This weekend saw the last of 2013’s regions opening their doors for this year’s Doors Open Days festival. I made one last DOD trip and headed to Edinburgh city centre to explore a fantastic hidden gem.
The Anatomy Museum and Lecture Theatre, which is part of the University of Edinburgh, contains all sorts of interesting artifacts and equipment, and of course lots of macabre skeletons and dissections! It’s housed in what is now known as the Old Medical School, designed by Robert Rowand Anderson in 1874. Most of the medical departments have relocated to Little France, but the Anatomy and Biomedical Sciences departments still remain in the Old Medical School. As a recent graduate of the History department of the University of Edinburgh, which is located just on the other side of the quad, I’ve spent a lot of time in the Old Medical School – but I had never made it into the Anatomy Museum before!
At the entrance to the Museum, the first things to catch your eye are the two huge elephant skeletons. The picture doesn’t really do justice to the scale of them, they are massive!
Dotted around the downstairs section of the Museum were various display cases full of interesting things like a box of blood slides and an early 20th century pair of 3D glasses. They looked a little bit different to the ones you get these days at the cinema!
The origins of Medical School date back to 1705, with Robert Elliot, the very first ‘Professor of Anatomy’ in the whole of Britain, being appointed by Edinburgh Town Council. In 1720 the Chair went to Alexander Monro, who went on to found the University’s Medical School in 1726 (the first in Britain) and quickly became the leading anatomist of his time. The ‘Monro dynasty’ continued for three generations, and for 126 years the Chair of Anatomy was held by a Monro (and in fact they were all called Alexander!). Edinburgh was at the forefront of medicine and anatomy throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and had numerous prominent teachers and students, including Sophia Jex-Blake (the first woman to enter a British University for the study of medicine) and Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes, which is believed to be based on two Edinburgh professors, Joseph Bell and Sir Patrick Heron Watson).
Next door was the Anatomy Lecture Theatre so I made my way through to hear a talk from Dr Gordon Findlater, Professor of Translational Anatomy. It’s a traditional medical lecture theatre with steep rows of seats, arranged in a semi-circular formation. This is so students would be able to see the dissections, which took place in the centre of the room – unlike today, where all eyes are on the big computer screen at the front! The lecture theatre is still used for teaching to this day.
Dr Findlater gave us an introduction to the history of the Medical School, and then told us all about its connection to the infamous Burke and Hare. As the study of anatomy advanced rapidly, there was a growing need for bodies to dissect. In the 1820s, the Medical School required a total of 520 bodies, with Dr Robert Knox alone requiring as many as 247! To meet this demand, “bodysnatchers” saw an opportunity to deliver dead bodies to the doctors in return for payment. The problem was so widespread that “mort safes” were installed on top of many graves to prevent the bodies from being removed, and many graveyards had watch towers built to catch bodysnatchers in the act.
Burke and Hare, however, took this one step further and began murdering people in order to sell the bodies to the Medical School. It is thought they murdered 15 people over a period of around 10 months before they were finally caught in November 1828. Burke was hanged in the city’s Lawnmarket the following January in front of a crowd of 25,000 people, which included the famous writer Sir Walter Scott. As part of his sentence, Burke’s body was to be dissected in the very anatomy theatre which he had been sending his victims to. Items like wallets, journal covers and calling card cases were made from his tanned skin and sold on the streets of Edinburgh – a rather gruesome keepsake if you ask me!
After the talk, I headed upstairs to the main room of the Anatomy Museum where Burke’s skeleton was on display. You could still see the the marks on his skeleton where incisions were made during the dissection. There was also the skeleton of the “Cramond Murderer”, the last body which was handed over for dissection before the Anatomy Act of 1832 put an end to the tradition. The Anatomy Museum doesn’t just deal with human anatomy, there were lots of fascinating skeletons and models of animals too. I particularly liked the little armadillo, and there was even a narwhal’s tusk!
The Anatomy Museum and Lecture Theatre was such an interesting place to visit, did you make it along during the open day? Which buildings did you visit for Edinburgh Doors Open Days this year?