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Burke and Hare

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12 Nov 2010

The latest cinematic adaptation of the Burke and Hare tale has stirred remarkable interest in a collection of related items on display in the Surgeons' Hall Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

According to Emma Black, Museum Events and Marketing Manager at Surgeons' Hall Museum in Edinburgh, visitor figures have doubled since the release of the film, and the museum is expecting is expecting a continued rise in interest over the coming weeks; "Visitor figures towards the end of last week were double what they were at the start of the week, and the museum has handled many requests from broadcast and print media for further information on our exhibits and for more details about Robert Knox, the anatomist connected with the Burke and Hare murders."

In this latest version of the Burke and Hare murders, Robert Knox is again portrayed as arrogant and complicit in the events.  John Landis himself was quoted as saying; "It's a comedy about homicidal maniacs, psychopathic killers, with the real villain of the piece being Doctor Robert Knox, the lecturer at Edinburgh Medical College, who purchased the corpses because of his thirst for anatomical knowledge and the greater good."

In truth, though the memory of Knox will be forever linked with the West Port Murders, there is much more to his story.

Because of the excellence of anatomical and medical teaching and freedom from religious tests, Edinburgh at the time of Knox was the centre of European medicine, attracting students from all over the world. Dissection played a crucial part in Edinburgh's excellence and it was seen as an essential element of study for both apprentice and practicing surgeons. The large number of students flocking to Edinburgh, particularly for anatomy teaching, led to an unprecedented demand for bodies which the Resurrectionists (and Burke and Hare, who were acquiring their bodies through more direct means), were all too willing to supply.

Knox, a graduate of the University of Edinburgh's Medical School, had returned to Edinburgh in 1821 after serving in the military in Belgium and South Africa as a hospital assistant, and took up the post of assistant to Dr John Barclay in his extramural Anatomy School in 1822.

In 1821, Dr Barclay donated his extensive collection of anatomical specimens to The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, on condition that they were to be displayed in a purpose built hall. Knox became involved in this bequest and in 1824 submitted a plan to the College for the establishment of the Museum and offered to supervise the collections. He was then appointed Museum Conservator in 1825.

Knox was also becoming one of the most successful anatomy teachers of the time; his flamboyance, and of course promise of a full dissection in every class, meant that more than 500 students enrolled for his extramural anatomy class of 1827-8. Knox's growing fame provoked jealousy and his outspoken nature meant he had already a number of enemies.

Robert Knox

According to Mr Ian MacLaren, who wrote a chapter about Robert Knox in the book Surgeons' Lives,  "Burke and Hare had sold bodies of their 16 victims to Knox's  anatomy school, but while there was some evidence that he was aware of the provenance of these particular 'subjects', it is certain that he never met either of the two murders. The discovery of the murders in November 1828 provoked a furious public outcry and, although Knox was never accused of any crime, the Edinburgh populace at large regarded him being only marginally less culpable than Burke and Hare."

Visitors flocking to the College's museum this week, in the wake of the new movie, appear to be most interested in two items the College has on display- the wallet made of Burke's skin, after he was hanged in 1829, and a death mask made of his face. But visitors are also discovering the full story of Knox and his fellow anatomists such as Syme and Liston in their visit; "Lots of the visitors are fascinated to learn of the events surrounding the Burke and Hare west Port Murders- of the reasons why dissection and the study of human anatomy were so important at the time and why there was such a need for more bodies to study. Many members of the public are unaware of the important role that Edinburgh played in medical history and of the real man that was Robert Knox- perhaps not entirely as evil a character, and not quite so complicit with the murders as many of the fictionalisations would have you believe." says Ms Black.

The Museum will be covering the real story of anatomy and bodysnatching in a series of tours in December, from the 13th to the 17th at 2pm each day. For more information and to book, please phone the museum on 0131 527 1649 or email museum@rcsed.ac.uk.

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