Pathology Spotlight – Fergusson, Burke & Hare


This specimen was prepared by Professor Sir William Fergusson who, as a young man in early 19th century Edinburgh, worked closely with Dr Robert Knox, whose notoriety is based on his association with the serial killers Burke and Hare. It is a corrosion cast of a right foot with the lower end of the leg bones, where the arteries have been injected with wax and the tissue dissolved away to leave the bones and a wax cast of the arterial vessels.

When Burke and Hare, posing as grave-robbers, first started delivering bodies to the back door of Dr Knox’s rooms in Surgeons’ Square, they were not met by the rather lofty Knox, but by 3 students, Fergusson, Miller and Jones and Knox’s assistant Paterson. All four carried out the heavy lifting and organisational side of ‘cadaver reception’, dealing with Burke and Hare as they did with an array of grave-robbers who brought corpses, mostly in the dead of night, to meet the high demand posed by Knox’s thriving private anatomy school. The whole murderous business came to light eventually, but not until Burke and Hare had killed 16 victims and sold the bodies to Knox.

Burke and Hare

When Hare turned King’s evidence and Burke was brought to trial, Knox and his associates naturally fell under suspicion. Public sentiment at the time was that they must have been aware that the fresh bodies supplied by Burke and Hare were not dug up from cemeteries but were in fact the result of foul-play. In the end neither Knox, nor any of his men, were charged as accessories to the Burke and Hare murders.  However, the populace of Edinburgh were not convinced of their innocence and riots occurred that culminated in attacks on Knox’s home in Newington, from which Doctor Knox only escaped by disguising himself and sneaking out from a side-entrance.

Sir William Fergusson (1808-1877)

Of the four original ‘cadaver reception’ team, William Fergusson  was the most effective in shrugging off suspicion of involvement in the murders. He went on to have a stellar career in Surgery in London, culminating in the Chair of Surgery at King’s College, London, a post he occupied for 30 years. He also became President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, President of the General Medical Council and Surgeon to Queen Victoria, who knighted him. The foot is one of several specimens prepared by Fergusson that is in the keeping of the Museums of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.


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