Alexander Monro (tertius)

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Alexander Monro III
Alexander Monro in the 1840s
Born(1773-11-05)5 November 1773
Died10 March 1859(1859-03-10) (aged 85)
Alma materUniversity of Edinburgh
Scientific career
Fieldsmedicine, surgery, anatomy
The grave of Alexander Monro tertius, Dean Cemetery

Alexander Monro tertius of Craiglockhart, FRSE FRCPE FSA (Scot) MWS (5 November 1773 – 10 March 1859), was a Scottish anatomist and medical educator at the University of Edinburgh Medical School. According to his detractors, Monro was an uninspired anatomist who did not compare with his brilliant father or grandfather as a teacher or scientist. His students included Charles Darwin who asserted that Monro "made his lectures on human anatomy as dull as he was himself."[1]


Alexander Monro by John Watson Gordon
The coat of arms of Alexander Monro, Dean Cemetery

Born at Nicolson Street[2] in Edinburgh on 5 November 1773, he was the son of Alexander Monro secundus and grandson of Alexander Monro primus who had both preceded him in the Chair of Anatomy at the University of Edinburgh. He was educated at the Royal High School of Edinburgh, close to his home, then studied Medicine at Edinburgh University receiving his doctorate (M.D.) in September 1797. On 5 November that year he became a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and 25 days later became a Fellow of the College.[3] He then briefly studied in London under the Scottish born anatomist James Wilson, and then in Paris, returning to Edinburgh in 1798/9. During his absence he had been appointed conjoint Professor of Anatomy and Surgery with his father and in the academic year 1797/8 he joined his father in delivering the anatomy lecture course at Edinburgh University.[4]

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1798, his proposers being Andrew Duncan, John Hill and Thomas Charles Hope.[5]

In the early 19th century Edinburgh University was regarded as the best medical school[6] in the United Kingdom despite the fact that its reputation had declined from its heyday in the Enlightenment of the 18th century. The university had been founded as the Town's College and was still governed by the Town Council. Two thirds of the professors were appointed by the Tory-controlled Council on the basis of their party list subject to approval by the Kirk, with little regard for ability. In some cases families treated the university chairs as hereditary, and critics alleged that Alexander Monro tertius exemplified the "mediocrity" this could produce. His manner was described as "unimpassioned indifference" and lectures were known to degenerate into riots.[3]

Monro took little pride in his personal appearance and was described by contemporaries as dishevelled, scruffy and even dirty.[3] This was an era when many in medicine considered cleanliness to be finicking and affected. "An executioner might as well manicure his nails before chopping off a head."[7] For this reason, Charles Darwin, a student at Edinburgh University in 1825, was disgusted by Monro arriving at lectures still bloody from the dissecting room. Darwin wrote to his family that "I dislike [Monro] and his lectures so much that I cannot speak with decency about them. He is so dirty in person and actions." Many students turned to competing private schools in Surgeon's Square instead, with Charles' brother Erasmus going to John Lizars, but Charles found the sight of surgery so upsetting that he stopped trying and turned his attention to natural history.[3]

During Monro's tenure as Professor of Anatomy, Edinburgh was rocked by scandal due to the notorious "Burke and Hare murders" in which healthy individuals were intentionally killed in order to supply cadavers for dissection by anatomy lecturers and their students. One of the murderers, William Burke, was hanged on 28 January 1829, after which he was famously dissected at the Edinburgh Medical College by Monro himself.[8] In a letter, Monro dipped his quill pen into Burke's blood and wrote, "This is written with the blood of Wm Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh. This blood was taken from his head."[9]

Alexander Monro tertius resigned as the Chair of Anatomy in 1846 and thus ended the dynastic reign of Monros at Edinburgh University which had spanned 126 years.[4] Among Monro's publications are "Outlines of the Anatomy of the Human Body" (1811) in four volumes and "Elements of Anatomy" (1825) in two volumes. Although he taught surgery, Monro had never trained nor practised as a surgeon. He was Secretary of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh from 1809 to 1819 and elected President in 1825 and 1826. He was also on the Council of Wernerian Natural History Society of which he became a member in 1811.

In 1841 Dr Robert Halliday Gunning came to Edinburgh to oversee Monro's anatomy rooms and work as his assistant.[10]

Monro died at Craiglockhart, south-west of Edinburgh on 10 March 1859 and is buried in Lord's Row against the western wall of Dean Cemetery.


1 Great Stuart Street, Edinburgh

He is known as "tertius" because his two predecessors as professor of anatomy at Edinburgh University had the same name: these were his grandfather (after death referred to as Alexander Monro primus) and his father (known as Alexander Monro secundus). Alexander's great-grandfather, John Munro, was an Edinburgh surgeon who had played a leading role in the founding of the Edinburgh Medical School. His uncle was Dr Donald Monro FRSE who became a military physician in London.[3]

He married twice: firstly, in 1800, to Maria Agnes Carmichael-Smyth (1776-1833), the daughter of Dr. Carmichael-Smyth, by whom he had twelve children; and secondly, in 1836, to the daughter of David Hunter. The latter survived him.[11]

In the 1830s he was living, with his large family and first wife, at 1 Great Stuart Street on the Moray Estate in Edinburgh's west end.[12] The house stands on a prominent corner partly facing the gardens of Moray Place. Monro's neighbour (at 3 Great Stuart Street) was Dr Robert Christison.

His son Sir David Monro made a career as a politician in New Zealand, and was the second Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives.[13]

His daughter, Maria Monro, married John Inglis, advocate (1783-1847) son of Admiral John Inglis.[14] Their grandchildren included John Alexander Inglis.[15]

His daughter Catherine Monro was the first wife of John James Stuart of Allanbank.[16]

In popular culture[edit]

In the 2010 motion picture Burke and Hare, Monro is bitter rivals with Robert Knox (Tom Wilkinson) whom he thwarts at every turn by having a statute passed ensuring all dead bodies be passed on to him for dissection. He also has an unhealthy obsession with feet. Monro is portrayed by Tim Curry.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Alexander Monro, tertius". Whonamedit?. Retrieved 14 July 2015.
  2. ^ Edinburgh Post Office Directory 1773
  3. ^ a b c d e Rex Earl Wright-St. Clair (1964). Doctors Monro: a medical saga. The Wellcome Historical Medical Library. pp. 96–117.
  4. ^ a b Macintyre, Iain (2013). "Alexander Monro, tertius (1773–1859)" (PDF). The Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. 43 (3): 282. doi:10.4997/JRCPE.2013.319. PMID 24224200.
  5. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0-902-198-84-X. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 7 October 2017.
  6. ^ Lynch, Michael (ed.). Oxford Companion to Scottish History. Oxford University Press. pp. 141–142. ISBN 978-0-19-923482-0. Retrieved 14 July 2015.
  7. ^ Gordon, Richard (2001) p.35; (1983) p.44[full citation needed]
  8. ^ Howard, Amanda; Martin Smith (15 August 2004). "William Burke and William Hare". River of Blood: Serial Killers and Their Victims. Universal. p. 54. ISBN 1-58112-518-6.
  9. ^ Rosner, Lisa (5 October 2009). The Anatomy Murders. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0-8122-4191-4.
  10. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 22 August 2016. Retrieved 18 August 2016.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  11. ^ Moore 1894.
  12. ^ "The Post Office Annual Directory for 1832-1833". Secretary to the General Post-Office for Scotland. 1832. p. 139. Retrieved 14 July 2015.
  13. ^ Wright-St Clair, Rex. "Monro, David – Biography". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 14 July 2015.
  14. ^
  15. ^ Inscription on Inglis grave, Colinton churchyard
  16. ^

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainMoore, Norman (1894). "Monro, Alexander (1773-1859)". In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 38. London: Smith, Elder & Co.