The Spooky Truth of Medicine.





Alleged murderers and robbers contributed greatly to the advancement of medicine.

YES, you read it correctly!

The story started out with William Burke and William Hare, who became close friends, living on the same street. One day, an elderly resident died of natural causes, but still owed £4.00 for rent. Burke and Hare decided to bring the corpse to the University of Edinburgh Medical School in hopes of covering the man’s outstanding debt. At the medical school, they were directed to Robert Knox, a distinguished lecturer of anatomy, and immediately, they were paid a sum for the corpse. Due to the ease of earning money from bringing corpse to the medical school, Burke and Hare were hooked on this “career.”

As Edinburgh was (and still is) known for its research in the field of medical sciences, there was a great increase in advocating for learning from observations. Therefore, in the 19th century, the medical college was in need of cadavers. Grave-robbers and body-snatchers were on the rise. Medical schools would pay good money for corpses, and especially for those that were fresh.

Burke and Hare immediately started their murderous adventure. They were eying the ill, the elderly, the poor, and anyone they could trick to stay with them. In total, they were responsible for up to 17 deaths from 1827 to 1828! Burke and Hare’s heinous crimes were eventually discovered after the police were called by a witness. Burke was hanged for the public to see and was dissected by the medical school. His skeleton is still on display at the medical school museum.

Burke and Hare’s murders led to the Anatomy Act of 1832, which increased the access to cadavers for doctors, anatomy lecturers and medical students and allowed legal donations of bodies to the study of medicine.

Similarly, on the other side of the Atlantic, in Maryland (where I’m from), grave-robbers were the sole source of corpses for anatomy dissections at the medical college. John Beale Davidge, a Baltimore doctor who was performing a dissection on a stolen corpse was met with outrage, and eventually, the Anatomy Hall he taught at was set on fire. He appealed to the state, and eventually, he was allowed to open a medical college for formal medical teaching. Interestingly enough, due to the news of the two aforementioned heinous murderers, Maryland also had new laws regarding how bodies could be attained for teaching. Also, two Scottish brothers, a surgeon and an anatomist, snatched bodies, mummified them, and sent them over to Maryland, where one of them lectured in the medical college.

It baffles me how early on Scotland was able to send their medical knowledge overseas either as missionaries or as teachers. The industrial revolution allowed the advancements of ships and transportation, which allowed better access to countries far away. However, many countries were still closed off either geographically or culturally. I would like to understand more on what their motive was to spreading their knowledge so far away.

Intercultural knowledge mostly transmitted through trade; unlike how lucky we are in our technological world, where researchers can communicate and work together despite being in different countries. Looking at the history of medicine, there were a lot of sacrifices, loads of trial and error, and even crime. Overall, there must be disorganization and mistakes in order to bring about effective change.

The sculpture at the entrance of Surgeon’s Hall Museum.