Auld Medicine

A medical museum charts Edinburgh’s intellectual highs and criminal lows. 

By Emilie Haertsch | February 7, 2017

An illustration by Scottish surgeon and artist Charles Bell shows the amputation of an arm at the shoulder, from his Illustrations of the Great Operations of Surgery (1821).

Wellcome Library, London

Surgeons’ Hall Museums
Edinburgh, Scotland

I first encountered the Surgeons’ Hall Museums while studying at the University of Edinburgh several years ago. I walked by the building on Nicolson Street for weeks before a sign advertising the museum’s connection to Sherlock Holmes finally drew me in. Once inside I was hooked. Despite the cramped quarters and the aging permanent exhibition, the objects and the narratives, so intertwined with Edinburgh’s medical history, shone. And though the displays often seemed ancient, the medical themes and connections to everyday life felt very contemporary. I returned many times, often dragging along friends and acquaintances.

When I returned to Edinburgh in 2016, the museum—despite its plural name it is one museum—was one of the few places I revisited. Recent renovations had added a modern facade and extra space, but Surgeons’ Hall remained more or less the same, with its collection of medical instruments (a pre–sterile era amputation saw with a wooden handle), wet specimens, paintings (Sir Charles Bell’s painting of a patient with tetanus), and oddities. Interactive displays, such as the anatomy theater and dissection table, have made it feel less like a museum of a museum. Perhaps that’s why, unlike in years past, I no longer found myself alone in the rooms.

The museum is part of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, which was established in 1505 as the Barber Surgeons of Edinburgh. The college is one of the oldest extant medical organizations in the world, and before opening to the public in 1832, its collections were used as a resource for medical students.

In the early years of the college, surgeons had a lower social status than doctors, who did not operate on patients. Surgeons shared a guild with barbers and even counted women among their number. The field was dirty, messy, and bloody, and therefore deemed unrefined. Surgery often resulted in death and was only performed as a last resort, without anesthetic and as quickly as possible. It remained a rough, sloppy speed game for hundreds of years. That began to change in the 18th century, particularly in France, where a burgeoning hunger for knowledge of all types raised the status and skill of surgeons. In post-revolutionary France all doctors were required to train in surgery and surgeons to train in medicine, and that system influenced practices in Britain.

The Enlightenment in France was echoed in Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries. Edinburgh, the home of philosopher David Hume and economist Adam Smith, became Scotland’s intellectual hub, the “Athens of the North,” which affected the way medicine was taught and practiced in the city. The intellectual elite in Edinburgh was small in number, and they mostly knew each other, or at least of each other, regardless of discipline. For instance, anatomists often worked with artist friends or, as in the case of Bell, were artists themselves. Bell, a surgeon and anatomist, was the first to differentiate sensory nerves and motor nerves in the spinal cord and used his artistic skills to record his discoveries; such realistic depictions of the body, in turn, influenced the way anatomy was taught.

The city was renowned for its cutting-edge medicine and surgery as early as the 1720s, and attracted students from England, Europe, and the British colonies. Alexander Monro, primus, appointed in 1719 as the first lecturer on anatomy at the Royal College, was one of the major medical figures of the 18th century. He performed dissections in front of audiences of students and scholars, and he viewed this practice as not just important to medicine and surgery but also to religious understanding, forensics, and art. His Anatomy of the Human Bones (1726) and An Account of the Inoculation of Small Pox in Scotland (1765), which reveals his controversial support for inoculation, had widespread influence and were translated into French and German, among other languages. Monro was also appointed professor at the then recently established School of Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and his international reputation buoyed the status of the school. Perhaps, then, it is fitting that the oldest object on display in the museum once belonged to Monro—a macabre grandfather clock given to him by the college in 1718 that contains the skeleton of a child dissected and prepared by Monro.

But executed criminals, not children, were the typical source of cadavers for the many dissections carried out at the college—at least until 1823, when the Judgment of Death Act made fewer crimes in Scotland punishable by execution and the supply of cadavers began to dry up. In response, professors paid handsomely for fresh bodies, which led to grave robbing and the rise of the “resurrectionists,” as the robbers were known.

The most notorious of these, William Burke and William Hare, feature prominently in the museum. In 1827 the pair made some quick cash when they sold the body of a tenant who had died of natural causes in Burke’s home. Once they learned that Robert Knox, anatomy lecturer at the college, paid 8 to 10 pounds per body, they decided to “help” other people along to their deaths and rake in the loot. Over the span of a year they killed 16 people before they were found out.

The resulting trial was a sensation. Hare obtained immunity by snitching on his partner, and Burke was hanged steps from Edinburgh Castle before a crowd of 20,000 to 30,000 onlookers. The public outcry and news frenzy surrounding Burke’s actions and his execution eventually led to legal changes that made unclaimed bodies available to doctors for teaching purposes.

On view at the museum is a plaster death mask of Burke’s face and a pocketbook made from his skin. A broadside from the time recounts the execution with morbid delight:

During the time of the wretched man’s suspension, not a single indication of pity was observed among the vast crowd—on the contrary, every countenance wore the lively aspect of a gala day, while puns and jokes on the occasion were freely bandied about.

The Surgeons’ Hall Museums also claims another well-known figure of intrigue and murder: Sherlock Holmes. London is more commonly associated with Holmes, but the character could not have existed without Edinburgh. Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Holmes novels and stories, studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh between 1876 and 1881 under pioneering forensic pathologist Joseph Bell, the inspiration for the famous detective. A letter written in 1892 by Doyle to Bell and displayed at the museum makes the influence clear: “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes.”

In his autobiography Doyle recounted the creation of Holmes. “I thought of my old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his curious ways, of his eerie trick of spotting details.” A portrait of Bell hangs in the museum; with his direct stare and boyish face he does slightly resemble popular depictions of Holmes.

Like Holmes, Bell preached careful observation; and like the fictional detective, he was sometimes called on by police to assist in high-profile cases. He could infer intimate details about strangers’ lives simply by observing them, and he often impressed his students with demonstrations of this capability. He once gave a lecture on observation in which he put his finger in a tube filled with liquid; he then raised a finger to his lips, grimacing at the taste. He passed the tube to his students, who all tasted it. Bell then chastised his students for missing his trick: he had stuck one finger in the tube and licked another.

Like Bell’s students, I was in awe when I first stepped inside Surgeons’ Hall a decade ago, and I was still the keen pupil on my return visit to Edinburgh. From medical advances, to criminal justice, to detective fiction, the Surgeons’ Hall Museums demonstrates the ways in which the city was at the center of the medical world for much of the 18th and 19th centuries. If you happen to be in Scotland and have an interest in history, medicine, or the macabre, do not miss this museum.