Anatomists and murderers

The study of human anatomy flourished between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

The seventeenth century anatomical theatre at Leiden University was well known for dissections. It also served as an arena to promote the Leiden medical curriculum as well as a popular place for public discussion.

In the eighteenth century Edinburgh brothers John and William Hunter were major figures in the development and understanding of anatomy and medicine.

Henry Gray’s classic book Anatomy : descriptive and surgical, illustrated by Henry Vandyke Carter, was first published by John W. Parker in England in 1858. Gray’s Anatomy (currently in its fortieth edition) is still used today by medical students and doctors.

Alexander Monro, primus (1697–1767) was a surgeon and anatomist. He was born in London and between 1710 and 1719 he studied at Edinburgh, Paris and Leiden. Monro taught anatomy at Edinburgh from 1720 until 1758. His reputation as a brilliant teacher spread and his classes were extremely popular. In 1720 there were fifty-seven students in his class; by 1751 attendance had reached nearly two hundred and he had to offer the course in two separate classes, one later taught by his son Alexander Monro, secundus. He was crucial to the success of the Edinburgh Medical School, and trained generations of physicians and surgeons from many countries.

Monro’s work, The anatomy of the humane bones, was published in 1726 and for a century, was a popular text in English and other languages. He also published pamphlets, and six volumes of Medical essays and observations (1732–44). These books and pamphlets are all reprinted in The works of Alexander Monro, M.D.

Alexander Monro

'The works of Alexander Monro, M.D.' Edinburgh : Printed for Charles Elliot, Parliament-Square, 1781.

By the nineteenth century there were too many students of anatomy and not enough bodies available through legal means. The practice of anatomy began relying on the work of the ‘resurrectionists’ or body-snatchers. The penalty for removing a body from a grave was only a fine or imprisonment so for many it was worth the risk for what was then a lucrative business.

Grave-robbing became so widespread that relatives often watched over a dead body until burial and kept watch over the grave afterwards. Mortsafes were also used: these were extremely heavy iron rods and plates padlocked together. An example can still be seen today in Greyfriars churchyard, Edinburgh.

Edinburgh-born anatomist and ethnologist Robert Knox (1791–1862) studied at both Edinburgh and London. From 1826 he built up a reputation as a skilled anatomy teacher which helped to raise the profile of the study of anatomy not only in Edinburgh but throughout Britain. His classes were huge due to his popularity and charisma - his lectures attracted lawyers, priests and artists as well as his own students. Knox approached his subject in a new and exciting way compared to his forebears and associates.

Robert Knox

'A sketch of the life and writings of Robert Knox, the anatomist' by Henry Lonsdale. London : Macmillan and Co., 1870.

However, although Knox was one of many anatomists obtaining bodies from the ‘resurrectionists’, he also became involved with William Burke and William Hare.

Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.

(nineteenth century children’s rhyme)

Burke and Hare were Irish immigrants living in Edinburgh. They carried out at least fifteen murders between 1827 and 1828 by enticing lonely people into their house, supplying them with alcohol and suffocating them. They then sold the bodies to Knox for dissection. After being arrested and charged, Hare gave evidence against Burke, leading to his own release. Hare fled Edinburgh and the date of his death is unknown. Burke was hanged in 1829. His skeleton can be seen at the Anatomical Museum, School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Edinburgh. The story of Burke and Hare has been referenced in popular culture such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher and as recently as 2010 in the John Landis film Burke & Hare.

Knox was not called as a witness in the trial and withdrew from the public eye. He denied all knowledge of the murders and was outraged that he could be seriously linked with Burke and Hare. Nevertheless, the public and some colleagues thought Knox guilty and to this day opinion remains divided. Knox became a satirist and cynic, using the press to publicize his opinions concerning the administration of the study of medicine within the university and to attack colleagues.

The murders prompted Parliament to look at changing legislation. In 1832 the Anatomy Act gave doctors and anatomists the opportunity to get a license in order to dissect donated bodies and consequently eliminate the demand for body-snatching.

Burke & Hare

'The history of Burke and Hare and of the resurrectionist times : a fragment from the criminal annals of Scotland' by George MacGregor. Glasgow : Thomas D. Morison; London : Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1884.

Next: Innes Smith: Chemists and inventors

Back: Innes Smith: Physicians, philanthropists and the poor