‘Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life’ at the National Museum of Scotland

It’s often the stories behind the artefacts that fascinate me the most in museums, and, fortunately, the latest exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland is full of them. The Museum's current exhibition, ‘Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life’, provides a fascinating look into the history, people, and stories- especially those centered around Edinburgh. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed in the exhibition. Nevertheless, I have supplemented this article with some photos from our personal collection as well as relevant ones available online.



The Study of Anatomy: Early Beginnings


The exhibition starts off by giving an important look into the history of the study of anatomy with glimpses into its early beginnings. One of the most renowned people to have studied the anatomy of the body was Leonardo da Vinci. The ‘Anatomy’ exhibition features a few of Leonardo’s drawings from the Royal Collection. We were fortunate to see some of the same drawings when we went to the Leonardo da Vinci: ‘A Life in Drawing’ exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery next to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Photos were allowed at that exhibition, and I have included an example from the Collection below.



By the 1500s, the study of anatomy became a more established field, and anatomy theatres became common practice in universities throughout Europe.



There are paintings and engravings at the exhibition that demonstrate how these theatres were not just places for the study of anatomy by academics, but drew crowds from the public who were curious to see the human body dissected.


Edinburgh and the Study of Anatomy


The study of anatomy in Edinburgh dates to the incorporation of the ‘Barbers and Surgeons’ guild in 1505 which is the oldest medical establishment in the city. “It restricted who could carry out surgery within Edinburgh and the education and standards that needed to be met”.


By the early 1700s, the study of medicine had taken hold in Edinburgh, and the medical school at Edinburgh University was established in 1726. The exhibition does an excellent job at highlighting the role that medicine played in the capital city with fascinating examples from such fields as midwifery and pharmaceuticals (apothecaries). For example, there is a medicine chest on display similar to the one pictured below.



However, as pointed out in the exhibition, “consulting a medical professional did not necessarily ensure better treatment. Many conditions simply had no effective treatment for physicians to prescribe” in that time period. In fact, the historical record provides evidence of treatments that were not just ineffective, but downright deadly. One of the most famous examples is the practice of bloodletting with the use of leeches. The doctors would let the blood run into bleeding dishes such as the pewter dish pictured below which is similar to the one on display at the exhibition.



The Dark Side of Medicine in Edinburgh


By the early 1800s, Edinburgh was well-established and respected for its medical education. However, there was a dark side of the city related to this education. To better understand this seedy underbelly, I need to set the stage. As discussed in our post on the Georgian House, at this point in Edinburgh’s history, conditions in the ‘Old Town’ (city centre) were quite overcrowded, unsanitary, and unbearable. This led to wealthier residents fleeing for the newly developed, ‘New Town’ section of the city.


However, most could not afford such a move and were stuck trying to make a living in the Old Town. Residents- including newly arrived economic migrants- had to do whatever they could to get money…even if it meant undertaking criminal activities.


The exhibition highlights the story of two of the most infamous individuals to fall into this dark and criminal lifestyle - William Burke (left) and William Hare (right). We briefly discuss their story in our Anatomical Museum post, but I will provide more detail here.



As mentioned above, medical education in Edinburgh in the 1800s was thriving, and part of that involved dissection. However, the demand for corpses far outweighed the supply. Selling dead bodies for money was a well-known practice at this point. So much so, that families had to hire people to watch the graves of their loved ones from grave robbers.


Now, it’s important to mention that the exhibition points out that there is still quite a bit of unknown aspects to the rest of this story, as there were many factors (e.g. interest in ‘selling’ the story to the public), that contributed (and still contributes) to the difficulty in separating fact from fiction. However, this is what we do know- William Hare was an Irish immigrant who lived with his wife, Margaret Laird, in their lodging house in Tanner’s Close. In November 1827, William Burke (also an Irish immigrant) moved into a room in the Hare’s lodging house with his Scottish partner, Helen McDougal.


Around Christmas 1827, an elderly pensioner that was staying at the Hare lodging house seemed to die from natural causes. Burke and Hare took the body to a popular anatomy professor at the time, John Knox (not the infamous preacher from the Scottish Reformation), who was always in need of dead bodies for his classes. It just so happens that Burke and Hare were in need of money, and Knox paid well for corpses- therefore a transactional relationship began to the mutual benefit of all parties. Yet, this is where the story gets a bit murky.


Dr. John Knox

It seems that the attraction of ‘easy money’ was too much for Burke and Hare. In fact, Burke later confessed to this. In all, they (along with their partners- although how often and exactly how is unknown) are thought to have murdered 15 individuals and brought them to Knox’s anatomy rooms in Surgeons' Square. However, it was the case of Mary Docherty that blew their cover and the case wide-open.


In the middle of 1828, Burke and McDougal moved out of the Hare’s lodging house. They moved to a building where they shared a room with relatives and later family acquaintances- James and Ann Gray. On the morning of Halloween, 31 October, Burke brought Mary Docherty to the house to drink.


The next day, Burke was acting irritably and in a strange manner. His co-lodger, Ann Gray, had noticed that he seemed to be keeping her from the area around the bed and straw on the floor. Once the house was empty, Ann examined the area around the bed and found the dead body of Mary Docherty under the straw. James and Ann Gray immediately packed up and left the house, but were met by McDougal (Burke’s partner) as they were leaving. The Grays confronted her about the body and McDougal tried to bribe them and tell them Docherty’s death was an accident. The Gray’s were having none of that and went to the police later that evening.


Unfortunately, Mary’s body was gone by the time the police arrived at Burke’s house. However, they found mysterious blood stains throughout the room, and some of Mary’s clothing. Somehow through their investigation, the police were directed to question David Paterson who was employed by Dr. Knox as a body collector. Apparently, McDougal had Peterson (seemingly unaware of the potential murder that had taken place) come get Mary Docherty’s body in the time after the Gray’s left the house. Peterson brought the police to the cellar at Surgeons’ Square where Mary Docherty’s body was found, crammed into a tea chest in which she had been transported.


Eventually, through police investigation, it became clear that Burke and Hare (along with their partners) had also been involved in the disappearances of a few other people that had gone missing over the previous months. All four were questioned by the police and none of their stories matched. The police realised they needed to get one of the four to turn on the others. Eventually, they persuaded William Hare to turn King’s evidence in exchange for immunity.


The judges decided to only charge Burke with the murder of Mary Docherty first and, others thereafter if he wasn’t found guilty. McDougal was also charged with the murder of Mary. They stood trial on Christmas Eve (1828) through to Christmas Day. On Christmas morning, the jury came back with a guilty verdict for Burke, but a ‘not proven’ verdict for his partner, McDougal. In Scottish law, ‘not proven’ means that the jury didn’t find her innocent, but the crown had failed to prove her guilty.


Much of the information that we now know about the murders is from Burke’s written confession- which he provided after he was found guilty of Mary Docherty. He confessed to killing 14 people (the 15th he said Hare did alone).


It is established that most of the early victims were plied with alcohol to the point of unconsciousness, where they were then smothered to death. Additionally, elderly and other sickly individuals also fell victim to Burke and Hare.


Dr. Knox proclaimed that he knew none of the circumstances surrounding the murders of the people that were brought to him by Burke and Hare. While we’ll never know for sure, it is possible that he ascribed to the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach that was used by other anatomists of the time period who were desperate for bodies to dissect in their classes.


William Burke was sentenced to death by hanging and his execution was carried out on the Lawnmarket in Edinburgh in January 1829. It’s estimated that a crowd of 20,000-30,000 people gathered to watch his execution. In what the judge saw as all-too fitting, Burke’s body was to be taken to the anatomy room of the University of Edinburgh to be dissected by the famous anatomy professor, Alexander Monro tertius.



Furthermore, in a macabre turn of events, Monro allowed Burke’s dissected body to be on display in the anatomy theatre. This was due to the fact that there was a crowd of students and locals who were in an uproar to see the dissection. Therefore, the body was laid out for individuals to file past and see. Sir Walter Scott commented on this gruesome practice by saying,


The corpse of the Murderer Burke is now lying in state at the college, in the anatomical class, and all the world to flock to see him. Who is he that says that we are not ill to please our objects of curiosity? The strange means by which the wretch made money are scarce more disgusting than the eager curiosity with which the public have licked up all carrion details of this business”.


Afterwards, the body was ordered to be cleaned, mounted, and put on display at the Anatomical Museum of the University of Edinburgh where it can still be seen to this day.


Visiting the Exhibition


Well, on that rather grim note, we end our exploration of the ‘Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life’ exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland. Of course there is so much more to see and learn on display there, and we highly recommend that you go see it in person if you are Edinburgh. It is on display until 30 October. Tickets are £10 for adults (with options for concessions).


Additionally, individuals 18 and over might be interested in visiting the ‘Museum Late: Anatomica' event. It's a special after-hours event at the National Museum of Scotland where admission to the exhibition is included with your ticket (£20 with possible concessions) as are a number of other fun activities including special talks and food and drink. Head over to the Museum's website for more information on how to best plan your visit- day or night.


Until next time- Explore & Discover!