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The Dead Still Do Tell Tales

The University of Edinburgh is world-renowned for its medical programme and has a long and distinguished history of innovation. What people may not be aware of however are the two unique pathology collections that have played a role in both medical teaching and research. The first is held at the University itself, while the other is in the care of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.

The University’s anatomy collection, now known as the Anatomy Resource Centre, was founded by the Munro family. The Munro ‘dynasty’ consisted of three generations who collectively held the Chair of Anatomy at the University of Edinburgh for 126 years. The collection truly flourished under Sir William Turner, Professor of Anatomy from 1867 to 1903, who as particularly interested in comparative anatomy, anthropology and craniology.

During his tenure, a three-storied Anatomy Museum was constructed at Teviot Place with “displays of everything from whales to apes as well as human anatomy, an associated library and a whole series of dissecting rooms, laboratories, and a grand anatomy lecture theatre”. Sadly, in the 1950s, the galleried hall was subdivided and many of the animal specimens were sent to other institutions, including the Royal Museum of Scotland. A visitor to the hall today can still see elephant skeletons and a few other exhibits.

The remaining human specimens are now housed on the top floor of the Medical School and are still used by medicine and medical history students. In addition to the rather ‘standard’ human anatomy exhibits, the Resource Centre holds life and death masks from the Edinburgh Phrenological Society (who believed that measurements of a person’s skull could reveal personality and mental capacity), two casts of Robert the Bruce’s skull and the skeleton of William Burke, one part of the infamous “Burke and Hare”. William Burke and William Hare were murderers who sold the bodies of their victims to Dr Robert Knox for dissection in the 1800s. Ironically, after Burke was hung, he himself was dissected by none other than the last of the Munro dynasty. The Anatomy Resource Centre is not publically accessible but was open to the public for Doors Open Day 2010.

The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh’s Pathology Museum, unlike the Anatomy Resource Centre, is open to the public. The museum is located at Surgeons’ Hall and includes not only the anatomy and pathology collection, but also a section devoted to Edinburgh’s role in the practice of surgery. The collection is one of the largest in the UK and is Scotland’s oldest museum, as it has been open to the public since 1832. It was set up not only for surgical students, but also to help the public understand medicine.

The museum was set up in 1804, at the same time the College established the post of Professor of Surgery, which was created during a disagreement with the University of Edinburgh over separating the teaching of surgery and anatomy. The anatomical collections have come from a number of prominent individuals such as Dr John Barclay and Sir Charles Bell (Bell’s palsy is named after him). One interesting note is that Dr Robert Knox was Conservator of Barclay’s collection (the two had been partners) and was also the first Conservator of the Pathology Museum until he was pressured to resign, possibly due in part to his associations with Burke and Hare.

Bells’ collection contained over 3000 items and included some that were notable for their illustration of anatomical development. His collection still holds a place of pride in the museum to this day. In time, more specialised collections were added to the museum, including obstetrical, otorhinolaryngological (the study of the ears, nose and throat) and dental materials. A radiological collection is the most recent addition and was begun in 1970. In addition to anatomical and pathological exhibits, the museum also houses historical documents and papers, surgical and dental instruments and a number of items related to the Burke and Hare murders, including a pocketbook said to be covered in William Burke’s skin!

Today, the museum runs tours for the public and school groups, hosts educational workshops and holds surgical exams. The collections are also used by researchers in the sciences, as well as across such disciplines as forensic archaeology, sculpture and even creative writing.

Edinburgh is indeed fortunate to be the home of two such fascinating collections, which allow today’s medical students to get a glimpse into the scientific past. Even though the likes of Knox and Bell, as well as their specimens, are long dead, they still continue to educate us and tell us their stories.

Kirsten Shuler has a BSc in Biology and is a PA in the Division of Clinical Neurosciences

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