An Intriguing Visit to a Macabre Museum

The Surgeon’s Hall Museum, under the jurisdiction of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, Scotland, houses one of the most significant, and possibly the oldest and most macabre, surgical and pathology collections in the world. With its objects, images and artworks tracing the history of surgery right from Roman times through to the present day, this is certainly no run-of-the-mill museum.

The superbly preserved neo-classical building that houses the museum collection was designed by renowned Scottish architect, William Henry Playfair, and was constructed between 1829 and 1832. Included in the collections on display are human and anatomical specimens dating from the late 18th century, as well as the history of the discovery of antiseptics and anesthesia. A plethora of surgical instruments are on display – from ancient times through to modern day.

Visitors will discover fascinating facts on pioneering dentistry and the development of false teeth, which is believed to have started way back in 700 BC when dentures were made out of human teeth (pulled out of corpses by grave robbers), animal teeth, as well as being carved from bone or ivory – a practice which continued until around the mid-19th century. If nothing else, visitors will leave the museum with new-found respect and gratitude for modern dentistry.

The Surgeon’s Hall Museum also houses a display on the infamous Burke and Hare murders (also referred to as the West Port murders), including a pocketbook made from the skin of William Burke. A series of 17 murders were carried out in Edinburgh during 1827 and 1828 by William Burke and William Hare. They sold their victim’s corpses to Dr. Robert Knox at the Edinburgh Medical College, who dissected them in the name of medical research. Knox’s career, and previously good reputation, was left in shreds when his dealings with Burke and Hare came to light. Hare testified against Burke, and Burke was hanged, dissected and displayed, bringing an end to a series of killings that shocked society at the time. In spite of public uproar, Knox was not prosecuted, but never again practiced as a surgeon.

Relating to modern times, the museum has a section that is devoted to “Sport, Surgery and Well Being”, where visitors are encouraged to try their hand at being a surgeon with the use of a state-of-the-art keyhole surgery-training unit – not as easy as one may think!

The Surgeon’s Hall Museum is without a doubt fascinating, but may prove unsettling for some people. It is not recommended for children under ten years of age and under-16s must be accompanied by an adult.