The Darker Side of Science

By Jane Naberhuis

Halloween pumpkinsHalloween is here and dead bodies, murder, and all things that go bump in the night are on our minds. If you’ve never heard of William Burke and William Hare, it’s time you heard about these nefarious individuals who made their own creepy contributions to the early study of anatomy.

The field of anatomy was in its infancy in the early 1800s, and progress in the field was hindered by a general lack of available cadavers. Though the bodies of executed criminals were frequently used for dissections, the number of executions being performed declined during this time. As the need for cadavers in medical schools grew, so did the body trade. This is where Burke and Hare (as well as various body snatchers, grave robbers, and “resurrectionists”) came in.

Burke and Hare lived in Scotland where Hare’s wife ran a boarding house. When an elderly tenant who was behind on rent died, Burke and Hare seized the opportunity to recoup their losses and sold the body to Dr. Robert Knox, a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. Given how easy it was to sell the body and the high payout, Burke and Hare did not hesitate when opportunity presented itself again.

This time, though, it wasn’t a simple matter of transporting and selling a dead body. Burke and Hare murdered an ill tenant by giving him enough whisky to render him unconscious. In an effort to avoid leaving any marks on the body, they smothered him with a pillow. To this day, murder via smothering is still sometimes referred to as “burking.”

Fifteen additional victims were “burked” and sold to Dr. Knox before the murderous pair got sloppy. After murdering their last victim around Halloween, the body was discovered in Burke’s bed by boarding house tenants the next day. But, by the time the authorities arrived, the body had already found its way to Dr. Knox’s dissection table. Without the body for evidence, it was difficult to make a case against Burke and Hare. But in return for a full pardon, Hare confessed and provided the authorities with enough evidence to try Burke. Burke was hanged for his crimes, after which his body was – fittingly – publically dissected.

The subsequent public outrage over Burke and Hare’s actions spurred the creation of numerous laws regarding the use of cadavers in science. As in many aspects of life, there is no substitute for the real thing, and being fortunate enough to have taken a human anatomy laboratory course that utilized cadavers, I know firsthand that this applies to learning anatomy. I am grateful to the individuals and their families that are generous enough to willingly donate their bodies to science. I also encourage you to look into the history of your field, or other scientific fields. What you find may spook you!

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