Robert Knox was the Conservator of the College Museum whose career was blighted and his reputation shattered by his association with the scandal surrounding of the Burke and Hare murders. His outstanding abilities and achievements are forgotten, and yet he was never formally accused, far less convicted, of any crime.
Robert Knox, the eighth child of an Edinburgh Schoolmaster, was born in 1791 and educated at the High School of Edinburgh (later the Royal High School) where, in his final year, he was Gold Medallist and Dux of the School. He entered the Medical Faculty of Edinburgh University in 1810 and graduated MD four years later.
As an undergraduate he attended the extramural Anatomy class of Dr John Barclay, then regarded as the foremost anatomist in the British Isles, who considered him to be his most brilliant pupil.
After a period of Army service as a regimental surgeon during which he spent three years in South Africa, Knox returned to Edinburgh in 1822 and joined the staff of Dr Barclay’s anatomy school as an assistant lecturer. He began to publish scientific papers on a wide variety of anatomical and pathological subjects and, in 1823, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
In 1821, Dr Barclay had offered to the College his large personal collection of anatomical specimens on condition that it would be properly displayed in a purpose built hall. Three years later Knox with Barclay’s encouragement submitted to the College a plan for a museum based on the Barclay collection and offered to supervise the establishment of such a museum within the College. This could not be done in Old Surgeons Hall and it was Dr Barclay’s gift and Robert Knox’s museum plan that convinced the College of its urgent need for new premises, Knox’s proposals were accepted by the College Council and, early in 1825, he was formally appointed to the newly created office of Museum Conservator. Later that year Knox was admitted a Fellow of the College and granted full partnership with joint charge of his extramural anatomy school by Dr Barclay. On Knox’s recommendation the College in 1825 purchased Sir Charles Bell’s (qv) extensive anatomical and surgical collection; he also supervised its transfer from London to Edinburgh and made arrangements for its safe storage until such time as the College acquired new premises in which along with Dr Barclay’s collection it could be adequately housed.
Dr Barclay died in 1826 leaving Knox in sole charge of the anatomy school to which increasing numbers of students were attracted by his remarkable abilities as a teacher. The University Chair of Anatomy was at that time held by the lazy and incompetent Alexander Monro tertius, of whom Charles Darwin, then a student famously remarked “ He made his lectures on anatomy as dull as he was himself”. There could be no greater contrast to Monro’s dull pedantry than Knox’s brilliant lectures, which were always vividly illustrated by expert dissections.
A major attraction of Knox’s extramural class was his guarantee that students attending his course would see the human body completely dissected and for the fulfilment of this promise he obviously required an ample provision of anatomical “subjects”.
Knox’s success aroused the jealousy of other anatomists and surgeons conducting extramural classes and their hostility was exacerbated by his intellectual arrogance and his ill concealed contempt for their professional abilities.
His major achievements as Museum Conservator were the preparation of the first comprehensive catalogue and the advice on the requirements of the Museum, which he gave to William Henry Playfair, the architect of new Surgeons Hall.
Knox’s teaching commitments increased rapidly and, in the academic year 1827-28, just over 500 students were enrolled in his extramural anatomy class. He employed a number of assistants and demonstrators, some of whom such as William Ferguson (qv) ultimately gained fame in their own right as surgeons and anatomists but it was at this time that Knox became unwittingly involved in the macabre events which ultimately brought about his ruin.
In this biographical sketch it is not possible to give a full account of the murders committed by William Burke and William Hare in Edinburgh during 1828.
They sold the bodies of their 16 victims to Knox’s anatomy school but there is no evidence that he had any awareness of the provenance of these particular “subjects” and it is certain that he never met either of the two murderers. The discovery of the murders in November 1838 provoked a furious public outcry and, although Knox was never accused of any crime, the Edinburgh populace at large regarded him as being only marginally less culpable than Burke and Hare. He was publicly vilified and the Edinburgh mob attacked his house but, although they smashed its windows, they were unable to force an entry.
A special Committee of inquiry formed at Knox’s request exonerated him from suspicion of complicity in the Burke and Hare murders but a general feeling of outrage persisted for many months and the committee’s verdict did not prevent his numerous professional enemies from venting their spite upon him. His huge class of students did, however, remain totally loyal throughout this period and his teaching continued without interruption.
Although Knox was a Fellow holding an official position in the College there is no reference to the Burke and Hare scandal in any College archive and, indeed, almost at the very time when the murders came to light, the Council minutes include a warm commendation of his work as Conservator. It would seem, however, that the Senior Fellows were deeply affronted by their Museum Conservator’s involvement in this shocking affair and there is no doubt that Knox was ostracised by most of his professional colleagues. There is, however, no evidence that the Council ever contemplated his dismissal and he continued his work for the Museum with undiminished energy.
Relations between Knox and the Council began to deteriorate some months later and this was largely due to the persistent hostility of his enemy James Syme who, in September 1829, was appointed one of the Curators of the College Museum. Eventually in July 1831, Knox submitted his resignation from the office of Conservator and this was accepted without comment. The new Surgeons Hall was nearing completion and it must have been a bitter blow to Knox, after his devoted conservation of the Barclay and Bell collections, to be denied the opportunity of supervising their installation in a purpose built hall to the design of which he had made important contributions.
At first Knox’s popularity as a teacher seemed unaffected by the Burke and Hare scandal. He continued also to contribute regularly to the proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and to produce a stream of papers on a wide variety of subjects. Over the next five years the size of his extramural class did however decrease progressively and his financial circumstances became somewhat straitened. His attempt to establish an extramural anatomy school in Glasgow was unsuccessful as were also his applications for various academic posts in the Edinburgh University medical faculty and, in 1842, he left Edinburgh for London never to return.
The erroneous belief that he died in poverty and obscurity is widely held, but in fact whilst in London, he was in frequent demand as a lecturer and continued to be a regular contributor to scientific journals. He engaged in part time general practice and, in 1856, was appointed Pathologist to what is now the Royal Marsden Hospital - a post which he held until his death in 1862.
Knox was buried in Brookword Cemetery near Woking but his grave was neglected and forgotten until in 1966 it was rediscovered by Professor Eric Mekie, his lineal successor as Conservator of the College Museum (1955-1974). Professor Mekie and Sir John Bruce (qv) arranged for the clearance of the weeds and foliage which had overgrown the grave and for it to be marked by a granite stone inscribed simply - Robert Knox - Anatomist 1791-1862