There are very few opportunities in the year to visit a little known museum in Edinburgh that contains one of the most famous exhibits the city has.
Only open on the last Saturday of every month and with free entry, The Anatomical Museum of the University of Edinburgh
is found in Doorway 3 of the Medical School of Edinburgh University. The Medical School was established in 1726 – though medicine had been taught at the University prior to this – and flourished during the “Scottish Enlightenment”. It is still very highly regarded to this day.
As part of one of the Walks available through www.edinburghwalks.com, I was in the vicinity and called in. Through the heavy wooden door and up two floors, you enter the anatomy lecture theatre which has seating for two hundred students and was used to teach medical students from the 19th century onwards.
I’m sure the dissection of bodies was a messy procedure, but nowadays the ‘slab’ is electronic and – as can be seen in the attached photograph – a lot less gory and a lot more interesting.
Then I made my way upstairs to the Anatomical Museum itself.
The Museum was part of a block of buildings devoted to medical education which opened in 1880. The lobby still contains elephant skeletons and other exhibits from the original museum, which was reduced in size in 1950 from a three storey hall to a single upper storey, which is how it remains today. The Museum has a fascinating
collection of both animal and human remains, plaster masks of famous people from the past made by the Edinburgh Phrenology Society and that famous exhibit I mentioned before, the skeleton of the infamous murderer William Burke. Burke – along with his unconvicted accomplice William Hare – murdered (probably) sixteen people in 1820’s Edinburgh and sold the bodies for medical dissection. He was convicted and hanged in 1829. The fate of Burke and all those convicted of murder was to be subject to the Murder Act of 1751, where they also had to be dissected after execution. The Anatomical Museum also houses the skeleton of John Howison, otherwise known as “The Cramond Murderer” who suffered the same fate as Burke. Howison was the last person to be publicly dissected prior to the Anatomy Act of 1832 which ended this practice and allowed medical schools to obtain cadavers by other means.
This museum is a great place to help understand Edinburgh’s historical and medical past and the exhibits are not laid out in a manner meant to frighten or shock the visitor. Next time you are in the area – or as part of a www.edinburghwalks.com Walk – give it a visit. You will not regret it.