Ghoulish relics from Edinburgh’s medical past to go on display

Burke's skeleton is just one of the items that will be in display (Picture by Kim Traynor)

A FACIAL cast of mass murderer William Burke taken shortly before his execution is to form part of an exhibition of medical artefacts.

The cast will be shown alongside Burke’s skeleton and his death mask at the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomy Museum.

Burke was hanged after he and his accomplice, William Hare, carried out at least 15 murders in the 1820s and sold the bodies on for use in anatomy teaching.

The display has been set up following a revamp of the Anatomy Museum, which is to open its doors to the public on a regular basis for the first time.

Burke’s life and death masks are among more than 40 masks – created from casts taken during people’s lifetime or after they died – on display. Historic faces on show include Sir Walter Scott, William Shakespeare, King George III and King George IV.

The Anatomy Museum will be open to the public on the last Saturday of each month, starting Saturday, 28 January, from 10am until 4pm.

The masks – which form one of the largest collections of life and death masks in the UK- are part of the William Ramsay Henderson Collection.

The use of such masks was popular in the 19th century owing to the now-discredited practice of phrenology – in which it was believed the shape and size of the skull could help explain a person’s mind, behaviour and abilities – and of which William Ramsay Henderson was a staunch supporter.


Other artefacts among the hundreds on display at the Anatomy Museum include anatomical teaching models from the 1800s – made of wax and wood – as well as later models made of plastic.

Exhibits also demonstrate similarities between humans and other mammals, in a field known as comparative anatomy. This includes an exhibit of a whale’s backbone alongside that of a human. There are also skulls from a polar bear and walrus and a gorilla’s skeleton.

Also on display is a preserved body from the late 1790s, alongside an etching carried out when the remains were embalmed.

The etching shows the body’s lymphatic system, with the artist identify the lymph nodes and tissues after the body had been injected with mercury.

Visitors to the museum at the Teviot Medical School, which was opened in 1884, will also be able to see the building’s historic anatomy lecture theatre.

Gordon Findlater, director of the Anatomy Department at the University of Edinburgh, said: “The museum provides a fascinating insight into how anatomy has progressed from the late 1700s to the present day. What is interesting, in terms of structures of the body, is that the majority of what we know now comes from the pioneering work of the 19th Century.”