinity at the University of Glasgow, he went into medicine in 1737, studying under William Cullen. He was trained in anatomy at St George's Hospital, London, and specialised in obstetrics. In 1764, he became physician to Queen Charlotte, and four years later was appointed professor of anatomy by the Royal Society. In 1770 he built himself a house fully equipped for the practice of his science, and this formed the nucleus of the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow.