Anatomy: A Matter Of Death And Life In Edinburgh

The history of anatomical exploration and the body snatchers who fed the medical need is resurrected in the city of Burke and Hare.

The twisting, charcoal-granite streets of the Old Town in Edinburgh must have been pretty horrifying by the time of the early 19th Century. A steady shift from rural to urban living weighed heavy on this already overcrowded and dilapidated area of the city, where illness, premature death, alcoholism, violence and a raft of other crimes all kept close company. For all that, the actions of Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare have gone down in infamy, their names forever associated with a frenetic period of murder-to-order, and all to fulfil the requirements of one of the city’s more genteel (but no less horrifying) associations: the study of human anatomy. Now, an exhibition that explores the history of anatomy, the city’s special relationship to its development, and its subsequent links with criminality has opened in Edinburgh itself – up at the National Museum of Scotland. In a way it culminates with Burke and Hare, but only insofar as this marked a shift in how the science of anatomy was conducted, with legal developments and slow shifts in attitude eventually bringing us to where we are now.

The exhibition starts by outlining the initial problems faced by would-be anatomists as early as the 16th Century, given the religious stigma (and appreciable social stigma) of sourcing subjects for the practice. There are lots of highlights in this early part of the exhibition. Sketches by Leonardo da Vinci demonstrate the importance of accurate anatomical knowledge for art, occupying as he did the overlap between art and science (as we’d see it, anyway: the distinction wasn’t so defined back then) and a life-sized papier-mache écorché (a flayed man, showing muscles and blood vessels) reminds us that compromises had to be made. The figure could be pieced back together, but of course, working with paper veins and muscles isn’t really the best way to learn – even if ‘he’ provided rather more teaching and learning sessions than a real, peskily one-use real body. There is also a range of materials on Vesalius, the legendary and ground-breaking anatomist whose measured and regimented approach no doubt did positive things for the reputation of the science. By the late 1500s and early 1600s, anatomy was growing in popularity within medicine, with purpose-built anatomy theatres for demonstrations (several of which have found their way into art; there’s that overlap again. By the way, the man being dissected in Rembrandt’s famous painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp had been hanged for stealing a winter coat, before going down in posterity as Dead Guy on Table. No wonder friends and well-wishers were queasily sceptical.)

Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings

Still, steadily, the pursuit of anatomy as a means of driving forward medical knowledge was accepted; it’s just that the only way to get subjects was through the gallows. As early as 1505, the official line was that surgeons in Edinburgh could have ‘one condemned man’ per year for dissection, but the number of bodies actually being used was probably far higher, and certainly by the time of Burke and Hare the numbers had greatly increased. The association between a life ill-lived and dissection was established by a law that decreed that anyone hanged could be claimed by the anatomists if family and friends were not very quick to claim the remains themselves. Intended to deter crime, it only deepened the rift between the rich and the poor, especially given the ludicrous number of capital offences: not only could someone be killed by the state for trying to feed or clothe themselves, but they would be handed over to an unfeeling surgeon to carve up, too. It seemed merciless, but it was not all: to satiate the surgeons’ requirements, there was now a trade in law-abiding corpses, which could be dragged out of the clay by so-called Resurrectionists or Resurrection Men, who would dig up the grave, break open their coffins and, using a loop of rope, drag them out by the neck. There was good money to be had through this; it was certainly worthwhile, given the tendency of the learned not to ask too many questions.

Hysteria and paranoia about this were reaching fever-point by the 19th Century. Some fascinating parts of the exhibition include a Mortsafe cast iron coffin, which could be hired (?) to deter Resurrectionists from getting at the bodies inside; they also have a dark lantern, which could be shone on the ground without illuminating the surrounding area, arousing suspicion.

And then, as if all this wasn’t bad enough, a few enterprising individuals decided to cut out the middle man altogether, murdering amongst Edinburgh’s destitute and selling the bodies to one Dr Robert Knox, a man whose career was very much on the up by this point. Knox was an influential figure with boundless professional ambition; he wanted to further his knowledge and understanding and to forge great breakthroughs in medicine, and perhaps this came from good intentions at first. Still, it was the discovery of a missing woman on his dissecting table that first alerted the authorities to Burke and Hare’s profitable little project.

William Burke’s death mask

The so-called West Port Murders were in many ways where the wave of grief, anxiety and terror finally broke. If people feared their loved ones being disinterred, then the prospect of their murder for the same purpose seemed both too ghastly, yet absolutely predictable. Burke and Hare, with their spouses, were there to make an example of, though it was only Burke who was executed for his crimes; Hare gave evidence against his former partner and got a plea bargain as a result. This meant that a notorious killer was turned loose, though his life was likely a difficult one afterwards; wherever he was recognised, he was mobbed. Eventually, he slipped out of the public record, so the manner of his own death is unknown. Burke, however, was hanged on the condition that he would be dissected and the judge threatened that, should it ever be possible to exhibit his skeleton, that would be his fate as well. Well, voila: his skeleton is displayed at the exhibition, alongside his death mask, the label that was originally attached to his bones, and a cast of his brain. Oh, and a note written in his blood. Standing at eye-level with the skeleton and death mask – and thinking how completely commonplace his face must have been, quite unlike some of the artists’ impressions contemporary with the trial – I couldn’t help but wonder how on earth this man, who looked to be my height (5’3”) could have ever heaved bodies around the hilly streets of Edinburgh, even with assistance. I guess desperation and greed do wonders.

Changes to the law post-trial – with the Anatomy Act of 1832 – finally made it easier for anatomists to get the subjects they needed, although it again meant that it was the poor and dispossessed whose remains could be used. But it put the body-snatchers out of work, and this quietened the hubbub that had peaked with Burke and Hare. The unease did not go away overnight, but further developments entrenched more of a culture of calm around the topic – for instance, the practice of interring anatomy subjects on hallowed ground after their use stymied a lot of the religious and cultural issues that attached to bodily remains. Today, people often willingly bequeath their bodies to medical science, which would have been unthinkable in the 1820s. The exhibition ends with some video footage of people involved in this process, both professionals and a family member of a donor. There’s a strong sense of the progress and changes which have occurred throughout the history of anatomy as a practice. Also, there are some interesting add-ons which relate to health and understanding: I particularly liked the lucky charms worn against illness, and the recipes for ‘cures’.


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