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  You are in: Home > Biography > The Anatomy of Robert Knox  
 

The Anatomy of Robert Knox
Murder, Mad Science and Medical Regulation in Nineteenth-Century Edinburgh

A.W. Bates

A.W. Bates read anatomy, embryology and the history of medicine, gaining a PhD from Queen Mary College and an MD from UCL, where he is honorary senior lecturer in pathology. He has taught topographical and pathological anatomy in London for more than 20 years. His first book on medical history, Emblematic Monsters, was published in 2005.

 


Robert Knox is now remembered chiefly as the Edinburgh doctor who dissected corpses supplied by Burke and Hare. His contemporaries knew him as the most celebrated anatomist in Britain, the author of a controversial book on race, and a radical natural philosopher with revolutionary ideas, who taught a generation of medical students that species and races were produced by the operation of biological laws, independent of design or providence. Though he did not achieve the theoretical breakthrough he hoped for, his writings offered a challenging alternative to Darwinism that anticipated later theories of rapid evolution.

This academic biography is the first to examine the influence of Knox’s radical upbringing, Parisian training and ethnological studies in the Cape Colony on the development of his ‘higher’ anatomy, which traced the multifarious forms of the animal kingdom to an ideal body plan supposedly common to all. New evidence is presented that the subsequent decline in his career, often attributed to the murder for dissection scandal, was a consequence of his opposition to the 1832 Anatomy Act and his refusal to comply with state regulation of anatomy schools. His uncompromising position is shown to have inspired the portrayal of anatomy in fiction – where Knox appears more often than any other British doctor – as a savage and ungovernable science.

The book will appeal to all those interested in the far-reaching influence of Knox's anatomy on nineteenth-century medicine, evolutionary theory, aesthetics, physical anthropology, and the representation of anatomical science in popular culture.



List of Illustrations, Foreword & Acknowledgements

Introduction

chapter one
The Darling Boy of the Family, 1791–1810

chapter two
A Beautiful but Seductive Science, 1810–1814

chapter three
Hospital Assistant, 1815–1820

chapter four
Parisian Anatomy, 1821–1822

chapter five
Museum Medicine, 1823–1825

chapter six
Knox Primus et Incomparabilis, 1825–1828

chapter seven
The West Port Murders, 1828–1829

chapter eight
A Nation of Cannibals

chapter nine
The Most Popular Teacher in Our Metropolis, 1830–1836

chapter ten
A Scandalous Monopoly, 1836–1840

chapter eleven
Nature’s High Priest, 1840–1844

chapter twelve
Popular Anatomy, 1845–1848

chapter thirteen
The Races of Men, 1848–1851

chapter fourteen
A Great Scheme of Nature

chapter fifteen
Distrust Your Genius, 1851–1855

chapter sixteen
The Hideous Interior

chapter seventeen
Organic Harmonies, 1855–1862

chapter eighteen
Science Run Mad

Notes
Bibliography


“This volume not only gives us unique insight into the society of early 19th century Scotland, the professional jealousies which existed at the time, and insight into the horrors of the surgery of warfare, but an insight into anatomy as the most important science supporting surgery just before the anaesthetic and antiseptic revolutions. It is entirely appropriate that more than 150 years after his death, anatomy is being reinvented as a study critically important to this generation of undergraduates and postgraduates. The volume tells us a great deal of his strengths and weaknesses, his refusal to conform when this would undermine his principles... Knox is now being restored as one of the most distinguished surgical anatomists in the history of Edinburgh surgery.” From the Foreword by The President of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, Mr John Orr

“Medical historian Bates tells the story of Robert Knox, a polyglot and polymath considered one of the most outstanding anatomists of his time. His popularity as a dynamic anatomy lecturer and dissection demonstrator was known throughout Scotland. To fulfill the requirements for the surgeon's certificate, students were required to spend nine months on dissections. Conditions within laboratories were abominably foul, polluted with human remains and decay. Bodies were in short supply, and the murderous offerings of William Burke and William Hare put Robert Knox in the limelight and triggered the Anatomy Act to control acquisition of corpses. A stubborn iconoclast and prodigious investigator, Knox published nearly 100 papers on dissections. Of his many books, The Races of Man (1850) sought to explain how new species originated. His transcendental philosophy firmly advocated the linkage of man by structure and plan to all past and future life. He also published A Manual of Artistic Anatomy (1852) and a 600-page human anatomy work. Using primary sources, Bates knits together the life and times of a foremost 19th-century anatomist, allowing readers to comprehend the intrigues, politics, and personal quirks of key individuals, situations that remain remarkably similar today. Recommended.” Choice


Reviews from the British Society for the History of Medicine website (http://www.bshm.org.uk/books.htm)

“This very fully researched book by A. W. Bates give a very full description of the life of Robert Knox, and the times in which he lived. It has a comprehensive bibliography, a detailed index and is well annotated. It will be of immense use to the serious student of medical history.” Dr Ann Ferguson

“The book gives a detailed, thoughtful account of the life of Robert Knox from his birth in 1791 until his death in 1862, a period in which new, radical ideas were in the air. Anatomists interested in the higher, philosophical or transcendental level of their subject were grappling with the problem of the formation of new species independent of design or providence and from an early stage Knox was attracted to the subject. During his military service as a hospital assistant he was posted to Waterloo then the Cape of Good Hope where he developed a lifelong interest in comparative anatomy and the races of man. Later Knox studied anatomy in Paris where he was influenced by the theories of Geoffroy and Cuvier. In Edinburgh Knox began to teach and write and, eventually, took over an anatomy school. He was a brilliant lecturer. He taught the theory of a common vertebrate plan to medical students and interspersed his talk and demonstration of descriptive anatomy with a discussion of comparative anatomy, embryology and the transcendental (a kind of nature mysticism). Dissection was anticipated to give information on the origins and inter-relationships of animals and man, and interest became overwhelming. Much later Knox was portrayed as a doctor who whipped up such enthusiasm for anatomy that it became ‘a science run mad’. Certainly between 1826 and1834 the average number of students in Knox's class was 335; students paid an additional fee to be guaranteed ‘subjects’ to dissect. Inevitably Burke and Hare became a supplier of bodies to the school. The scandal of the Westport murders of 1828–9 and his delight in witty but scathing comments on the work of his contemporaries contributed to the failure of Knox to obtain a University appointment. The passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act and Knox's opposition to its implementation led eventually to the decline of his anatomy school. The centre of anatomy teaching moved from Edinburgh to London. Knox moved too and in London he turned to public lecturing and writing, including major works on the races of man, on art and anatomy, the history of transcendental anatomy and a manual of human anatomy.

Throughout the book Alan Bates sets the scene of contemporary life. The reader is introduced to life in Edinburgh, to the leading anatomists of the day, French, Scottish and English, to current theories of the formation of new species and, finally, to Darwin. Although Knox, now near the end of his life, never accepted Darwin’s evolutionary theory he stopped writing about transcendental anatomy. A sense of the complex personality of Knox develops, ambitious, gifted and flawed – capable of deep love for his wife and children and zeal for his subject, anatomy, but also of hiding his ‘socially inferior’ family and of ignoring the mathematics of the supply of bodies. Alan Bates draws on numerous sources, 59 publications by Knox are included in the bibliography, in describing the contribution of Robert Knox to anatomy, both descriptive and philosophical, as his reputation as a leading surgical anatomist is being restored. Those interested in the history of human anatomy, in social history and in anthropology will find a wealth of information within.” Dr Barbara Hawgood

“The book documents Knox’s life from birth (1791) to death (1862) and explores his childhood, medical schooling, military service at Waterloo and in Africa, and then his time in Paris, Edinburgh and finally London. It offers a unique insight into Knox’s variable and shifting personality, including his appreciation of satirical humour, his somewhat non-conformist ways and his rather mixed relationships with colleagues. The text is comprehensively researched, sporting an extensive bibliography that greatly tempts the reader into further exploring the subject matter, whilst also being wonderfully informative about nineteenth-century society.

For me, though, one of the most interesting aspects of the book was the various references to medical teaching and the discovery that Knox was at the forefront of promoting the importance of anatomy as a foundation of medical science – something I would have to agree with, but am inclined to think may have been overlooked in recent times.” From The Bulletin of The Royal College of Pathologists by Dr Kerryanne McEwan, Consultant Forensic Pathologist, Department of Forensic Medicine and Science, University of Glasgow

“Robert Knox is known today, if he is known at all, as the Edinburgh anatomist who was at the receiving end of the bodies supplied by the notorious West Port murderers William Burke and William Hare between 1827 and 1828. There is still some debate about how much Knox knew of the origins of his anatomical subjects, although he was exonerated of all wrongdoing at the time. But as A. W. Bates demonstrates in his new biography of Knox, there was much more to his life than this incident.

Born in 1791, Knox’s life spanned the heyday of proprietary anatomy schools in Britain and their decline. As Adrian Desmond has shown in his book on the London scene, The Politics of Evolution (1989), anatomists in the 1820s and 1830s were caught up in radical politics alongside new and conflicting theories of human and animal form and descent. Knox was at the center of these debates in Edinburgh.

In the eighteenth century, the University of Edinburgh’s medical school was known as one of the best in Europe, second only to Leiden, and its anatomy teaching, under Alexander Monro primus and his son secundus, was second to none. By the early nineteenth century, however, Alexander Monro tertius was not up to the task, and the resulting vacuum in anatomical instruction was filled by a number of fiercely competitive private instructors. Knox entered their ranks in the early 1820s, after a stint in the army that sent him to South Africa between 1817 and 1820 and then to Paris, the emerging new center of medical teaching. His additional training acquainted him with current ideas about race and colonialism as well as with the new theories of Georges Cuvier and Étienne Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire on comparative anatomy. Although Knox professed great admiration for Cuvier and his functionalist anatomy, he was more sympathetic to the views of Cuvier’s rival Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire, who promoted a transcendental anatomy influenced by Goethe and German naturphilosophie, arguing that all living things are based on a single morphological plan. Knox was, however, never a transformist and later opposed Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Knox became the most successful independent anatomy teacher in Edinburgh, well known for his advanced views as well as for his irascible temperament and vicious temper, which had already gotten him into trouble in South Africa. Bates, whose goal is to rehabilitate Knox from his bad reputation over the West Port murders, tends to gloss over this aspect of Knox once the scene shifts to Edinburgh, but he cannot disguise the fact that Knox had few friends and many enemies.” Victorian Studies

“As perhaps the most accomplished and flamboyant teacher in the Edinburgh medical school of the 1820s and 1830s, Knox made important contributions to the domestication of French transcendental anatomy in Britain, and he became widely known, particularly after his removal to London in 1846, for his lectures and writings on the formation of species and the origins of human races. His work as one of the leading anatomical theorists of the first half of the nineteenth century has accordingly been examined in some detail by a number of historians, most notably Evelleen Richards. Up until now, however, we have had no scholarly account of Knox’s life and career as a whole. Alan W. Bates is therefore to be thanked for his thoroughly researched and admirably readable biography of the man who, in the words of a contemporary song, ‘bought the beef’ from Burke and Hare.

Even without his involvement in the West Port murders, Knox’s life would have been a remarkable one. As a young army surgeon posted to South Africa, Knox’s disputatious personality first got him into serious trouble when he became entangled in a disagreement between officers that ended with him being horsewhipped, censured by a court of enquiry and shipped home on half pay. Bates makes a convincing case that it was the same personality flaw, rather than his association with Burke and Hare, that eventually led to the collapse of his Edinburgh teaching career and his removal to London. Indeed, Knox continued to teach in Edinburgh for ten years after the murders were exposed, and if anything his popularity with medical students seems to have been boosted by his notoriety. Rather, it was his obduracy in refusing to comply with the restrictions of the new Anatomy Act that led to the decline in his classes, while his penchant for voicing contrarian opinions and antagonizing the leaders of the local medical establishment was to blame for his failure to secure a chair in the university medical school. Following his removal to London, he continued to make an adequate, if not always comfortable, living as a lecturer, author and, latterly, pathologist to the Cancer Hospital at Brompton. Fired by an obvious sympathy for this difficult man, Bates tells Knox’s story with skill and flair, making eminent sense of his sometimes obscure anatomical philosophizing, and ultimately vindicating his claim to be considered one of the most provocative biological thinkers of his time.” The British Journal for the History of Science

“Wonder, terror, and destitution combined perfectly to create the society in which Dr. Knox and the notorious murderers – and I believe the two couples, not just the two men, combined in a household enterprise – formed a system that efficiently and dispassionately put bodies on tables for young anatomy students. The system with all its components – anatomists, enterprising laborers, the government’s blind eye as well as Knox’s, dislocated poor people – fit beautifully and worked well. Anatomy, empirical and hands-on since the Enlightenment, had become the basis for surgery in medical training. Young men, especially during and after the Napoleonic wars, flocked to medical schools and found careers as army surgeons. The demand for subjects for the teaching of anatomy and for student practice skyrocketed; students and lecturers found it too dangers to dig up their own corpses; and the demand for goods that were in very short legal supply ultimately created body-snatching gangs and a small industry in cemetery guards, alarms, and fencing. Prices rose, and some lecturers in Britain may have paid as much as £20 for a dead body in the 1820s. Enter William Hare… All were sold to Knox.” The Journal of Modern History

“Even without his involvement in the West Port murders, Knox’s life would have been a remarkable one. As a young army surgeon posted to South Africa, Knox’s disputatious personality first got him into serious trouble when he became entangled in a disagreement between officers that ended with him being horsewhipped, censured by a court of enquiry and shipped home on half pay. Bates makes a convincing case that it was the same personality flaw, rather than his association with Burke and Hare, that eventually led to the collapse of his Edinburgh teaching career and his removal to London. Indeed, Knox continued to teach in Edinburgh for ten years after the murders were exposed, and if anything his popularity with medical students seems to have been boosted by his notoriety. Rather, it was his obduracy in refusing to comply with the restrictions of the new Anatomy Act that led to the decline in his classes, while his penchant for voicing contrarian opinions and antagonizing the leaders of the local medical establishment was to blame for his failure to secure a chair in the university medical school. Following his removal to London, he continued to make an adequate, if not always comfortable, living as a lecturer, author and, latterly, pathologist to the Cancer Hospital at Brompton. Fired by an obvious sympathy for this difficult man, Bates tells Knox’s story with skill and flair, making eminent sense of his sometimes obscure anatomical philosophizing, and ultimately vindicating his claim to be considered one of the most provocative biological thinkers of his time.” Steve Sturdy, University of Edinburgh



 

Publication Details

 
Hardback ISBN:
978-1-84519-381-2
 
 
Page Extent / Format:
240 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
 
Release Date:
January 2010
  Illustrated:   Yes
 
Hardback Price:
£39.95 / $74.95
 
 

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