In 2018, Edinburgh Medical School is one of the best in the world, renowned for its excellent anatomy teaching department. This achievement, however, comes at a hefty moral price. The past of anatomy teaching at Edinburgh is a dark one, and the cost of advancing science has come at the expense of human lives.
The most famous example of this is the case of Burke and Hare. In the early 19th century, after stricter laws on capital punishment were introduced, the anatomy department struggled to find bodies for its students to learn from, as previously they had come from executions. This led to generous prizes being rewarded to anyone who could provide a body to the anatomy department. Two Irish immigrants, William Burke and William Hare, saw an opportunity and took advantage of the situation. With the blessing of anatomy professor Robert Knox, they committed 16 murders over the space of ten months, selling the bodies on to the department. They were only stopped when they foolishly decided to murder a man who was well known in the community, as they wrongly assumed that his learning disability would make his death go unnoticed. This brought attention to the spree of murders which had taken place, leading the evidence back to Burke and Hare, and they were eventually hanged. William Burke’s skeleton is still displayed in the anatomy museum to this day.
Another less well-known piece of medical history is that of the skull collection. Edinburgh has an extremely large collection of human skulls, which have been used in important epidemiological research, and also to disprove racist theories on difference in skull size between races. However, not all of these skulls have been sourced ethically. Many of them are the skulls of indigenous people who were killed by colonisers and taken without their consent to be studied. Moreover, Edinburgh’s policy on returning such items is frustratingly convoluted - for a return to be considered, a formal request must be submitted. This request constitutes of the support of a national government, along with a national museum and a community with a traceable genealogical link to the item. As communities calling for these items to be returned are often minority groups within their own country, it is hugely difficult for such a request to be made. Costs must also be covered by the group requesting the item, which adds another serious barrier.
Fortunately, these practices are no longer in use in Edinburgh today, and they might seem like a distant memory of a gruesome past. However, it does not mean that this is not still an issue. In China, for example, there are unconfirmed reports of organ harvesting taking place, specifically on political prisoners. Whilst the temptation of scientific and medical advancement might be great, this should never come at the cost of human rights. Additionally, the presence of stolen skulls within our university is an important reminder of the links between medicine and empire, and the continuing effort that must be made in order to decolonize the city.
*Illustration by Isi Williams*