The Doctor Will See You Now...28th Mar 2014
One of my favourite stories is that of the serial killers Burke and Hare. Recently, I’ve become fascinated by one of the characters who is often relegated to a supporting role –
Doctor Robert Knox. In the constraints of a ten-minute slot during a tour, the focus is on describing the two main characters and the horror of the murders. The “infamous pair” are very much the stars of the show. When you take a closer look at Knox however, you discover a complex and intriguing character.
When we meet Knox in the 1820s, he is a man at the top of his game - one of the foremost surgeons in Scotland, at a time when Edinburgh was leading the world in the field of medical science. He must have been a striking figure – he had one eye, leading the students to nickname him “auld Cyclops”. He liked to dress in fine clothes, and always put on a show for his students – his lectures were thoroughly entertaining. This inspired a fierce loyalty and devotion among his students. He must have been the sort of person whom everyone noticed when he walked into a room - larger than life, with a reputation preceding him.
One of the biggest mysteries surrounding the story is: How much did Knox actually know?
In my opinion, a man of his intelligence must have sensed that Burke and Hare were not your average body snatchers. He must have suspected foul play. But for a man of his ego, at the forefront of his field, the ends absolutely justified the means. I see Knox as the classic mad scientist, never stopping to ask if he should, only concerned with whether he could.
Yet perhaps in some small way he was right – in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries all over the world today, we reap the benefits of that age of discovery, and the lengths people like Knox were prepared to go to.
In a city full of Jekyll and Hyde characters, Knox looms large as a visionary scientist and accessory to mass murder, charismatic and enigmatic in equal measure.
Mark, gore-enthusiast and guide.