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Dr Robert Knox (1791 – 1862)

Prior to his infamous involvement in the Burke and Hare murders, Robert Knox was a renowned lecturer of anatomy, esteemed zoologist, ethnologist and doctor.

Dr Robert Knox
© The University of Edinburgh

Knox was born to Mary (nee Scherer) and Robert Knox, a mathematics and natural philosophy teacher. Robert Knox studied at The Royal High School before joining the University of Edinburgh in 1810. During his time at the University he was twice president of the undergraduate club the Royal Physical Society.

Following his graduation in 1814, Knox joined the army where he was posted to Brussels to attend to the wounded from the Battle of Waterloo.

On returning to Scotland in 1822, following stays in both France and South Africa, he was a key force in establishing a museum of anatomy and pathology at the College of Surgeons. Knox became Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh during which time he was involved in setting up a major anatomical school where he was famed for his gory lectures.

Burke and Hare

Despite his reputation as a distinguished lecturer, Robert Knox is best remembered for his involvement in the West Port murders. Prior to the 1832 Anatomy Act, the main supply of medical cadavers were those sentenced to death and dissection by the courts. The ability to acquire legal corpses became more difficult as anatomy’s importance grew and the number of executions decreased.

Up the close and down the stair,

In the house with Burke and Hare.

Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief

Knox, the man who buys the beef.

Children's song

Murder most horrid

Dr Robert Knox
Lonsdale, Henry (1870), A Sketch of the Life and Writings of Robert Knox the Anatomist, London: MacMillan and Co.

William Hare fell into murder by chance after a fellow lodger died owing Hare a debt. After a tip off by one of Knox’s students that he would be well paid, Hare delivered the corpse to Knox and saw an opportunity to make money. With his accomplice William Burke, they began murdering vagrants and selling their bodies to Knox for dissection. Burke and Hare were eventually tried for 3 of the 16 murders.

To avoid the gallows, Hare gave evidence against Burke who was sentenced to hanging and dissection. Burke's skeleton can still be viewed at the University’s anatomical museum. 

Dark legacy

Despite public outcry, Robert Knox was never tried for his involvement in the murders, though his reputation in Edinburgh was severely damaged. Shortly after the Burke and Hare case, the Royal College of Surgeons pressured him to resign his role of curator of the museum.

Knox continued to be pushed out by the medical establishment, eventually moving to London where he published several books. He died in Hackney, London, in 1862.

Related links

The anatomical museum