My Medico-Legal Edinburgh

Burke’s death mask (Wikimedia Commons)

As an academic medical lawyer, my day job involves teaching about the regulation of the human body, of what can and can not be consented to by way of medical treatment, or what can or can not be done with the human body or its parts.

My own experience of Edinburgh began a quarter of a century ago, in Old College, home to the Law School of the University of Edinburgh. And that is where our journey begins, along the thread of permissibility and admissibility of the use of the human body.

Old College at one time housed the Medical School, or more specifically the anatomy lecture theatre. In the floor of an office I once used as a PhD student, at the north west basement corner directly below that lecture theatre, there was a trapdoor that from time to time attracted television crews, like bees to sugar.  

Once opened, the trapdoor revealed a tunnel once used for the delivery of cadavers, for dissection in the lecture theatre above it, a theatre now named the Adam Lecture Theatre, after Robert Adam (1728-1792), architect of the building, along with William Playfair, who took over after Adam’s death. As part of the recent gutting and refurbishment of the interior, the tunnel is now within the new law library; it has been exposed and glazed, in the same way as archaeological features often are.

A dependency on the bodies of those sentenced to dissection, along with those who had died in the workhouse, if unclaimed for 48 hours, meant that demand began to outstrip supply. The next domino to fall was an increase in incidences of ‘body snatching’, to sell corpses to medical schools. Until the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832, a licence was not required to dissect bodies. The passage of the Act was spurred by public disquiet at body-snatching. Yet interfering with a grave was a mere misdemeanour attracting a fine or brief jail term, rather than a crime attracting a capital sentence or transportation to Australia. The relatively low penalty increased the incidence rate of body snatching. And yet even that was not enough, so characters like the infamous Burke and Hare – we will hear more of them, and their trial, later – increased their earnings by bolstering supply, through what became known as the West Port murders after the address of their final victim.

In the 18th century, the most likely source of cadavers was those executed by hanging at the gibbet in the Grassmarket, taken up along Horse Wynd, and delivered to Old College on Chambers Street. As doing so was a matter of utmost discretion, given the complicity between anatomists and cadaver suppliers, bodies were delivered through the tunnel, destined for the anatomy lecture theatre above it.

As you walk west along Chambers Street from Old College, past the National Museum of Scotland on your left towards the Sheriff Court on your right, you will pass what was until 1886 the site of the Phrenological Museum, at 25 Chambers Street. Although a lawyer by trade, George Combe (1788-1858) was a spokesman for a movement that, whatever its current status as a pseudo-science, was among the first to consider that the mind is located in the brain – a mind that wills an action, the mens rea remains a fundamental element of the criminal law, describing and testing the mental element of the crime alleged.

Unless you would like to visit Greyfriar’s Cemetery across the road ahead of you, after the Sheriff Courts, turn right along George IV Bridge, and right again along the Royal Mile. That takes us past Advocate’s Close to the High Court. That is where the highest court in Scotland will sit, to hear criminal cases such as the murders committed by William Burke and William Hare, and the so-called World’s End murders. Although technically sitting in Livingston at the time, the Burke and Hare trial followed 16 murders committed in less than a year, the corpses destined for sale to Robert Knox (1791-1862) for use in his anatomy lectures

Although both had committed the murders, the lack of evidence was addressed by Hare turning King’s Evidence against Burke in exchange for immunity. That led to the conviction of Hare for the suffocation – established at post mortem examination – of Margaret Docherty. In a turn of poetic justice, Burke was sentenced to be hanged and his body publicly dissected. His skeleton, and the death masks of both Williams, is still displayed at the last stop of our tour: the Surgeons Hall Museum.

As you continue down the High Street with the High Court on your right, you pass the site of the College Dispensary at Fountain Close. Established in the 17th century by the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, to provide medical services to the poor, it was eventually amalgamated with the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, which was opened in 1729.

A short distance further, on the corner of the Royal Mile and St. Mary Street, you come to the World’s End pub. The so-called World’s End murders led to a conviction on the basis of DNA, and was made possible by The Double Jeopardy (Scotland) Act 2011, which repealed the double-jeopardy law, under which an accused could not be tried twice for the same crime. That was an Act of Scottish Parliament, situated further down the High Street (my employer for more than a decade, before my return to Old College), opposite Holyrood Palace. The World’s End case involved the abduction and murder of two teenage girls, Helen Scott and Christine Eadie, on 15 October 1977, last seen leaving the pub. Angus Sinclair was initially acquitted of the murder charge, but following his retrial was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 37 years.

At the World’s End pub, walk down St Mary’s Street and then right onto the Cowgate. On your left, on the corner with High School Wynd, lies the distinctly unattractive City Mortuary, which is still the site for anatomical examinations following suspicious or unexplained deaths. It is where I attended my first post-mortem examination, as part of a short course in medicine and pathology, with Professor Anthony Busuttil who led on the forensic examinations following the Lockerbie disaster. It was perhaps not dissimilar to that conducted on Margaret Docherty, insofar as the death, in this case of a man with DNR written on his chest in blue biro, was unexplained without the examination, though perhaps also without the sense of spectacle favoured by 18th century anatomists.

If you had continued west along the Cowgate, you could have turned right up Niddry Street, to the site of the Oyster Club at No. 8-12, a dining club established by the physician and chemist Joseph Black (1728-1799) along with the economist Adam Smith (1723-1790), and the geologist James Hutton (1726-1797). Joseph Black is buried at Greyfriar’s Cemetery.

From the mortuary on High School Wynd, turn right onto Infirmary Street: yes, a former Victorian infirmary with an interesting history, that opened in 1741 under the patronage of George II, but expanded through the Victorian era, to take up much of the space between Infirmary Street and Drummond Street, before it moved to Lauriston Place in 1879. That will take you full circle back to the main entrance to Old College, and its unusual stone pillars – unusual being not segmented, but of single columns of sandstone some 8-9 metres in length.

But don’t stop there; turn left onto South Bridge, and a block and a half later you will come to the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, which houses the publicly accessible Surgeons Hall Museum, itself host to the death masks of Burke and Hare, and the preserved skeleton of Burke.