An Elephant Skull in a Surgical Museum; the History of Comparative Anatomy

In this blog post our Senior Research Fellow, Professor Ken Donaldson, tells us more about the elephant in the room.

The Elephant Skull

If you have ever visited Surgeons’ Hall Museums you will very likely have noticed the skull of an elephant sitting on a ledge above the virtual dissection theatre exhibit- let’s face it the skull of an elephant is hard to miss! You might reasonably ask how the skeleton of an elephant would help young surgeons learning their trade. After all, William Dick had started a school for Veterinary Medicine and Surgery in Edinburgh in 1832 and if anyone was going to require the knowledge to treat elephants, then it was vets, not surgeons. Surgeons’ Hall Museums has been collecting specimens since 1699 and at one time this skull was an important part of a large collection composed of entire animal skeletons, animal bones and other preparations of non-human animals. This reflects the historical importance of an area of study called ‘comparative anatomy’ where the similarities and differences between human anatomy and animal anatomy are studied.

Figure 1 The virtual dissection exhibit in the Surgeons’ Hall Museums with the elephant skull above.

Anatomy for Medical Students

The teaching of anatomy to medical students is greatly concentrated on learning human structural anatomy that is useful to medical practitioners, especially surgeons and is necessarily focused in the human body. Modern anatomy-teaching sets out to teach what lies under the skin- where the blood vessels and nerves are and where pain or disease is specifically located, all of which requires an extensive knowledge of structural human anatomy. However, this is only one part of anatomy as it was practiced in the 19th century. Back then, medical students were of course rigorously taught about the structure of the human body, but comparative anatomy was an important pursuit of professional anatomists.

Comparative Anatomy

Comparative anatomy was a very different use of anatomy compared to educating doctors about the structure of the human body and it is important to contextualise it to its time. Comparative anatomy as an are of interest to anatomists had its heyday prior to 1859, before Darwin published ‘On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection’; after that the subject declined as an area of study. The reason for this is that in the pre-Darwinian era comparative anatomy was the only way to attempt to understand the connection between animal types and the origin and organisation life on earth. Comparative anatomists soon noted similar structures across very different animal types – for example birds and humans (see Figure 2). In particular they were struck by the similarities between human and ape skeletons (Figure 3). It was in fact clear to them that there was a chain of complexity from the lower animals, culminating in the apes and humans, but they stopped short of suggesting that there was evolution of one form to another, especially when it came to humans. They could not be forthright in stating the obvious, that species changed and evolved, in large part because of the power of the Church. According to Genesis in the Old Testament bible, all animals had been made in the first days of creation by a God. So it was difficult for entrenched clerics and the religious lobby which permeated society to accept that animals evolved one from another, as required by evolution. It was especially difficult to talk about the evolution of humans since, according to Genesis, man was ‘made in the image of God’; no mention was made in scripture that man evolved from apes!

Dr. Robert Knox

Dr. Robert Knox (1791-1862) (Figure 4) was the Conservator of the Surgeons Hall Museums between 1826 and 1831 and in addition to being crucial in the assembly of the museum’s collection and being one of the most famous anatomists of his generation, he was a champion of comparative anatomy. Knox himself came close to it admitting that there was, in fact, evolution of one species to another in 1850, 9 years before ‘The origin of Species’.  In his book ‘The Races of Man’ he states that:-

‘’simple animals….may have produced by continuous generation, the more complex animals of after ages’ and ‘the fish of the early world may have produced reptiles, then again birds and quadrupeds: lastly man himself?’. 

Figure 2 Comparative anatomy of the human and the bird; note how the same structure is labelled with the same letter in the diagram of the bird and the human e.g. the patella, or knee-cap, is labelled with an ‘H’ in both the bird and the human. Page from ‘The Natural History of Birds’ by Pierre Belon 1555. Pierre Belon (1517-1564), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Figure 3 The close similarities in skeletons of apes and human. The original uploader was TimVickers at English Wikipedia., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

With the arrival of Darwin’s book in 1859, anatomists and biologists in general, along with many members of the public and believers, were persuaded that evolution of one species to another was a fact of life. This brought to an end the quandary posed by accommodating the Bible with the fact of evolution. So comparative anatomy became unnecessary as a way to understand how animals had similarities and differences, being replaced by classical Darwinian evolution by natural selection as the explanation. Comparative anatomy does remain however a very interesting area of study for learning about animal anatomy.

The remains of comparative anatomy in the current Surgeons’ Hall Museums collection

Unfortunately, with the decline in teaching of comparative anatomy in the second half of the 19th century, the Surgeons’ Hall Museums, along with many anatomical museums, disposed of much of its non-human specimen collection. However, some specimens were spared that fate so, in addition to the elephant skull, which used to form part of an entire elephant skeleton in the museum, we do still have elephant and rhino teeth, along with the penis bone (yes, some mammals have a bone in their penis!) from elephant and walrus. We also have a series of lobster dissections and a comparison of the bones of a lion with a domestic cat, but the bulk of the comparative anatomy collection is a memory reduced to entries in spidery script in the dusty catalogues that record the museum’s collection over the centuries.  

The few non-human specimens we do have serve as an important reminder of the importance of comparative anatomy in the history of human anatomy. It reminds us of the days before the Darwinian revolution, when anatomists struggled to explain the similarities and differences in extant animals and those in the fossil record and reconcile what they saw with the biblical descriptions in Genesis.  With the arrival of Darwin’s ‘On the origin of species by natural selection’ this dilemma was fully resolved. Natural Selection, the mechanism put forward by Darwin, offered (and still offers) a satisfactory explanation of how and why animals differ or are similar and how the slow evolution of animal species came about.

Postscript Dr. Robert Knox

Dr. Robert Knox was a brilliant and outspoken anatomist, generally considered to be the brightest of his generation. He published many scientific papers and wrote many books on anatomy and other subjects like fishing in Scotland. He had his own anatomy school in Surgeons Square, Edinburgh and was a brilliant lecturer, a famed raconteur and dandy and his students adored him. He was however brought low by the case of Burke and Hare, the serial murderers who sold all 16 of their victims to Knox’s school. Debate has continued ever since 1828 as to Knox’s culpability, not in the murders, but as to whether he should have been aware that 16 of the 100 or so bodies delivered to the back door of his anatomy school that term, were murdered, victims of the men who delivered the corpses and took the money. Knox is regarded as one of the pioneers of scientific racism in Britain. His book The Races of Men further tarnished his legacy and overshadowed his contributions to evolutionary theory.

For what it is worth, after reading comprehensively about Knox and his life and the events of 1828, I think it unlikely that he had any idea about the provenance of the bodies received by the school. Like all anatomists, he knew of course that bodies generally came from grave robbers, but he himself had led the calls from anatomists for changes to the law that would give anatomists legal access to bodies and put grave-robbers out of business. As might be expected of a person of his prominence, he had nothing to do generally with the lowly and unpleasant task of receiving bodies, which was tended to by assistants.

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