FROM the earliest rise and development of medicine, its students have ever felt that its foundation and basis consisted in the study of Anatomy; and in so remote an age as the time of Hippocrates 400 years before the Christian era anatomy shared with Chemistry the chief place in the Physician;s curriculum and these two sciences composed the most of the education which was then attained to in place of the twelve to twenty departments of medicine required of the student to-day.
As it has been truly said, Medicine without anatomy is like a ship without a compass sailing on an unknown sea.
In all ages the necessity for anatomical knowledge has been recognized, but the dissection of the body by which such knowledge could be best attained has been dreaded by an ignorant public, and banned by a superstitious church, which has compelled such men as Vesalius- a foremost Anatomist of his day-to work with closed doors and windows in dread of the penalties of the Inquisition.
Let us look at the history of the subject in our own country and at a date nearer our own time.
At the commencement of last century the school of medicine in Edinburgh had attained a world-wide fame, and was in a very flourishing condition. Students flocked to it from every part of the world, chiefly attracted by the reputation which it enjoyed for the teaching of Anatomy. At that time Dr. Alex. Munro-the third of the name was Professor in the University, while Dr. Robert Knox taught in the Surgeons Hall, than whom there probably never lived a more popular or successful teacher of Anatomy.
Munro, on the contrary, was a somewhat pompous Professor, with a slow ponderous manner of lecturing. He was very shortsighted, and had one leg shorter than the other, for which he wore a heavy clump boot. His students, to beguile the tedium of the class hour, used to play various pranks upon each other, and upon the Professor.
At one time an apparently innocent and studious youth would be seen in the lowest circle, with an enormous false nose, the ludicrous effect of which kept the whole classroom in a constant titter; whilst the perplexed Professor, bringing his glass constantly to bear on the student, whom he could only imperfectly see, by his efforts added greatly to the general amusement, while the unabashed youth, apparently with no eye but for the specimens on the table, kept carefully peering from one to another, and taking such copious notes as entirely to divert the suspicions of the Professor.
At another time, while Munro was carrying about on his platform some heavy jars of “pickles” which he was arranging on his tables, a series of sharp explosions would occur, almost causing him to drop the jars and retreat in dismay. some mischievous scamp had strewn the floor with those small crackers which boys love to throw about the street.
These went off with tremendous effect under the pressure of the club foot, until Munro grew so nervous of treading upon them that he hardly dare stir from his place, any attempt to reach his specimens being greeted with a sharp bang, from-to him-some unknown agency, which would set the class in a roar of laughter, still further disturbing the equanimity of the unfortunate Professor.
But to return to our history. From the earliest times, as has been said, there has always existed a very strong feeling against the dissection of the human body, but this had been so far overcome at the time alluded to as to allow of the bodies of those executed for capital offences being used in the anatomical schools.
This was the only supply they legally had, and consequently the beginning of last century found many schools-and pre-eminently among them Edinburgh-with a large and yearly increasing number of pupils, and a supply utterly inadequate to the demand of teaching. Coincident with this yearly increasing obstacle, came recommendations from the colleges of the Faculty in London that the standard in Anatomy should be raised, and more thorough instruction in this branch should be insisted on than heretofore.
What was to be done? Two courses were open for the teachers to choose. Either they must still instruct much practical knowledge which alone will stand the test of time, or they must take some method of supplying their pupils with the means that were lacking. would Government by legislation help them to the latter? Far from it. Government was far too shortsighted! “Penny wise and pound foolish” never was more true of anything than their conduct in this matter.
They would not countenance or provide for the difficulty by allowing a supply of subjects for the schools, though by this they would have forwarded the education of a competent set of medical men, instead of the bookworms and ignoramuses of former years; and, on the contrary, by refusing to do this, they could, and did, cause great commotion up and down the country by the attempts made to get subjects by any means, and, as the sequel terribly proved, many lives were sacrificed for this purpose.
All this might have been prevented, had they been wise enough to have provided for a want which would and must be satisfied, for they compelled a careful study of medicine, and yet denied the means by which such study could be obtained.
The consequence was that teachers and student organized themselves into parties for the purpose of “body-raising”. Churchyards were visited at nights, decency shocked, and every feeling of affection outraged the dissecting rooms. Soon a staff of men were attached to every school, who went by the name of Resurrectionists or Body Snatchers. These were men gleaned up from the very drugs and scum of society-men who had nothing to lose, no character to keep and no fine feelings to overcome.
For money they would do anything, and they were paid well. It was made quite worth their while to attempt any risk, to dare any danger, and had they worked wisely and circumspectly, their trade might have gone on for a longer time than it did, without causing the panic in the public mind which was shortly brought about.
Country depredations were mostly preferred by them, because there was less chance of their being disturbed in their work than in the churchyards of the city. Did a funeral take place in any little village near Edinburgh, news of it was sure to reach the Body Snatchers, who would shortly be on the ground, and while the mould was yet soft and easily worked, they would remove it, that very night, bore through the lid with a long screw, raise the coffin to the surface, break it open, and carry the body off in a sack, taking care to replace the earth and leave things as much as possible with the appearance of having been undisturbed.
Many a harmless looking donkey cart, or respectable farmers , has travelled the streets of the Northern Metropolis, unsuspected by the passers by, conveying a ghastly burden in sack or barrel, which had its destination in Surgeons Hall.
Nor was this all! Arrayed in garments of the deepest woe and with an expression of extreme dejection and grief upon their countenances, these men would offer themselves as mutes at private funerals, or, representing themselves as relations, would claim the bodies of those who had died in hospital, before the real friends could arrive, and, after much ceremony, follow to the grave with every appearance of decency and respect a coffin containing nothing but rubbish or tan-bark, while its rightful occupant was secretly despatched to the college, by some apparently sorrow-stricken, but really treacherous and deceitful mute!.
Nay, more than this. Even while the destined prey was still living, the indefatigable Snatcher hovered near, and would feign himself the Doctor, the Undertaker, or even the Priest! Anything that gave him the excuse of constant and vigilant oversight, ready to claim his victim by any means so soon as death should occur.
Among the Staff of Resurrectionists attached to Knoxs rooms, and pre-eminent among them for success in his calling, was a tall gaunt, half-idiotic individual, who went by the name of “Merry Andrew” among the students. Of gigantic stature and thin cadaverous aspect, his clothes hung upon his bare frame, the sharp angles of which they failed to hide.
Though liable to outbursts of insane laughter, or ungovernable fury, he yet combined an amount of energy in his pursuits, with low cunning and fertility of resource, together with an immense greed for gold, which made him quite a leader in his department, and just the man for the work. He would push through obstacles, with perseverance worthy of a better cause, and was in fact the dependence of the students when their supply ran short. This man was of all others the one who acted the deceased relative most successfully!.
Knoxs lecture rooms stood in Surgeons Square, and were situated in the Royal Infirmary. Consequently they were close to the hospital, and Merry Andrew heard directly whenever died in the wards. Then was his opportunity. Assuming an old rusty black suit, he kept for such occasions, and feigning an appearance of intense grief, he would present himself as the relative and chief mourner, and claim the body for burial.