Knox, Robert

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Knox, Robert

(b. Edinburgh, Scotland, 4 September 1793; d. Hackney, London, England, 20 December 1862)


Knox was the eighth child and fifth son of Robert Knox an Mary Sherer or Scherer, of German extraction. His father, who claimed kinsphip with John Knox, was a schoolmaster at George Heriot School in Edinburgh. For a time, following the outbreak of the French Revolution, the senior Knox had been connected with liberal prorevolutionary groups, but he broke with them before the government instituted repressive measures.

Young Robert was tutored at home until he entered Edinburgh High School at age twelve, where he was an honor student. After his graduation in 1810, he enrolled as a medical student at the University of Edinburgh. He stood for examination three years later but failed in anatomy, in part because Alexander Monro tertius, the official professor in the subject, was so bored with it that he was content to read his grandfather’s century-old lecture notes. To remedy his deficiency, Knox turned to studying with John Barclay, who ran an extramural school of anatomy. He not only passed the examination in 1814 but decided to make anatomy his area of special interest.

Knox’ doctoral dissertation on the effects of alcohol and other stimulants on the human body led him to conclude that alcohol was detrimental to long life. In later years he stated that he had only three rules of health: temperance, early rising, and frequent changes of linen. A case of smallpox in his youth left his face scarred and destroyed one of his eyes, leaving an ugly, raised cicatrix in the cornea. As a result he always wore glasses. He also had a reputation as an ornate and fastidious dresser, perhaps, as one biographer has suggested, to distract attention from his face.

After completing his studies at Edinburgh he went to London for further study, and was soon assigned as a hospital assistant with the British forces in Europe. He arrived in Brussels in time to administer to casualties from the Battle of Waterloo. Knox later publicly expressed shock and distress at the treatment of the wounded there, and went so far as to argue that it would have been preferable to tend the wounded in the open field since the mortality in the hospitals was overwhelming. He was soon sent back to England in charge of a party of wounded. In 1817 he set sail with the 72nd Regiment for the Cape of Good Hope.

During the voyage Knox measured the temperature of the ocean and of the “Superincumbent Atmosphere” three times daily, dissected sharks and dolphins, and studied the “action of the heart in fishes.” Results of his studies and experiments were published in the Edinburgh philosophical Journal as well as the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal; the latter journal had also published an article based upon his doctoral thesis.

In South Africa Knox participated in the fifth Kaffir War (with the Bantu), which ended in 1819, and spent much of his spare time studying the fauna and shooting and dissecting numerous animals. It was in South Africa that he demonstrated his tendency to irritate so many of his compatriots. Knox apparently had a very high opinion of his own talents and little tolerance for the views of others who he felt lacked his ability and dedication. He was also outspoken, acquiring a reputation as radical and an atheist. In South Africa he was regarded as pro-Bantu.

For reasons which are not clear (his own accounts are lost), Knox was censured by a court of inquiry in 1820for alleged actions against a fellow officer. He was also horsewhipped by a citizen who felt the censure was insufficient. The ambiguities of the case are compounded by the army’s having continued to keep him on half-pay after his return to Edinburgh until his retirement in 1832, even though he was never again on active duty.

After his return to Edinburgh, he published a series of articles in Scottish medical journals on his experiences in South Africa, dealing with various topics, for example, the Bantu, tapeworms, and necrosis and regeneration of the bone. In 1821 he went to Paris for further study with Georges Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint- Hilaire. His stay confirmed him in his admiration for Napoleon and things French, deepening his contempt for most of his Scottish predecessors and contemporaries.

Back in Edinburgh, by the end of 1822, Knox concentrated on the anatomy of the eye, and in 1823 published a study entitled “Observations on the Comparative Anatomy of the Eye,” in which he reasoned that it was a muscle and not a ligament that received the nerves governing vision. He also took steps to establish a museum of comparative anatomy, a project for which he received the backing of the Royal College of Surgeons. In 1825 Knox also made an agreement with John Barclay to take over his extramural school of anatomy.

In 1824 Knox married a woman named Mary, some four years younger than himself, by whom he had six children; her maiden name is not known. Henry Lonsdale, who eventually became his partner as well as his biographer, regarded Knox’s wife as of “inferior social rank,” and held that this marriage imperiled his career. Few of Knox’s friends and companions ever met her, and many thought him unmarried. His “acknowledged residence”(Lonsdale’s term) was with his mother and sisters, and his elder sister Mary acted as hostess for him. On the testimony of his son-in -law, however, Knox was devoted to his wife and family. She died in 1841 of puerperal fever following the birth of her sixth child. Most of Knox’s children died before him.

Knox was tremendously successful as an anatomy teacher. During the academic year 1828-1829 he had 504 students, and so popular were his lectures that he gave special Saturday lectures to the public. He demonstrated considerable showmanship in his lectures (and some of his peers were shocked when they discovered that he rehearsed them).

It was Knox’s very success that caused him trouble since, basing his opinion on his experience in France, he came to believe it essential for students to have their own cadavers to dissect. Cadavers were in short supply in Edinburgh, however, and had been for a century. Gangs of “Resurrectionists” robbed graves to sell bodies, and Edinburgh anatomists imported bodies from Ireland and even from London. While Knox attempted to gain Parliamentary sanction to acquire the unclaimed bodies of paupers, in the meantime he offered premium prices for cadavers regardless of source—once unknowingly paying for a corpse stolen from another dissecting room. He kept students on duty at night to receive the bodies, instructing them to ask no questions, and to pay the agreed fees in cash.

In November 1827 William Burke and William Hare, tenant and owner, respectively, of an Edinburgh rooming house, found the body of a tenant in one of their rooms ands sold to it Knox. They soon decided to make this their business, but instead of robbing graves, which they considered too dangerous, they turned to murder. During the next year they brought some sixteen bodies of victims whom they had murdered (through suffocation) to Knox’s anatomical school. In October 1828 a suspicious tenant reported their activities, ands authorities learned that a recently murdered corpse had been delivered to Knox’s school.

Burke was convicted, hanged, and turned over to Monro for dissection, but Hare, who had testified against him, was granted immunity by the prosecution. When Hare left the city, angry Edinburgh citizens, unable to get at him, hanged Knox in effigy; many of them regarded Knox as the patron and instigator of the crimes. Some professional colleagues, already antagonistic toward him, took the opportunity to dissociate themselves. A committee of his friends sponsored a private investigation which cleared him of any duplicity, and Knox announced the results in a letter to the press, his only public statement. His students supported him, giving him a gold vase as evidence of their support. The affair served to mobilize Parliament, which in 1832 finally passed an anatomy act allowing the use of unclaimed bodies of paupers for study.

But Knox remained under a cloud of suspicion, and although he was soon busy dissecting a whale, he apparently ceased to do any basic research on human anatomy. He continued to lecture, but his reputation was now such that in 1831 the Royal College of Surgeons encouraged his resignation as conservator of their museum; his attempts to gain a university appointment were in vain. The university began to apply restrictions against all extramural schools and his in particular. With his school declining he turned it over to Lonsdale and departed for London in 1842.

His notoriety having preceded him, Knox received a cold shoulder from the English surgical profession. In order to support himself he turned to medical journalism and to public lectures. He published extensively in the Lancet and lectured widely on such topics as the human races, publishing a book, Races of Men, in 1850.

In 1844 Knox went to Glasgow to lecture at the Portland Street School but left by the middle of the school year, apparently because of public hostility. His troubles deepened when in 1847 he was accused of signing a statement of attendance in1839-1840 for a student who could not possibly have been in his anatomy classes. Although he may simply have made an error, and although others involved in the case received no punishment, the Edinburgh College of Surgeons withdrew any accreditatoin from lectures given by Knox after 1847 until such time as they should be satisfied that he had answered the charges. His attempt to become an anatomy lecturer in London at a school set up by one of his supporters was thwarted by the actions of the Edinburgh College of Surgeons, as were his attempts to gain various government positions.

Knox finally managed, in 1856, to gain an appointment as pathological anatomist to the London Cancer Hospital, and settled down with his only surviving son, Edward, and his devoted sister, Mary, in the East End section of London. Here he built up a small practice and partially overcame his bitterness, and here he died.


I. Original Works.Knox wrote numerous books and hundreds of articles. Isobel Rae, his most recent biographer, calculated that his medical journalistic writings would fill several vols.

Several of his books went through more than one ed. His most successful were probably Races of Men (London, 1850, 2nd enlarged ed., 1862), Manual of Human Anatomy, Descriptive, General, and Practical) London, 1853), and Fish and Fishing in the Lone Glens of Scotland (London, 1854). He also translated several French anatomical and medical works including those of P. A. Béclard, Hippolyte Cloquet, L.A.J. Quetelet, H. Milne Edwards, and J. Fau.

Some of Knox’s early papers were published together under the title Memoirs Chiefty Anatomical and Physiological (Edinburgh, 1837). Other works include Great Artists and Great Anatomists (London, 1852), A Manual of Artistic Anatomy for the Use of Sculptors, Painters and Amateurs (London, 1852), and Man: His Structure and Physiology (London, 1857-1858). His greatest influence was probably through his students, who included John Goodsir and William Fergusson.

II. Secondary Literature. As one of the central figures in a cause célèbre, Knox was the focus of a play by James Bridie entitled The Anatomist, first produced in 1930 (London, 1931), and of a screenplay (published but never filmed) by Dylan Thomas entitled The Doctor and the Devils, Much about the Burke and Hare affair appears in Burke and Hare (London-Edinburgh, 1921, enlarged 1948), a volume in the Notable British Trial Series, William Roughead, ed. Of the many other accounts of the “Resurrectionists”, see James Moores Ball, The Sack’emup Men (Edinburgh-London, 1928).

There are two biographies of Knox, one by his former partner, Lonsdale, A Sketch of the Life and Writings of Robert Knox, the Anatomist (London, 1870); and, more recently, Isobel Rae, Knox: The Anatomist (Edinburgh, 1964). See also James A. Ross and Hugh W. Y. Taylor, “Robert Knox’s Catalogue”, in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 10 (1955), 269-276.

For a brief personal sketch by one of his students, see Lloyd G. Stevenson, “E. D. Worthington on Student Life in Edinburgh, with A Character Sketch of Robert Knox”, in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 19 (1964), 71-73. See also Douglas Guthrie, A History of Medicine (London, 1945).

Vern L. Bullough