IT was in this week in 1862 that the death occurred of Robert Knox, the surgeon and anatomist destined always to be associated with the murderous Burke and Hare.

Knox’s tragedy was that he was indeed a brilliant surgeon and anatomist, but one who took huge risks to ensure that he could get a supply of dead bodies for his renowned lectures on anatomy. As a result, he would end up reviled and exiled from his profession, but at first he was seen as something of star in the elevated world of medicine in Edinburgh in the first part of the 19th century.

The son of Robert Knox, a mathematics and natural philosophy teacher, Knox contracted smallpox while a child and lost his left eye and suffered permanent facial scarring. He was educated at The Royal High School and Edinburgh University where he was twice elected president of the undergraduate club the Royal Physical Society.

Knox graduated in 1814 and became an army surgeon just in time to go to Belgium and attend to the wounded from the Battle of Waterloo.

He went with the 72nd Highlanders to South Africa in 1817, but returned home in disgrace after fighting a duel. After further study of anatomy in France, he returned to Edinburgh, married his wife Susan – they had seven children but only two survived to adulthood – and proposed the establishment of a museum of Comparative Anatomy and Pathology at Edinburgh’s renowned College of Surgeons.

He was put in charge of the new museum in 1825 and was also involved in teaching and lecturing, becoming known for the fact that he always seemed to have fresh bodies to dissect at a time when cadavers were in short supply even though grave robbing was commonplace.

No wonder he had fresh corpses, for as the world discovered in late 1828, two Irish labourers William Burke and William Hare had decided to miss out on the grave robbery and just murder people, delivering their bodies to Knox who would pay up to £8 per corpse.

Hare turned King’s evidence and Burke and his common-law wife Helen McDougall were put on trial.

The evidence that damned Knox was sensational and came mainly from David Paterson, keeper of Knox’s museum, who had dealt with Burke and Hare for the anatomist.

Alexander Wood, advocate depute for the prosecution asked Paterson what he told Burke. Paterson said: “I told him if he had anything to say or do with Dr Knox, to go to himself and settle with him.”

Lord Advocate Sir William Rae interjected: “You mean by that, that if he had any subject to take it to him?” Paterson answered: “Yes.”

Wood asked: “When did you see him again?”

Paterson replied: “I again saw him standing in Dr Knox’s room with Dr Knox, and one of his assistants, Jones ; they were merely standing together.”

The Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, Sir James Wellwood Moncrieff, had decided to lead Burke’s defence when many advocates stepped away from the notorious case. He questioned Paterson: “Does it consist with your knowledge, from acting for Dr Knox in this way, that there are people in town that sell dead bodies that have not been interred?

Paterson replied: “I have heard it, my Lord. I have known gentlemen that have attended poor patients that have died, and then they afterwards gave in a note of their place of abode to Dr Knox, which he has handed to these men to get their bodies.”

On January 28, 1829, Burke was hanged for his murders. The charges against his wife were found not proven. Burke’s body was dissected and his skeleton is preserved in the anatomical museum of Edinburgh Medical School.

The trial’s revelations of Knox’s involvement as the recipient of corpses enraged the mob who rioted outside his house. The scandal grew apace and forced the College of Surgeons to act. Though a committee cleared him of any wrongdoing, he was pressured to resign and he did so in 1831.

He continued with his anatomy classes in Edinburgh and Glasgow but in 1847 the College of Surgeons discovered he had falsified a student’s attendance record for a payment, and while not banning him, they made it impossible for Knox to continue working in Scotland.

He moved to London where he wrote medical journalism and several books, including one that very nearly beat Charles Darwin to the theory of evolution. In 1856 he was appointed pathological anatomist to the Free Cancer Hospital and worked there almost until his death on December 20, 1862.

Knox is commemorated in literature and film, via The Anatomist, a play written by James Bridie which was turned into a film starring Alistair Sim as Knox. Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story The Bodysnatcher is partly based on Knox, and it, too, was made into a film in 1945 with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi as its stars.

Children still learn the old verse about Knox:

Up the close and down the stair,

In the house with Burke and Hare.

Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief

Knox, the man who buys the beef.