Anatomy museum highlights medical history
Members of the public can gain an insight into Edinburgh’s illustrious history with a visit to the University’s Anatomical Museum.
The museum is now open on the last Saturday of every month, when visitors can see the skeleton of the infamous mass murderer 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.
Life and death masks
As well as Burke’s skeleton, the University’s Anatomical Museum also contains a facial cast of Burke taken shortly before his execution as well as a cast taken after his death.
Burke’s life and death masks are among more than 40 masks on display - created from casts taken during people’s lifetime or after they had died.
Other historic faces on show include Sir Walter Scott, William Shakespeare, King George III and 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.
Artefacts on display
The anatomical museum is housed in the old Medical School at Teviot Place, which was built in the 1880s.
Also on display are anatomical teaching models from the 1800s - made of wax and wood - as well as later models made of plastic.
Some exhibits demonstrate similarities between humans and other mammals, in a field known as comparative anatomy.
This includes an exhibit of a whale’s backbone alongside that of a human. There are also skulls from a polar bear and walrus and a gorilla’s skeleton.
Prior to entering the museum, visitors can also see two Asian elephant skeletons as well as view the historic anatomy lecture theatre.
Anatomy at the University
The first Professsor of Anatomy at Edinburgh was Alexander Monro Primus, who was then followed by his son and then grandson - all called Alexander.
They taught in succession for 128 years, ranging from 1720 to 1848.
Although Munro primus and secundus were distinguished lecturers, Monro tertius - the grandson - was reported to be rather lacklustre.
It is said he read from his grandfather’s notes, with the consequence that students hurled peas at him.
Sir William Turner, who was Professor of Anatomy between 1867 to 1903, was charged with constructing the original anatomy museum which was then based over three storeys.
Today the medical buildings at Teviot Place focus on the teaching of pre-clinical subjects such as biochemistry and anatomy. The building still holds the anatomy teaching laboratory
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.