Dr. Robert Knox

1791 - 1862

Anatomist. Born in Edinburgh, the son of a school-teacher, he began his training at the University of Edinburgh at the age of seventeen under Alexander Monro (1773 - 1859), to whom Knox was to become a rival. He travelled the world as an army surgeon, tending to the casualties after Waterloo and in South Africa, before returning to Edinburgh to teach anatomy in the Medical School. He proposed the idea of an anatomy museum to the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (1824) and was appointed its curator the following year on a salary of £100.

An arrogant man, he was convinced he was the best anatomist in the city and ran popular anatomy demonstrations twice-a-day for students and the general public from his house on Surgeon's Square, growing wealthy on the proceeds. He spent enormous sums buying bodies for these classes, and received many of these specimens from gruesome resurrectionists, who illegally dug the recently deceased from their graves in exchange for a cash reward. His most notable suppliers were Burke and Hare, who preferred murder to satisfy Knox's demand for bodies. During the sensational trial at which Hare turned King's evidence against Burke, Knox tried to keep a low profile. An angry mob demonstrated outside his home in Newington, and he was vilified by his colleagues, who took some pleasure in his downfall. Knox left Edinburgh for London in 1842, but struggled to find work as his reputation had preceded him. He eventually became a pathological anatomist at the Royal Marsden Cancer Hospital at Brompton.

Knox died in London and is buried in the London Necropolis (Brookwood Cemetery) where his grave is marked by a small granite block placed there by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1966. Knox has been portrayed many times in popular fiction; most notably in Robert Louis Stevenson's short story The Body Snatcher (1884), which was subsequently captured as a film, and The Anatomist, a play by James Bridie which was broadcast by the BBC in 1939 with Knox played by Andrew Cruickshank and, in 1961, made into a film starring Alastair Sim.

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