Human remains to be used in anatomy lectures for first time in more than a century


HUMAN remains are to be used in public anatomy lectures for the first time in 132 years.

The University of Edinburgh is offering the public a “hands-on” experience in a dissection laboratory – the first of its kind since the murderous scandal of Burke and Hare meant autopsies were held behind closed doors.

The six workshops will begin next month, starting with instruction on the “upper limb”.

The classes, aimed to take the mystery out of medicine, will cost £100 a day and will enable the public to “get under the skin to the real flesh and bones of anatomy”.

Burke' skin was made into a pocket book
Burke’ skin was made into a pocket book


Observers will only get to watch at close quarters and there is no suggestion ghoulish guests will be handed a scalpel.

Anatomy lectures featuring human cadavers were once such an enormous public attraction fresh bodies were worth a fortune and notorious Edinburgh duo William Burke and William Hare murdered to meet the demand.

The scandal meant that after 1832, dissection of bodies legally had to be done in private.

Professor Tom Gillingwater, in charge of neuroanatomy at Edinburgh University, said: “If you go back to the early 1800s, the public were more clued up on anatomy than they are now.

“Back then, dissection was done publicly. You could buy tickets. For some it was entertaining, but for others it was a way of feeding curiosity and finding out what was going on.

“We want people who have reason to learn more anatomy to do so legally, safely and with the right level of instruction, in an expert environment with access to actual human material.”

After introductory lectures and discussions, participants will be issued with lab coats and plastic gloves, and expected to work in an atmosphere thick with the smell of embalming fluid.

Burke was hanged for his part in the scandal that stopped public autopsies


Prof Gillingwater added: “The cadaveric material allows you to see bones with ligaments attached or the muscles all around it, the nerves supply, the blood vessels, to see whole functioning upper limbs.

“People will be looking at handling arms. They won’t be expected to physically dissect.”

In the 19th Century, Robert Knox held public lectures at Edinburgh’s medical school which could attract up to 500 people a time – but he could not find enough corpses to keep going.

He became embroiled with Hare and Burke, who suffocated 16 victims over two years to meet his needs.

The trio’s antics were discovered by police. Hare gave evidence against Burke, who was hanged in front of a crowd of 20,000 – before being publicly dissected the following day.

Knox was perhaps fortunate to escape with nothing worse than a ruined reputation.

As a direct result, the Anatomy Act was passed in 1932, confining dissections to medical schools.

However, the passing of the Human Tissue (Scotland) Act 2006 has smoothed the path to the new lectures, which are designed to deal “ethically and appropriately” with human remains from among about 100 corpses bequeathed every year to the medical school.

Future workshops are dedicated to lower limb, the nervous system and back, the chest, the abdomen and pelvis and the head and neck.

Ian Rankin with the masks of Burke and Hare
Ian Rankin with the masks of Burke and Hare


Lunch and refreshments are provided, and keen students can book a six-session season ticket for the price of five events.

Advertising has so far been restricted to a notice on the anatomy department website, and a discreet mention on the university’s Twitter feed.

Nonetheless, staff have been delighted with the response, with interest from prospective medical students, artists with curiosity about the human body and professionals such as physiotherapists and massage therapists.

“Anatomy education is about so much more than learning facts,” said Professor Gillingwater. “It is, for example, about dealing with death. If you are having to handle a body, this is someone who was a living, breathing person, perhaps once a relative of someone who lived locally.

“You need to show respect and the level of emotional awareness and maturity to handle that.”

All applicants for the workshop will be vetted by the department, to check their motivations and background. Asked whether the process would weed out freaks, Professor Gillingwater conceded: “That’s the subtext.”

There was great controversy surrounding a live television autopsy in 2002, when a German professor performed a public dissection on Channel 4.

Gunther von Hagens went ahead with the post-mortem despite a backdrop of public protest and the threat of arrest.

The professor reduced the body of a 72-year-old German man to a heap of organs and a deflated pile of skin in front of his audience. Critics branded the show “grotesque” and “degrading”, and there were over 30 complaints from members of the public.