Robert Knox

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This article is about the surgeon, anatomist and zoologist. For other uses, see Robert Knox (disambiguation).
Robert Knox c.1830

Robert Knox, FRSE FRCSE MWS (4 September 1791 – 20 December 1862) was a Scottish surgeon, anatomist and zoologist. He was the most popular lecturer in anatomy in Edinburgh before his involvement in the Burke and Hare murders. This ruined his career, and a later move to London did not improve matters. His later pessimistic view of humanity contrasted sharply with his youthful attachment to the ideas of Étienne Geoffroy.

Knox's ideas on anthropology and ethnology are now considered racist, notably his view, shared widely by his contemporaries, that Anglo-Saxons are an innately superior people. This also harmed his legacy, although he always rejected natural theology and believed that there was a blood relationship between all living things.[1]


Robert Knox was born the eighth child of Mary Sherer (alt. 'Schrerer') and Robert Knox (d. 1812), a teacher of mathematics and natural philosophy at Heriot's Hospital in Edinburgh. He was educated at the Royal High School.[2]

In 1810, he joined medical classes in Edinburgh. The only recorded event of his university years was his just failing the anatomy examination. Knox joined the extramural Anatomy class of the famous John Barclay. Barclay was an anatomist of the highest distinction, and perhaps the greatest anatomical teacher in Britain at that time. Redoubling his efforts, Knox passed very competently the second time around.

Knox married Mary Russell in 1823; she and one of their children died in 1841.

Life abroad[edit]

Graduating MD from Edinburgh University in 1814, Knox joined the army as an assistant surgeon, having worked for a year at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. His army work at the Brussels military hospital (near Waterloo) impressed upon him the need for a comprehensive training in anatomy if surgery were to be successful. Knox was highly intelligent, critical and irritable. He did not suffer fools gladly and – in an aside with terrible consequences for his future career – he was extremely critical of the surgical work of Charles Bell with casualties at the Battle of Waterloo. In April 1817, he joined the 72nd Highlanders and sailed with them immediately to South Africa. He returned to Britain on Christmas Day 1820, but remained only until the following October, after which he went to Paris to study anatomy for just over a year (1821–22). It was then that he met both Georges Cuvier and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who were to remain heroes for his entire life, to populate his later medical journalism, and to become the subject of his hagiography, Great artists and great anatomists.


Career in Edinburgh[edit]

Bill advertising Knox's anatomy lectures in 1828

Knox returned to Edinburgh by Christmas 1822. In 1823 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. During these years he communicated a number of well-received papers to the Royal and Wernerian societies of Edinburgh on zoological subjects. Soon after his election he submitted a plan to the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh for a Museum of Comparative Anatomy, which was accepted, and within eight months he was appointed Conservator over the new museum.

From 1826 to 1840 he ran Barclay's anatomy school in Surgeon's Square, Edinburgh. At this time most professorships were in the gift of the town council, resulting in such uninspiring teachers as the Professor of Anatomy, Alexander Monro tertius who put off many of his students (including the young Charles Darwin who took the course 1825–1827). This created a demand for private tuition, and the flamboyant Knox had more students than all the other private tutors put together.

He turned his sharp wit on the elders and the clergy of the city, satirising religion and delighting his students. His 'continental' lectures were not for the squeamish. John James Audubon, was in Edinburgh at the time to find subscribers for his Birds of America. Shown round the dissecting theatre by Knox, "dressed in an overgown and with bloody fingers", Audubon reported that "The sights were extremely disagreeable, many of them shocking beyond all I ever thought could be. I was glad to leave this charnel house and breathe again the salubrious atmosphere of the streets".

The Resurrectionists[edit]

See also: Anatomy murder

Before the Anatomy Act of 1832 widened the supply, the main legal supply of corpses for anatomical purposes in the UK were those condemned to death and dissection by the courts. This led to a chronic shortage of legitimate subjects for dissection, and this shortage became more serious as the need to train medical students grew, and the number of executions fell. In his school Knox ran up against the problem from the start, since – after 1815 – the Royal Colleges had increased the anatomical work in the medical curriculum. If he taught according to what was known as 'French method' the ratio would have had to approach one corpse per pupil.

A modern depiction of body snatchers at work

As a consequence, body-snatching became so prevalent that it was not unusual for relatives and friends of someone who had just died to watch over the body until burial, and then to keep watch over the grave after burial, to stop it being violated. In November 1827 William Hare began a new career when an indebted lodger died on him by chance. He was paid £7.10/- (seven pounds & ten shillings) for delivering the body to Knox's dissecting rooms at Surgeons' Square. Now Burke and his accomplice Hare set about murdering tramps and drunks on a regular basis. After 16 more transactions, in what became known as the West Port Murders, on 2 November 1828 Burke and Hare were caught, and the whole city convulsed with titillated horror, fed by ballads, broadsides and newspapers, at the terrible deeds of Burke & Hare.[3] Hare turned King's evidence, and Burke was hanged, dissected and displayed.

Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief,
Knox the boy who buys the beef!

Knox was not prosecuted, which outraged many in Edinburgh. His house was attacked by a mob, and windows were broken. A committee of the Royal Society of Edinburgh exonerated him on the grounds that he had not dealt personally with Burke and Hare, but there was no forgetting his part in the case, and many remained wary of him.

Almost immediately after the Burke and Hare case, the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh began to harry him, and by June 1831 they had procured his resignation as the Curator of the museum he had proposed and founded. His profitable lecturing was the next to suffer. His class finally collapsed when Edinburgh University made its own practical anatomy class compulsory in the mid-1830s.[4][5] Knox continued to purchase cadavers for his dissection class, but the 1832 Anatomy Act made bodies more available to all anatomists, and his competitive edge was lost.[6][7]


Knox made enemies of Edinburgh's city elders, and left for London in 1842 after the death of his wife (the remaining children were left with a nephew). He found it impossible to find a post as a surgeon, and from then until 1856 he worked on medical journalism, lectures, and various publications. His books about fishing sold best.[citation needed]

In 1856 he became the pathological anatomist to the Free Cancer Hospital, London. He worked there for the next six years until his death on 20 December 1862. He was buried at Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, Surrey.[8]


In his writings Knox synthesised a perspective on nature from three of the most influential natural historians of his time. From Cuvier, he took a consciousness of the great epochs of time, of the fact of extinction, and of the inadequacy of the biblical account. From Étienne Geoffroy St-Hilaire and Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville, he gained a spatial and thematic perspective on living things. If one had the skill, all living beings could be arranged in their correct placing in a notional table, and one would see both internally and externally the elegant variation of their organs and anatomy according to the principles of connection, unity of composition, and compensation.

Goethe is another crucial addition to the Knoxian way of looking at nature. Goethe thought that there were transcendental archetypes in the living world which could be perceived by genius. If the natural historian were perspicacious enough to examine the creatures in this correct order he could perceive – aesthetically – the archetype that was immanent in the totality of a series, although present in none of them.

Knox wrote that he was concerned to prove the existence of a generic animal, "or in other terms, proving hereditary descent to have a relation primarily to genus or natural family". This way, he could lay claim to a stability in the natural order at the level of the genus, but let species be extinguished. Man was a genus; not a species. Insofar as Knox had any definition of species – for his thinking about it was hazy – races were species. Knox saw his work as an inspired sketch of the profound laws of race. In addition to categorising races as species, Knox found sub-racial divisions by national origin types; he considered the Nordic superior to all others.[9]

Knox in fiction[edit]

  • The character Mr. K- in the short story "The Body Snatcher" by Robert Louis Stevenson, is clearly a reference for Dr. Robert Knox.
Dr. Knox, as portrayed in Edinburgh's Surgeons' Hall Museum
  • Peter Cushing plays Knox in The Flesh and the Fiends (1960). Written and directed by John Gilling, the film is a reasonably accurate depiction, allowing for some dramatic licence and time constraints, of the Burke and Hare story.
  • The character Dr. Thomas Rock in the Dylan Thomas play The Doctor and the Devils is based on Knox. The play was filmed in 1985 with Timothy Dalton as Dr. Rock.
  • Knox was the model for the character of Dr. Thomas Potter in Matthew Kneale's epic novel English Passengers, which deals with the perceptions and perspectives of different races, nationalities and stations in society.
  • The character Doctor Knox from manga series Fullmetal Alchemist from 2001 (which got an animation adaptation in 2009) is probably a reference to the real Robert Knox since both have the same name, physical similarities and were military surgeons specialising in autopsies and Pathologists.
  • Knox is a major character in Nicola Morgan's 2003 novel "Fleshmarket"


  1. ^ Desmond, Adrian J. 1989. The politics of evolution. Chicago p. 388-9
  2. ^ Waterston, Charles D; Macmillan Shearer, A (July 2006). Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002: Biographical Index II. Edinburgh: The Royal Society of Edinburgh. ISBN 978-0-902198-84-5. Retrieved 8 February 2011. 
  3. ^ "The Resurrectionists". The Resurrectionists. New York Academy of Medicine. Retrieved 27 April 2008. 
  4. ^ Richardson R. 1987. Death, dissection and the destitute. Routledge, London. [includes a reassessment of Knox's culpability in the Burke and Hare case]
  5. ^ Richards E. 1988. The 'moral anatomy' of Robert Knox: a case study of the interplay between biological and social thought in the context of Victorian scientific naturalism. J. Hist. Biol.
  6. ^ "The Anatomy Murders Corpse of the Day—Dr. Robert Knox". Penn Press Log, October 2009. Retrieved 5 November 2009. 
  7. ^ Rosner, Lisa (2009). "All That Remains". The Anatomy Murders: Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh's Notorious Burke and Hare and of the Man of Science Who Abetted Them in the Commission of Their Most Heinous Crimes. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0-8122-4191-4. 
  8. ^ "Dr Robert Knox". Necropolis Notables. The Brookwood Cemetery Society. Retrieved 23 February 2007. 
  9. ^ Knox R. 1850. The races of man. Renshaw, London.
  10. ^ "The Anatomist (1939)(TV)". imdb. Retrieved 12 October 2009. 
  11. ^ "Play of the Month: The Anatomist (1980)". EOFF. Retrieved 12 October 2009. 
  12. ^ "Medicinal Purposes". Big Finish Productions. Retrieved 14 June 2010. 
  • Engravings of the nerves: copied from the works of Scarpa, Soemmering and other distinguished anatomists. Edinburgh 1829. [Edward Mitchell, engraver]
  • The races of men: a fragment. Renshaw, London. 1850, revised 1862.
  • Great artists and great anatomists: a biographical and philosophical study. Van Voorst, London 1852.
  • A manual of artistic anatomy 1852.
  • Fish and fishing in the lone glens of Scotland, with a history of the propagation, growth and metamorphoses of the Salmon. Routledge, London 1854.
  • Man – his structure and physiology 1857.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]