Many ironies surround the life and body of Robert Knox. Unlike the 16 people who William Burke and William Hare murdered and sold to anatomist Robert Knox for use in his teaching facilities, Knox died of natural causes. Knox’s corpse was buried in tact in 1862, over 30 years after he and his underlings had dismembered and pickled the victims of Burke and Hare.
Historian Lisa Rosner writes, “Robert Knox has been an enigma since his purchase of Burke’s and Hare’s cadavers was first made public.” How could a man of medicine be involved in a series of cold-blooded killings? How could a brilliant scientist fail to notice or suspect that the remarkably fresh bodies on his dissection table had been the victims of foul play? Was Knox, “the boy who buys the beef,” a villain or a fool? History rarely gives simple either-or answers to these questions.
It’s important to note that although Dr. Robert Knox kept research and education facilities on Edinburgh’s Surgeon’s Square, “he was not a surgeon in the modern sense,” as Rosner says. Knox had no formal training in surgery. He did not actually treat or operate on living patients, nor did he perform autopsies on their remains to determine the causes of their deaths. So he was not as familiar with human illnesses and injuries as we might imagine. Most of Burke’s and Hare’s victims had been killed a way that left little evidence of violence. The best pathologist or criminal investigators of the day might not have noticed any cause for concern.
Still, Knox was well-known as a scientist with a keen mind. In retrospect, some of the circumstances surrounding the availability of the new subjects should have seemed a bit odd to him. One corpse was young and in unusually good condition. Another resembled a man who had just gone missing. A few showed signs of anomalous injury, perhaps related to being hastily stuffed into a bag, box, or tea chest for delivery. None of these oddities tickled Knox’s scientific brain. Something limited his curiosity to the physical structures of the cadavers, and if his mind ever strayed to thoughts of the lives of the people whose bodies were laid before him, he didn’t speak of it.
If Knox was a villain, perhaps his greatest sin was over-reaching ambition. He made a profit off his purchases from Burke and Hare in the form of tuition from his anatomy students, but knowledge seemed more valuable to him than money. “I would rather be the discoverer of one fact in science than have a fortune bestowed upon me,” he once said. Knox seems to fit the stereotype of the myopic scientist who is so focused on discovery and fame that he never questions the ethics of his research.
Many of Knox’s defenders said that he, too, was a victim Burke and Hare. This characterization of events seems to fit into Knox’s racial views–two Celtic thugs had tricked the unwitting yet dominant Saxon into buying twice-stolen goods. After the Burke and Hare were arrested and the world learned of their deeds, Knox went on to give popular lectures on race and anthropology and to publish books on those subjects, but dreams of becoming a star scientist in the tradition of Georges Cuvier were as good as “burked.”
More details on the career of Dr. Robert Knox and the impact of the Burke and Hare case on anatomical research can be found in The Anatomy Murders
Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh’s Notorious Burke and Hare and of the Man of Science Who Abetted Them in the Commission of Their Most Heinous Crimes by