The Hippocratic Post

A question of life and death

Rebecca Wallersteiner takes a look at Anatomy: A Matter of Life and Death, a major exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, in Edinburgh, until October 30, 2022, to study the horrific art of body snatching.

At the National Gallery of Scotland, in Edinburgh until October 30, 2022, a large exhibition, curated by Baillie Gifford Investment Managers, examines the history of the anatomical study, from Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic explorations to the horrific murders of Burke and the Rabbit. Dr Taisy Phillipson, Curator of Modern Science at the National Museums of Scotland, said: ‘Anatomic knowledge is critical to medicine, and Edinburgh has been a major center for medical education and the development of modern medicine. However, this work relied on autopsies, the sources of which were often controversial and disturbing. Only by dehumanizing the dead and funding a shadowy industry could anatomists get the number of bodies they wanted. The killing was a particularly horrific consequence of this, as people were killed in exchange for the sale of their corpses. This fascinating exhibition explores the relationship between society, poverty, morals and science at the time, and reveals the human cost of early medical progress.

The skeleton of William Burke. Image source: Anatomical Museum Collection, University of Edinburgh

The exhibition charts 500 years of medical exploration and examines the social and medical history surrounding human autopsies, bringing together a shocking variety of intriguing memorabilia. It looks at Edinburgh’s role as an international center for medical studies, the role anatomy played in the Scottish Enlightenment and how it is taught today. Human autopsies are still vitally important to the medical education of physicians and pathologists, although fortunately the method for sourcing cadavers has changed – it is now exclusively through voluntary donation.

Jer, the third branch of the first ancient Egyptian dynasty, is said to have written the first anatomy study more than 5,000 years ago. Our fascination has grown over the centuries. By the middle of the 19th century, the doctors who lectured on anatomy in Edinburgh had gained a bit of fame. Their lectures were attended not only by medical students of the city, but also by artists, curious writers and even members of the general public, eager to unravel the secrets of human existence. One of the brilliant students of anatomy at the University of Edinburgh in the early 19th century was Charles Darwin, who later developed the theory of evolution. During this era, the demand for cadavers for autopsy greatly exceeded the forensic supply, which led to crime in cadavers being illegally obtained by criminals and sold for use in science and medicine.

The history of anatomy is not for the faint of heart. The first school of anatomy was founded in Alexandria by the ancient Greek philosophers Erasistratus and Herophilus who were accused of performing dissections on living humans. Three Victorian assassins produced by science and medicine were William Burke, William, and Margaret Hare. In 1828, with clinical precision, these monsters killed 16 marginalized and poor people in the Edinburgh district of Westport, in just a few months, to provide corpses for the city’s competitive anatomy teachers. The exhibition reveals the relationship between science and deprivation and looks at the public’s reaction to the crimes and the anatomical practices responsible for them.

Upon entering the gallery, you are greeted by two horrific characters: the first is the preserved skeleton of William Burke, the notorious serial killer and corpse snatcher. After killing more than a dozen people and selling their bodies to anatomists in Edinburgh, he personally faces an end befitting his horrific crimes. After his arrest and conviction, he was hanged and publicly dissected in January 1829. He himself became a gruesome teaching assistant to help medical students understand human anatomy. You can read his confession and see the robe of the presiding judge. His partner, William Hare, managed to avoid the same fate by testifying against Burke. Margaret Hare also escaped hanging. After her release she fled the angry crowd and is believed to have returned to Ireland. The other figure is the life-size anatomical figure in papier-mâché created in the workshop of model maker Louis Ouzou in the 19th century. This gruesome statue was a teaching aid for medical students to use to understand human anatomy.

Other highlights of the exhibition are intricate detailing, exquisite drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, loaned by Her Majesty the Queen from the Royal Collection. This research provides an understanding of the human body and the place of anatomy in the development of medical knowledge throughout Europe. Da Vinci became the most practically skilled anatomist in the 16th century. In his search for the secrets of life, he dissected the carcasses of frogs, dogs, horses, monkeys and bats. The peak came in 1507, when he was able to dissect the body of a 100-year-old man, who died with seemingly little fault other than extreme old age. This enabled da Vinci to examine the human skeletal muscle, nervous system, and venous system in a precise and fascinating way.

The veins and muscles of the arm – Leonardo da Vinci. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II 2021

Also displayed is the Mortgage Safe; A heavy iron box is placed over a coffin to deter potential kidnappers. Other highlights of the exhibition include the mummified remains of a platypus, which were sent to Scotland for dissection in the 1820s by anatomist Robert Knox, later best known for being an agent of Burke and Hare, and the miniature sarcophagi of Arthur’s truly horrific seat. In late June 1836, a group of boys searching for rabbits on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat on the outskirts of Edinburgh discovered a small cave in the rock hidden behind slates. What they found hidden there has remained a puzzle ever since: seventeen small coffins huddled together behind the board. Eight of them have survived and are on display in the National Museum of Scotland. No one knows who carved the coffins and who put them in their grave, or whether they were witches, Satanists, or just a weirdo, or why.

Don’t miss out on watching the fascinating film featuring an interview with a woman who, like her late husband, decided, like her late husband, to donate her body for use in the education of medical students, with commentary from the current Professor of Anatomy at the University of Edinburgh.

The exhibition concludes by highlighting the changing practices and attitudes around body saving in the century and a half since the Burke and Hare murders, bringing the story up-to-date. It examines the modern approach to body donation in Scotland’s universities and compares the ethics, practices and beliefs of today with those of two centuries ago.

A visit to the museum is a great way to spend an afternoon, especially for people interested in anatomy, medical history, and art.

visitor information

www.nms.ac.uk Anatomy: A Matter of Life and Death is in the National Gallery of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh, EH1, until October 30.

Admission: Adults: £10, over 60 £8.50, perks £7.50. Free admission for members of the National Museums of Scotland under 16 years of age.

Rebecca Wallersteiner
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