Students’ demand for corpses up for auction

Simon Vickers with the students' demand. Picture: Saltire News
Simon Vickers with the students' demand. Picture: Saltire News
Have your say

A PETITION signed by more than 140 medical students demanding a supply of dead bodies for dissection at the time of the Burke and Hare murders is going under the hammer.

The document was written by aspiring doctors at Edinburgh University in March 1828, around the time of the second murder committed by William Burke and William Hare.

The Irish canal workers murdered at least 16 people between January and November 1828, and sold the corpses to Edinburgh University anatomy professor Dr Robert Knox, who used them for dissection and research.

The petition, on two large vellum sheets, was a plea from students for more cadavers as the legal supply for dissection was slowing down – resulting in a trade for “evil” resurrectionists.

The “one-off” artefact will be auctioned off at Lyon & Turnbull’s sale of rare books, maps and manuscripts, next Wednesday, when it is expected to fetch £400.

Lyon & Turnbull specialist Simon Vickers said: “It is quite possible these were Dr Knox’s students.

“The petition is on vellum, which is incredibly long lasting. You can clearly distinguish the names of students and where they lived across Edinburgh.”

Before 1832, there were insufficient cadavers legitimately available for the study and teaching of anatomy in Britain’s medical schools.

As medical science began to flourish in the early 19th century, the demand for cadavers rose sharply, but at the same time the legal supply failed to keep pace.

One of the main sources – the bodies of executed 
criminals – began to dry up owing to a reduction in the number of executions being carried out. The situation of too few corpses being available to doctors for demonstrating 
anatomical dissection attracted criminals willing to obtain specimens by any means.

The Edinburgh Medical School, universally renowned for medical sciences, relied increasingly on body-snatchers for a steady supply of “anatomical subjects”.