PRICELESS anatomical sketches by Leonardo da Vinci will be the highlight of a major new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland next summer.

Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life, will examine the social and medical history surrounding the practice of dissection of human bodies. It looks at Edinburgh’s role as an international centre for medical study and offers insight into the links between science and crime in the early 19th century.

Covering 500 years of medical ­exploration, Anatomy opens with early examples of anatomical art, including sketches by Leonardo da Vinci, lent by the Queen from the Royal Collection. These ­introduce the search for understanding about the human body and anatomy’s place in the development of medical knowledge across Europe.  

There was another side to anatomy, especially in the early 19th century. In 1828, William Burke and William Hare killed 16 people in the impoverished Edinburgh district of the West Port and sold the bodies to an anatomist, Dr Robert Knox, for dissection.

Burke was hanged for murder, but Hare gave evidence for the Crown and fled from Scotland, never to be seen again. Burke’s skeleton and written confession will be on display.

The exhibition examines the ­circumstances that gave rise to the murders and asks why they took place in Edinburgh. It unpicks the relationship between science and deprivation and looks at the public reaction to the crimes and the anatomical practices responsible for them.

On display will be a “mort safe”; a heavy iron box placed over a coffin to deter would-be body snatchers. ­Other notable objects in the exhibition ­include a full-body anatomical model by model pioneer Louis ­Auzoux and ground-breaking casts of body parts.

Dr Tacye Phillipson, senior curator of modern science at National Museums Scotland, said: “Anatomical knowledge is crucial to medicine, and Edinburgh was a key centre for medical teaching and the development of modern medicine.

“However, this work relied on the dissection of bodies, the sourcing of which was often controversial and distressing. Anatomists could only get the quantity of bodies they wanted through dehumanising the dead and financing a murky industry.”