Exhibition Review – Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life

Written by Tristan Craig

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Edinburgh was a key player in the artistic and scientific developments with which a number of its residents have become synonymous. Equally as synonymous are the names of William Burke and William Hare, whose murderous spree have fascinated a public for nearly two centuries. Whilst the city’s pivotal role in the advancement of medical knowledge during the Scottish Enlightenment is central to this exhibition, it also reveals a great deal more about the gruesome underside of body snatching, body selling, and murder.

The exhibition opens with a selection of anatomical studies of Leonardo da Vinci (on loan from the Royal Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II), highlighting not least his exceptional enquiring mind but the rigor with which he approached his physiological studies of the human body. It also beautifully mirrors the interweaving of art and intellectualism during the Scottish Enlightenment, further demonstrated in artworks such as Cornelis Troost’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Willem Röell (1728). The poised figures strike a startling contrast to the cadaver they dissect, and it is this relationship between practitioner and the individuals they used we are left considering as we move through the space. A selection of studies of women who died during the final months of pregnancy, which formed part of William Hunter’s Anatomia Uteri Humani Gravidi Tabulis Illustrata (1774), were not only profound in their study of female anatomy but exemplify the human lives necessary for this discipline to flourish – a common thread tying each of the exhibits together.  

Several items from the University of Edinburgh’s own Archive and Manuscript Collections make an appearance, including a class card belonging to Charles Darwin who, in 1825, was taught at the university’s Medical School under Professor Alexander Monro tertius. Despite the esteemed reputations of his father and grandfather – and indeed his student – Monro’s teaching style was criticised as shoddy and who Darwin himself declared, “made his lectures on human anatomy as dull as he was himself.” Alongside the established teaching institutions, private tutors were operating in Edinburgh at this time, including one Robert Knox whose far more animated classes saw him attract swathes of keen anatomy students.  

With this popularity, however, came a shortage in specimens, demonstrated with a petition dated 28th March 1828 in which 248 medieval students from the University of Edinburgh called for more cadavers to dissect. Prior to the Anatomy Act of 1832, which ensured a constant supply of corpses from donations and unclaimed individuals, grave robbing was indeed a grave threat. We are shown some of the clever solutions to deter opportunists from benefitting from the sale of corpses to anatomical researchers, such as the ‘mortsafe’ – a strong iron box in which a coffin would be placed. 

The contention between researchers working to advance medical knowledge and public outrage at the desecration of graves in Edinburgh is carefully curated as we are led through the exhibition, culminating in the infamous case of Burke and Hare which receives ample attention. Fuelled by monetary incentive and increased defensive measures to curb bodysnatching, the duo murdered sixteen people during 1828 whose bodies were then sold to Knox for live dissection and would see him resigned to the annals of history not for his teaching prowess, but his involvement in a murderous scandal. 

Entering a doorway, a floor plan of Burke’s lodging in the West Port area allows visitors to visualise the space in which their final victim, Mary (or Margaret) Docherty, was killed. An overview of the lives of Edinburgh’s arguably most notorious criminals is presented but it is the skeleton of William Burke that is the exhibition’s most striking display. Following the confession of Hare, Burke was hanged, and his body ordered to be dissected, which would be carried out by Professor Monro at the University’s Old College. His skeleton was to be put on display, as summarised by presiding Lord Justice-Clerk, David Boyle, “in order that posterity may keep in remembrance [his] atrocious crimes.” The death mask and a letter written by Monro in the blood of Burke add to his macabre collection, instilling a sense of unsettling intrigue that surrounds the pair to this day. Both Hare and Knox walked free.  

A cast of Burke’s brain also features as the emerging discipline of phrenology sought to answer the question: what makes a murderer? As visitors are left to contemplate the outcome of the trial, we are presented with a remarkably human side of medical practice and the treatment of patients through as a series of nineteenth-century illustrations known as the ‘Bruised Reeds’ collection. Depicting individuals committed to the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, their lives and conditions are shown through the research of Allan Beveridge and Daisy Cunynghame, with diagnoses ranging from “chronic melancholic” to “insanity of adolescence.” These individuals, from the lowest stratas of society, were most likely to have found themselves at the end of an anatomist’s scalpel in the aftermath of the Anatomy Act. 

The exhibition ends on a much more optimistic note as we are brought forward into the twenty-first century. A touching video highlights how much times really have changed as Professor of Anatomy, Tom Gillingwater, medical student Beth Fritt, and Joyce Faulkner – the widow of a body donor – explain the compassion and gratitude with which the “silent teachers” are now treated. Whilst the darker side of early anatomical study continues to fascinate, it is the humanity of its subjects that leaves a lingering impression. 

Anatomy: A Matter of Life and Death is on display at the National Museum of Scotland from 2nd July – 30th October 2022.  


Beveridge, Allan, and Daisy Cunynghame. “‘A Bruised Reed Shall He Not Break’: John Miles’s Portraits of Patients at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum. Part 1.” The Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh 51, no. 3 (2021): 298–308. 

Rosner, Lisa. The Anatomy Murders: Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh’s Notorious Burke and Hare, and of the Man of Science Who Abetted Them in the Commission of Their Most Heinous Crimes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. 

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