Robert Knox MD FRCSEd FRSEd lived from 4 September 1791 to 20 December 1862. He was a surgeon and anatomist whose reputation was ruined through his involvement with the bodysnatchers, Burke and Hare. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Robert Knox was born the eighth child of a teacher in Edinburgh. He was educated at Edinburgh's Royal High School before progressing, in 1810, to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. While there he studied anatomy under the eminent anatomist John Barclay. Robert graduated in 1814 and practiced for a year at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London before joining the army as an assistant surgeon, working in Belgium. In April 1817 he was attached to the 72nd Highlanders in South Africa, where he served until 1820.
In October 1821 he went to France, where he studied anatomy for just over a year under Georges Cuvier and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Knox returned to Edinburgh in late 1822, and the following year was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He subsequently proposed the establishment of a Museum of Comparative Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and served as its curator. In 1826, Knox became principal of the highly successful Barclay's Anatomy School in Surgeon's Square, Edinburgh.
At the time, the study of anatomy in the UK suffered from a serious problem: the only legally available corpses for anatomical study were those of prisoners condemned to death. The result was a widespread epidemic of body-snatching by professional teams known as "resurrectionists", who dug up freshly interred corpses for onward sale to anatomy schools. Many graveyards still have mortsafes or watch-houses from this era designed to deter body snatchers.
Robert Knox probably dealt with resurrectionists throughout his career, like just about every other academic anatomist in the UK. His downfall came through the activities of Burke & Hare, who made the bodysnatching process more efficient, doing away with the need to dig up corpses by the simple expedient of killing people and selling their bodies. In November 1827, Knox paid £7 for their first body, of a pensioner who had died naturally. For subsequent corpses, Knox paid up to £15, depending on condition and freshness. Burke and Hare murdered 17 people before being caught.
Knox was never prosecuted for his part in the scandal, which in 1832 led directly to the passing of the Anatomy Act, opening up the legal supply of corpses and ended the era of the body-snatchers. He was, however, widely reviled in Edinburgh. In 1842, after the death of his wife, he moved to London in an attempt to restart his career. He eventually gained a post as an anatomist in 1856, spending most of the intervening time producing articles for medical journals, giving lectures, and writing books on a range of subjects from anthropology to fishing. He died in 1862 and was buried at Brookwood Cemetery near Woking.