Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

Burke Skin Pocket Book

Burke Skin Pocket Book


The Museum at Surgeons Hall, Edinburgh dates from 1699 when the Incorporation of Edinburgh Surgeons announced that they were making a collection of ‘natural and artificial curiosities’ and advertised for these in the first edition of a local paper, the Edinburgh Gazette. Daniel Defoe, an early visitor in 1726, wrote in his Tour thro' the whole Island of Great Britain that the ‘chamber of rarities’ contained many curious things too numerous for him to describe. Much of this early collection was given to the University of Edinburgh in the 1760s. By the early years of the 19th Century, the Incorporation had received a Royal Charter to become the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. The College saw its primary role as the teaching of anatomy and surgery, the training of surgeons, and examination of their acquired knowledge. Anatomy and pathology specimens were crucial to that function. The museum expanded dramatically with the acquisition of two large collections. John Barclay, a successful anatomy demonstrator in the extramural school of medicine donated his collection, while Sir Charles Bell, Professor of Surgery in the University of London and latterly in the University of Edinburgh sold his collection to the museum. These collections were much too large to be housed in the original 1697 Surgeons’ Hall, and so the surgeons commissioned the leading Edinburgh architect William Playfair to build the present day Surgeons Hall, which opened in 1832.


Charles Bell was born in Edinburgh in 1774. He enrolled as a medical undergraduate at the University and also attended anatomy classes at the School of Anatomy run by his elder brother John Bell (1763–1820), whom he greatly admired and from whom he drew inspiration. He became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, but both he and his brother were snubbed by the Scottish surgical establishment – neither was given a post in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. While his elder brother remained in Scotland and, in a tempestuous career, became the foremost Scottish surgeon of his day, Charles left for London, aged 30, in 1804. There he bought the Great Windmill Street Anatomy School where he established a reputation as a teacher of anatomy and surgery. He was appointed to the staff of the Middlesex Hospital and became professor of surgery. In London he amassed a museum of anatomical and pathology specimens which had grown to become one of the largest collections of its time. In 1825 he sold this collection to the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh for £3000 (a lot of money). The collection was packed under the supervision of Professor Robert Knox, museum conservator at the Edinburgh College, and shipped to Leith, the port for Edinburgh. It formed the heart of the Playfair Museum collection when the Playfair building opened in 1828, and it remains on display to this day.


From an early age Bell showed artistic talents which were developed by lessons from the foremost Scottish painter David Allan. Throughout his life Bell put these skills to great use, personally illustrating his many textbooks. In 1809 he went to Portsmouth to help treat the casualties from the Battle of Corunna and there put his artistic abilities to great use. He produced a series of 15 oil paintings to illustrate the detail of the gunshots wounds suffered by the casualties. These paintings, on display in the museum, provide a valuable insight into the nature of early 19c gunshot wounds and their complications. John Barclay (1758–1826) had established an anatomy school in his house in Surgeon Square, next to the College of Surgeons. This was a great success and established his reputation as one of the most renowned anatomy teachers in Europe. His collection of some 2,500 specimens was donated to the museum, but by the 1950s most of this had been donated to other collections, leaving only an elephant skull, three human skeletons and a few other specimens


The Greig collection of some 250 skulls was donated to the museum by David Middleton Greig (1864–1936) who was conservator of the museum between 1920–36. Greig, a surgeon in Dundee, was an international authority on bone disease and abnormalities of the skull and, during his working life, had amassed a collection of some 200 skulls which he donated to the College. The clinical details of each case was recorded and supplemented wherever possible by drawings and photographs. John Menzies Campbell (1887–1974) was a Glasgow dentist and dental historian who amassed over his working lifetime a huge personal collection of specimens, instruments and paintings relating to the practice of dentistry. This was donated to the museum in 1964. Currently it is housed in a separate room as the Menzies Campbell dental collection. In the 19th and early 20th century wax and plaster casts or moulages showing abnormalities and diseases were widely used as teaching aids. The collection contains several of these casts, taken from tumours of the face and eye. There are casts showing foetal development and the anatomy and pathology of the intestine.


Robert Knox, the conservator of the Museum who organised and catalogued the Bell and Barclay collections, had established himself as a very successful teacher of anatomy in the extramural school in Surgeon Square. His anatomy classes were so popular that demand for bodies for anatomical dissection exceeded supply. Two Irishmen living in Edinburgh, William Burke and William Hare, resorted to murdering victims to supply Knox’s anatomy school. Hare turned King’s evidence and Burke was tried, found guilty of murder and hanged. His body was dissected by Alexander Monro tertius, the University professor of anatomy, and the museum has on display two items from that notorious episode – Burke’s death mask and a pocket book made from his skin.


Joseph Bell (1837–1911) was an Edinburgh surgeon who was president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh between 1887–89. He was a popular teacher noted for his diagnostic acumen, based on his powers of observation of meticulous detail, which were enhanced by his interest in the analysis of handwriting and of the origin of dialects. Among the medical students he taught was Arthur Conan Doyle, whom Bell selected as his clerk, or assistant. Doyle, gave up medicine to become a writer, and, having achieved fame and wealth through the Sherlock Holmes stories, wrote to his former chief ” is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes.” In November 1870, the Hall was the scene of a public riot when the first group of female medical students from the University of Edinburgh attempted to sit their anatomy exam. These first seven women endured a campaign of abuse throughout their studies but also garnered support from colleagues and politicians. Several of the Edinburgh Seven went on to found new hospitals and make significant contributions to improving the healthcare available to women around the world.


The Wohl Pathology Museum is located in the Playfair Hall, this consists of pathology specimens, surgical instruments, casts and paintings. The History of Surgery Museum is on the ground floor, a mock anatomy theatre is the venue for a short video which recounts the public dissection of David Myles in 1702. As each body part or system is described, these are demonstrated by projection onto a plastic model of the body lying on the dissecting table. The display cabinets trace the history of surgery, from the 16th century to the present day, with particular reference to Edinburgh’s contribution. The main entrance of Surgeons' Hall Museums is via Nicolson Street. Access to the Museums is via the third floor entrance, accessible by lift or staircase. The lift and staircase provide access to all floors of the museum. Disabled toilet facilities are available in the basement of the Museums. Assistance dogs are welcome (as long as they do not eat the bones.)


Location : Surgeons' Hall Museums, The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, Nicolson Street, Edinburgh EH8 9DW

Transport: Waverley (National Rail) 8 minutes. Bus Routes : 2, 8, 35, 41, 45, 47 and 60 stop near by

Opening Times : Daily 10:00 to 17:00

Tickets : Adults £6.00;  Concessions / Children (5 - 15) £3.50.

Tel: 0131 527 1711