College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine

Anatomy museum opens doors to public

A facial cast of mass murderer William Burke taken shortly before his execution is to form part of an exhibition of medical artefacts.

The cast will be shown alongside Burke’s skeleton and his death mask at the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomy Museum.

Open for public view

The display has been set up following a revamp of the Anatomy Museum, which is to open its doors to the public on a regular basis for the first time.


The Anatomy Museum will be open to the public on the last Saturday of each month, starting Saturday, 28 January, 2012 from 10am until 4pm.

Anatomy museum

William Burke

Burke was hanged after he and his accomplice, William Hare, carried out at least 15 murders in the 1820s and sold the bodies on for use in anatomy teaching.

His life and death masks are among more than 40 masks - created from casts taken during people’s lifetime or after they died - on display.

Life and death masks

Historic faces on show include Sir Walter Scott, William Shakespeare, King George III and King George IV.

The masks - which form one of the largest collections of life and death masks in the UK - are part of the William Ramsay Henderson Collection.

The use of such masks was popular in the 19th century owing to the now-discredited practice of phrenology.

Followers of phrenology, which included William Ramsay Henderson, believed the shape and size of the skull could help explain a person’s mind, behaviour and abilities.


Other artefacts among the hundreds on display at the Anatomy Museum include an exhibit of a whale’s backbone alongside a human backbone.

There are also skulls from a polar bear and walrus and a gorilla’s skeleton.

Also on display is a preserved body from the late 1790s, alongside an etching showing the body’s lymphatic system carried out when the remains were embalmed.

Visitors to the museum at the Teviot Medical School, which was opened in 1884, will also be able to see the building’s historic anatomy lecture theatre.

The museum provides a fascinating insight into how anatomy has progressed from the late 1700s to the present day. What is interesting, in terms of structures of the body, is that the majority of what we know now comes from the pioneering work of the 19th Century.”

Gordon FindlaterDirector of the Anatomy Department