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March 17, 2014


Layered plate from “Man: His Structure and Physiology” by Robert Knox

Robert Knox is the Edinburgh anatomist who, based upon the 16 bodies delivered to him by William Burke and William Hare, gave spirited dissections in surgical theaters and illustrated this anatomy book. So “involved” and gruesome was he in the dissections that when John James Audubon attended one of his lectures, he remarked:

“The sights were extremely disagreeable, many of them shocking beyond all I ever thought could be. I was glad to leave this charnel house and breathe again the salubrious atmosphere of the streets”.

While Hare turned face and testified against Burke, who was eventually put to death (and publicly dissected, himself), Robert Knox was later acquitted of any involvement with the murders, and of any knowledge regarding the origin of the bodies. The public of Edinburgh disagreed with the court, and drove him out of town.

Though Knox has long been associated with the pair, and he should probably have taken more care in asking where the bodies came from, the light of history has shown that he did nothing illegal or untoward, especially in a day where cadavers were extremely difficult to legally come by. His enthusiasm for “continental” anatomy courses, where students also dissect bodies, was his downfall – so many bodies were needed that it was impossible to procure them all.

After the Burke and Hare fiasco, Scotland widened the availability of cadavers to anatomists with the Anatomy Act of 1832. Robert Knox had since left for London by that point, however, and spent the remainder of his days illustrating medical and zoological texts, performing pathological anatomy, and writing about his questionable theories on race, speciation, and anthropometry.

This copy of Robert Knox’s book resides at the Horniman Museum & Gardens in London, England.

The Horniman Museum can also be found on tumblr and Flickr.

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