Burke's skeleton to human body parts: New app opens up University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Collections

| 17 May 2016

A free app offering a virtual tour of the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum and historic Old Medical School building at Teviot Place - and the fascinating objects it contains - has been released

a photo of a skeleton in a museum filled with anatomical models
The University's Anatomical Museum opened in 1884 at the heart of the new Medical School building© Courtesy University of Edinburgh Anatomical Collections
The app, which went live yesterday, places treasures from Scotland’s medical past on display to global audiences for the first time.

Opening up areas of the Museum and Old Medical School building that are not usually accessible to the public, the collection includes artefacts from the skull room, which contains more than 1,500 skulls from around the world.

Users can select individual objects to learn more about their history, including the skeleton of infamous serial killer William Burke, who was hanged and publicly dissected in 1829 for his part in the notorious West Port murders.

Other attractions include life and death masks of celebrated figures from history such as Oliver Cromwell, Sir Walter Scott and Napolean Bonaparte. The online collection also includes preserved body parts, a tour of the atmospheric spaces of the collection and 3-d zoom facilities.

See a selection of the objects below:

Skeleton of William Burke

a multi-dimensional photograph of a human skeleton
Skeleton of William Burke© Courtesy University of Edinburgh Anatomical Collections
William Burke was a serial killer hanged in 1829 for his part in the West Port Murders. Burke and his partner William Hare murdered at least 16 people, selling the bodies to Dr Robert Knox for the teaching of anatomy. They were eventually caught when somebody recognised one of the bodies as ‘Daft Jamie’, who was well known in the area.

After their arrest, Hare was persuaded to give evidence against Burke and allowed to flee. Burke was found guilty of the crimes and hanged in the Lawnmarket. His sentence included that he be publically dissected and his skeleton has remained in the University’s anatomical collections ever since. It is not known what became of Hare but records suggest he may have returned to Ireland.


Blood vessels of the head and neck

a model showing blood vessels around the head and neck
Blood vessels of the head and neck© Courtesy University of Edinburgh Anatomical Collections
The blood vessels of the original skull have been filled with wax. The surrounding tissue was corroded away using chemicals to reveal a three-dimensional network of blood vessels. This model dates from the 19th century and is one of many in the collection of the Anatomical Museum.


Anatomical cast of the thorax

a wax model of a throat
Anatomical cast of the thorax© Courtesy University of Edinburgh Anatomical Collections
This colourful plaster cast model dates from the early 20th century and is part of a larger set that was used to teach anatomy to thousands of medical students at the University of Edinburgh.


Dermatome man

a large anatomical model of a man
Dermatome man© Courtesy University of Edinburgh Anatomical Collections
Dermatome man offers an anatomical map of areas of skin that are served by individual spinal nerves. Models like this were used to help study the distribution of muscles or nerves and were often found in the Medical Schools of the late Victorian period.


Disarticulated skull

a photo of a skull which has been separated to show its component parts
Disarticulated skull© Courtesy University of Edinburgh Anatomical Collections
This skull is believed to be from around the early 20th century and is sometimes referred to as an ‘exploded skull’. The disarticulation of the skull and the subsequent mounting of the individual bones required a specific anatomical knowledge and technical skill which required a very close collaboration between anatomists and artists.


Wax eye

a photo of a wax eye in a wax cheek and nose model
Wax eye© Courtesy University of Edinburgh Anatomical Collections
This 'Wax Eye' model dates from the late 19th or early 20th century. This particular model shows the meticulous detail the model makers went to for anatomical correctness. It shows very clearly the nerves emerging from above and below the orbit to supply the skin around the eye with sensory fibres.

The quality of these wax models has not been superseded - even with the advent of computer technology and 3D printing of anatomical models.


Skull of George Buchanan

a photo of a skull inside a specimen jar
Skull of George Buchanan© Courtesy University of Edinburgh Anatomical Collections
This skull of George Buchanan (1506-1582) was part of the University’s original ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’. Buchanan was a Scottish historian and humanist scholar whose pupils included a young King James VI of Scotland.


Phrenology Tools

a photo of brass measuring tools next to a bronze cast of a skull
Phrenology Tools© Courtesy University of Edinburgh Anatomical Collections
Phrenological tools used to measure skulls in the 19th century. The Anatomical Museum contains the collection of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society; this includes tools, instruments, artwork as well as life and death masks of both infamous and famous people from throughout history.



What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three anatomical collections to see

, Swansea
The current exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: Ten Drawings from the Royal Collection, features a double-sided page from a notebook of anatomical studies, including the heart compared to a seed and the vessels of the liver, spleen and kidneys, from around 1508. Until January 6 2017.

, Newcastle and Gateshead
From goats to giraffes, elephants to eels and octopuses to ostriches, embark on an anatomical safari in the current Animal Inside Out exhibition, exploring more than 100 real animal specimens. Until January 3 2017.

, Glasgow
The permanent exhibition, William Hunter: Man, Medic and Collector, explores the museum founder's personal and professional life and highlights both his passion for collecting and his hugely successful career as a royal physician, outstanding teacher of anatomy and surgery and pioneering scientific researcher.
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