My watch list  

Robert Knox

Robert Knox (4 September, 1791 — 20 December, 1862) was a doctor, natural scientist and traveller. He is best known for his involvement in the Burke and Hare body-snatching case in Edinburgh. However, in 1868 James Hunt described him as "the great modern British Anthropologist, whose cruel history has yet to be written..."[citation needed] To modern eyes Knox's anthropology's most striking feature is its virulent racism. This has eclipsed some of its intellectual novelty given the pre-Darwinian context that Knox wrote in.



Robert Knox was born the eighth child of a teacher of ‘natural philosophy’ on 4 September 1791, in Edinburgh. He was educated at the Royal High School. In 1810, he joined medical classes in Edinburgh. The only recorded event of his university years was his just failing the anatomy examination; but redoubling his efforts to succeed in it, he passed very competently the second time around.

Graduating in 1814, he joined the army as an assistant surgeon, having worked for a year at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. His army work at Brussels hospital impressed upon him the need for a comprehensive training in anatomy if surgery were to be successful; and the impact of the experience may go some way towards accounting for his anatomical zeal. In April 1817, he joined the 72nd Highlanders and sailed with them immediately to the Cape of Good Hope until April 1820. He returned to Britain on Christmas Day 1820, but remained there only until the following October, after which he went to France to study anatomy for just over a year. It was then that he met both Georges Cuvier and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who were to remain his greatest contemporary heroes for his entire life, to populate constantly his later medical journalism, and to become the subject of his hagiography, Great Artists and Great Anatomists.

Career as an anatomist in Edinburgh

He returned to Edinburgh by Christmas 1822. In 1823 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. During these years he communicated a number of well-received papers to the Royal and Wernerian societies of Edinburgh on zoological subjects. Soon after his election he submitted a plan to the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh for a Museum of Comparative Anatomy, which was accepted, and within eight months he was appointed Conservator over the new museum.

From 1826 to 1840 he ran a private anatomy school in Surgeon's Square; Edinburgh. At this time most professorships were in the gift of the town council, resulting in such uninspiring appointments as the then professor of anatomy, Alexander Monro tertius who put off many of his students (including the young Charles Darwin who took the course 1825—1827). This created a demand for private tuition, and the flamboyant Knox had more students than all the other private tutors put together. He turned his sharp wit on the elders and the clergy of the city, satirising religion and delighting his students. His "continental" lectures were not for the squeamish, and when John James Audubon (in Edinburgh to find subscribers for his Birds of America) was shown round the dissecting theatre by Knox "dressed in an overgown and with bloody fingers" he reported that "The sights were extremely disagreeable, many of them shocking beyond all I ever thought could be. I was glad to leave this charnel house and breathe again the salubrious atmosphere of the streets."

The Resurrectionists

After 1815, the Royal Colleges of the United Kingdom had enforced an extension of anatomical examination in the medical curriculum, in the hope that dissecting bodies would become legal. It did not. In the 1820s, "Resurrectionism" was a century-established tradition of providing the bodies of the poor and homeless for dissection. The success of Knox's school bred further expectation for more and yet more corpses. If he taught according to what was known as ‘the French method’ the ratio would have had to approach one corpse per pupil. In November 1827 William Hare became one such figure, when an indebted lodger died on him by chance. He was paid £7, 10 shillings for delivering the body to Knox. After 17 more transactions, in what became known as the West Port Murders, on 2 November 1828 Burke and Hare were caught, and the whole city convulsed with titillated horror, fed by ballads, broadsides and newspapers, at the terrible deeds of Burke, Hare and Knox. Almost immediately after the Burke and Hare case, the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh began to harry him, and by June 1831 they had procured his resignation as the Curator of the museum he had proposed and founded. His profitable lecturing was the next to suffer.

From then until 1856 Knox gained his income, such as it was, from medical journalism, lectures, and various publications. His books about fishing sold best. His main writings were The Races of Men (1850, revised 1862), Great Artists and Great Anatomists (1852), A Manual of Artistic Anatomy (1852), and Man - his Structure and Physiology (1857). In 1856 he was appointed a physician at the London Cancer Hospital, Brompton (with some degree of honour conferred on him by the appointing committee). He worked there for the next six years until his death on 20 December 1862. He was buried at Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, Surrey. [1]

Anthropological writings

In his writings Knox synthesised a perspective on nature from three of the most influential natural historians of his time. From Cuvier, he took a consciousness of the great epochs of time, of the fact of extinction, and of the inadequacy of the biblical account. From Geoffroy St-Hilaire and Blainville, he gained a spatial and thematic perspective on living things. If one had the skill, all living beings could be arranged in their correct placing in a notional table, and one would see both internally and externally the elegant variation of their organs and anatomy according to the principles of connection, unity of composition, and compensation. Goethe is another crucial addition to the Knoxian way of looking at nature. Goethe thought that there were transcendental archetypes in the living world which could be perceived by genius. If the natural historian were perspicacious enough to examine the creatures in this correct order he could perceive - aesthetically - the archetype that was immanent in the totality of a series, although present in none of them.

Knox wrote that he was concerned to prove the existence of a generic animal, "or in other terms, proving hereditary descent to have a relation primarily to genus or natural family". This way, he could lay claim to a stability in the natural order at the level of the genus, but let species be extinguished. Man was a genus; not a species. Insofar as Knox had any definition of species - for his thinking about it was hazy - races were species. Knox saw his work as an inspired sketch of the profound laws of race. In addition to categorizing races as species, Knox found sub-racial divisions by national origin types; he considered English Anglo-Saxon superior to all others.

Literary references

  • The character Dr. Thomas Rock in the Dylan Thomas play The Doctor and the Devils is based on Knox.
  • Knox was the model for the character of Dr. Thomas Potter in Matthew Kneale's epic novel English Passengers, which deals with the perceptions and perspectives of different races, nationalities and stations in society.
  • Leslie Phillips appears as Dr. Robert Knox in the Doctor Who audio drama Medicinal Purposes.
  • Knox also features in Robert Louis Stevenson's short story 'The Bodysnatcher' in relation to the exploits of Burke and Hare.

Other references in fiction

The character of Dr. Curtis Knox on the television series "Smallville" in the episode entitled "Cure" may have been based on Dr. Robert Knox.


  1. ^ Dr Robert Knox. Necropolis Notables. The Brookwood Cemetery Society. Retrieved on 2007-02-23.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Robert_Knox". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
Your browser is not current. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 does not support some functions on Chemie.DE