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date: 04 July 2020

Knox, Robertfree

  • Clare L. Taylor

Robert Knox (1791–1862)

by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson

Knox, Robert (1791–1862), anatomist and ethnologist, descended from a family of Kirkcudbright tenant farmers who claimed kinship with the ancient family of Ranfurly in Renfrewshire, which included the reformer John Knox, was the eighth child and fifth son of Robert Knox (d. 1812), philosophical and mathematical master at Heriot's Hospital, Edinburgh, and member of the Jacobin-inspired Friends of the People. His mother was Mary Sherer or Schrerer (d. 1838), daughter of a farmer of German ancestry. Knox was born on 4 September 1791 at Edinburgh.

Education and early career

Knox was first educated at home by his father after suffering from smallpox which left him blind in one eye and severely disfigured. From 1805 he attended Edinburgh high school, where he was dux and gold medallist. In November 1810 he began medical school at Edinburgh University, where he was twice president of the Royal Medical Society before his graduation. Having failed once in anatomy, partly owing to the incompetent teaching of Alexander Munro (tertius), he became a pupil at John Barclay's extramural school and gained a masterly knowledge of the subject. He graduated MD in 1814 with his impressive thesis, 'On the effects of stimulants and narcotics on the healthy body'. This was followed in January 1815 by an important paper, 'The diurnal variations of the pulse and other functions' (Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, 11.52–65, 164–7). He finished this phase of his education as a pupil of the surgeon John Abernethy at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, and was able to apply Abernethy's theories after Waterloo, when he obtained a commission as assistant surgeon in the army in 1815 and was sent to Brussels.

Knox returned to England in charge of a large party of invalids and was for a time attached to the Melsea Hospital in Hampshire. In April 1817 he was sent to the Cape of Good Hope with the 72nd highlanders to serve in the Cape Frontier War of 1819. It was here that he formulated many of the radical opinions he held throughout his life (such as an unpopular stance against colonial policy) and energetically embarked on ethnological, zoological, geographical, and medical researches which formed the basis of his study for the rest of his life. In 1820 he was involved in an altercation with a fellow officer for which he was officially censured and unofficially and publicly horsewhipped (Stephen, 1). The cause of the dispute remains obscure but it may have arisen from his anticolonialist opinions, for Knox was a steadfast if not proud and stubborn defender of his own beliefs. He returned to Britain, wishing to be with his family, on half pay, on Christmas day 1820.

Knox remained in Edinburgh, contributing papers to the Wernerian Society on subjects suggested to him by his recent research. In the autumn of 1821 he began a year's study in Paris under Cuvier, Geoffroy St-Hilaire, De Blainville, and Larrey. He returned to Edinburgh at the end of 1822, and remained on army half pay until 1832. In 1824 he married Mary Russell (d. 1841), whom his student and biographer Henry Lonsdale described as of inferior rank. Lonsdale suggested that he may have maintained an 'official' residence with his sister Mary taking on the social role as wife, and a private residence for his young family. To others this seems unlikely for a man known to be devoted to his family (Rae, 49).

During the next few years Knox continued to contribute zoological and anatomical papers to the Wernerian Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The most important of these was 'Observations on the comparative anatomy of the eye', in which the discoveries on the structure and physiology of the eye secured for Knox a niche in the annals of medical history. He embarked on a difficult relationship with the College of Surgeons of Edinburgh after persuading it to form a reputable museum of comparative anatomy and pathology. He was eventually appointed its conservator in 1825 after becoming a fellow of the college on 18 March, and superintended the purchase and transfer of the collection of Sir Charles Bell. He worked actively and enthusiastically in the museum until 1831.

Meanwhile, on 2 March 1825, Knox signed articles of partnership with his old teacher John Barclay, taking on the bulk of the work. When Barclay died in 1826 he left the anatomical school entirely under Knox's control. Knox built up a formidable reputation as a teacher and lecturer and almost single-handedly raised the profile of the study of anatomy in Britain. His classes increased dramatically in size until his school could be said to be the largest of its kind in Britain, attracting barristers, the clergy, the aristocracy, artists, and men of letters. His students numbered 504 in 1828–9, when the demand was such that he lectured three times daily.

Knox was probably one of the most skilled teachers Edinburgh had ever known and it is conjectured that without him British surgery might not have advanced in the way that it did (Rae, 125). Knox's approach to anatomy was refreshingly different from that of his predecessor and his university counterparts, inspiring in his students 'a desire to know the unknown; a love of the perfect; an aiming at the universal' (Knox, 22). Building on the comparative anatomy of Barclay but drawing on his knowledge of Cuvier and the French school, Knox invested anatomy with a new emphasis, infusing the mere mechanics of anatomy with a caustic wit and with a philosophy which elevated his subject to 'the hope of detecting the laws of organic life, the origin of living beings and the transcendental laws regulating the living world in time and space' (ibid., 141–2). As John D. Comrie has assessed, 'his forte was not in relation to surgery and medicine, but in bringing comparative anatomy to the explanation of human anatomy' (Comrie, 2.502). Knox's lectures were rehearsed with great care down to his physical appearance, which he embellished with fine clothes and jewellery.

Burke and Hare

However, Knox's success as a teacher was to have a concomitant negative effect on the reputation of anatomical teaching. Demand had placed an added burden on the supply of suitable human subjects for dissection, legally confined to the bodies of executed murderers, and the entire practice of anatomy had become surreptitiously and illegally dependent on the work of the so-called ‘resurrectionists’ or grave-robbers. Knox was not alone in procuring subjects in this way, but through a combination of bad luck and bad judgement his name became inextricably linked with those of William Burke and William Hare [see under Burke, William]. Knox started receiving subjects from Burke and Hare on 29 November 1827. Burke's confession testifies that this first body, the only one not murdered by Burke and Hare, was originally meant for Alexander Munro, professor of anatomy at the University of Edinburgh, but one of Knox's zealous students redirected the men to Knox's rooms at 10 Surgeon's Square with the promise of a larger fee (Ball, 83). By 2 November 1828, when they were charged, Burke and Hare, attracted by the high prices he was offering, had brought Knox twelve murdered bodies which were received and prepared by his assistants for dissection.

Knox was not called as a witness in the trial and subsequently withdrew from the public eye. Privately, and naïvely, he was incredulous that he could be seriously linked with Burke and Hare. In a second confession published in the Edinburgh Courant shortly before his execution in January 1829, Burke stated that Knox had received the bodies with no knowledge of the murders. Not convinced, the public and many of his colleagues charged Knox with guilt by association, while others accused him of being the advocate and instigator of the crimes. John Wilson in Blackwood (Noctes, March 1829) savagely attacked him for ignoring the 'thumb marks on the neck' of the bodies brought to him. Sir Walter Scott's censure remains the most memorable, referring to Knox as the 'learned carcass-butcher' (Currie, 43). Knox was vilified in popular ballads and caricatured in lithographic prints as Richard III looking for Tyrell. On 12 February 1829 the public took matters into their own hands by strangling, hanging, and destroying an effigy of Knox in front of his home in Newington.

For months the atmosphere in Edinburgh was vengeful but Knox still made no attempt to defend himself. To investigate the charges against him a committee was formed which included John Robinson, secretary to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and William Pultanay Alison, professor of medicine. This committee reported that they had 'seen no evidence that Dr Knox or his assistants knew that murder was committed in procuring any of the subjects brought to his rooms' and 'firmly believed' in his innocence. There were circumstances calculated to excite suspicion of murder (such as the freshness of the bodies), but because all the bodies had been smothered there was no visible proof (Knox and many of his contemporaries did not possess the knowledge required to ascertain ante- and post-mortem signs of violence). The committee merely rebuked Knox for acting incautiously in reception of subjects, and especially in allowing his assistants to receive them without investigating the source of the supply.

In Burke's official confession he states that Knox was present on two occasions when murdered bodies were received, and that in one case he had been impressed by the freshness of the corpse but had made no further inquiries. In a pamphlet published by a former doorkeeper at Knox's school, David Paterson alleged that several of the bodies had been delivered with suspiciously bloodied eyes, ears, and mouths, and moreover that the head and feet were severed from the body of 'daft Jamie', a recognizable Edinburgh figure, when it became known that he was missing. On the 17 March 1829 Knox addressed a letter to the Caledonian Mercury with the findings of this committee, publishing his only statement of vindication. He offered no statement of apology or regret but there is evidence from his personal catalogue that Knox ceased all research on human anatomy after 1828 (Ross and Taylor). However, the report did not alleviate the pressure of public opinion, as Knox's chief assistants T. W. Jones, William Fergusson, and Alexander Miller also took a share in his unpopularity. Sir Robert Christison, who had examined the body of the final murder victim, concluded that Knox had 'rather wilfully shut his eyes to incidents which ought to have excited the grave suspicions of a man of his intelligence' (Life, 1.310).

Current opinion remains divided as to the scale of Knox's guilt. He has a staunch and sympathetic defender in biographer Isobel Rae while social historian Ruth Richardson points to the more insalubrious nature of Knox's 'necrophiliac voyeurism' regarding the body of murder victim Mary Paterson, whom witnesses claim Knox kept preserved for three months so that her body could be admired and painted by students (Richardson, 101). Richardson takes Knox's failure to prosecute for libel those accusing him of complicity as 'tantamount to an admission of guilt' (ibid., 97). Anticipating the ensuing furore, Knox had drafted a letter to Robert Peel dated 3 November 1828 in which he outlined the 'obstacles which impede the progress of anatomy in Great Britain' (Rae, 62). The letter was never sent, but in it Knox hoped that the Burke and Hare scandal would force the government to publish their report on the laws governing dissection. In 1832 a new Anatomy Act extended the supply of anatomical subjects to include the poor and the homeless.


During this period Knox ignored the picketing at Surgeon's Square and continued to publish and lecture, winning the support at least of his students who presented him with a gold vase on 11 April 1829. In 1832 he moved to larger premises vacated by the College of Surgeons and in 1833 took William Fergusson and John Reid into partnership for the practical classes. But despite his students' loyalty he was gradually frozen out of official university life. The College of Surgeons' museum contrived to be rid of him and he finally resigned in 1831. In the 1830s Knox reneged on his earlier position of silence and entered into embittered wrangles with colleagues and critics such as John Stark, who accused him of plagiarism.

Knox became a satirist and cynic, using the press and subsequent failed applications for university positions (chair of pathology in 1837, chair in physiology in 1841, and lecturer in anatomy at the Scottish Academy) to publicize his opinions concerning the administration of the study of medicine within the university and to attack colleagues including John Reid. His anti-Christian wit did nothing to endear him to the university authorities, and moreover he spoke of the chairs of the university as having 'fallen much below the income of a steady-going retail grocery or bakery' (DNB). In this latter respect he was correct: Edinburgh's medical teaching was falling behind London's in popularity and prestige. For this reason and compounded by the blows that Knox's reputation had suffered by 1834, the number of students attending his classes had fallen off. In 1836 John Reid left him and Fergusson virtually gave up his work as his assistant. Knox now relied almost wholly on his younger brother Frederick, with whom he had anatomized a whalebone whale in 1831–4. Knox's Edinburgh Dissector, brought out anonymously in 1837 to compete with Harrison's Dublin Dissector, was not a success. The nadir was reached in the early 1840s on the death of his wife from puerperal fever after the birth of their sixth child in 1841, and the death in 1842 of his son John, aged four.

The arrival of Knox's partner and future biographer Henry Lonsdale in May 1840 seemed to signal a slight change in his professional fortunes. Knox replaced Alexander Lizars at the Argyle Square extramural medical school as lecturer in anatomy. But this good luck was short-lived. Knox recommenced his own lectures on anatomy and physiology but could not attract a class. He crossed swords with John Reid over the rights to a discovery concerning the placenta, claiming Reid's original discovery as his own (Lonsdale, 219–20, 257). This was perhaps the final humiliation. Knox placed his household in charge of his nephew and daughter Mary and left Edinburgh for London. From 1842 to 1846 he was very unsettled. He joined the small Portland Street school of medicine in Glasgow in November 1844 but returned fees to his students before the end of the month. Allowed no admittance into the ranks of London surgeons, he embarked on lecture tours, translated French anatomical textbooks, and wrote prodigiously for medical journals.

According to Rae, Christison's comment that Knox was at this time a showman to a travelling party of Ojibwe Indians was probably wishful thinking on Christison's part (p. 132). This notion, however, was undoubtedly encouraged by Knox's 1846 popular lecture tour, entitled 'The races of men', which visited Newcastle upon Tyne, Manchester, and Liverpool, where his outspoken and lamentable views on Jews were the cause of much debate in local newspapers. After the Burke and Hare scandal this phase of Knox's career remains the most engrossing to historians. Building on his studies of black peoples in the Cape, and using anatomical method to study human history, Knox theorized, remarkably early in the history of European racist philosophy, that the human race was composed of a highly systematized group of distinct species based on a sliding scale of civilizational aptitude (Biddiss, 15–20). Within this scheme a vast gulf separated white from black and it led Knox into an unfortunate analogy: '[The black man] is no more a white man than an ass is a horse or a zebra' (R. Knox, Races of Men, 1850, 245). Knox firmly believed that races were inherently antagonistic, immutable, and properly adapted to one single habitat. It was a thoroughly pessimistic and anti-progressive view of human history, perhaps reflecting his own outlook on life at this time as well as being the logical development of years of study through biological method. According to this theory Knox even explained the 1848 revolutions as racial struggles.

Although Knox was fundamentally racist it has recently been argued that he used his theories to mount a savage critique of colonialism. Eveleen Richards states that all Knox's inquiries into race were infused with a philosopher's concern for the social and political implications of natural law (Richards, 379). But here the paradoxes of his views are most pointed: while he despised slavery and British colonial policy, he devised a scheme when in Glasgow to found a colony in South Africa which would make it the 'best wool producing company in the world' (NL Scot., MS 2618, fol. 288). Knox's ideas later found popularity with James Hunt, founder of the Anthropological Society of London; and other contemporaries thought that Races of Men was 'his great work, by which he will live' (The Lancet). Owing to this work Knox was made an honorary fellow of the Ethnological Society of London in 1860 and honorary curator of its museum in 1862. Early in 1861 he was elected foreign member of the Anthropological Society of Paris.

Despite success in this field, during the late 1840s and 1850s Knox's life was marred by ignominy and misfortune, including the deaths of his son Robert in May 1854 and his daughter Mary in 1858. Scandal pursued him again, this time in the shape of John Henry Osborne, who had falsely obtained a certificate from Knox testifying to six months' study. Knox had been testing the patience of the Royal College of Surgeons by failing to comply with their administrative regulations (Creswell) and the college took this opportunity to ban him from performing official lectures; this later debarred him from an invitation to lecture at the Royal Free Hospital medical school. In 1848 Knox was struck off the roll of fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In the 1850s applications for a government appointment in Africa, for a surgical position in the Crimea, and for office at the British Museum were rejected.

While the last few years of his life were financially stringent, Knox did at least find some professional reward in London, in an appointment as pathological anatomist to the Cancer Hospital at Brompton; he also practised medicine in Hackney, supported by his sister and latterly his only surviving son, Edward. In the summer of 1862 his strength began to fail, and on 9 December he suffered an apoplectic seizure after returning from his duties at the Cancer Hospital; he died without gaining consciousness on 20 December at his home at 9 Lambe Terrace, Hackney. Following his wishes and lifelong deist views he was buried in the nonconformist sector of Brookwood cemetery in Woking, Surrey, on 29 December.


  • letter, 15 Sept 1844, NL Scot., MS 2618, fol. 288
  • I. Rae, Knox, the anatomist (1964)
  • K. Stephen, Robert Knox (1981)
  • H. Lonsdale, A sketch of the life and writings of Robert Knox (1870)
  • R. Richardson, Death, dissection and the destitute, pbk edn (1988)
  • M. D. Biddiss, ‘The politics of anatomy: Dr Robert Knox and Victorian racism’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 69 (1976), 245–50
  • E. Richards, ‘The “moral anatomy” of Robert Knox: the interplay between biological and social thought in Victorian scientific thought’, Journal of the History of Biology, 22 (1989), 373–436
  • J. A. Ross and H. W. Y. Taylor, ‘Robert Knox's catalogue’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 10 (1955), 269–76
  • C. H. Creswell, The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh: historical notes from 1505–1905 (1926)
  • J. D. Comrie, History of Scottish medicine, 2nd edn, 2 (1932)
  • The Lancet (3 Jan 1863)
  • A. S. Currie, ‘Robert Knox, anatomist, scientist, and martyr’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 26 (1932–3), 39–46
  • The life of Sir Robert Christison, 1 (1885)
  • J. M. Ball, The sack-'em-up men: an account of the rise and fall of the modern resurrectionists (1928)
  • Medical Times and Gazette (27 Dec 1862)
  • R. Knox, Great artists and great anatomists (1852)


  • BL, corresp., Peel MS 40601, fols. 50, 51
  • Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, records
  • U. Edin., Anatomy section, catalogue
  • NL Scot., Goodsir, linked memories, Fife Coast, etc., MS 170
  • Royal Anthropological Institute, London, Ethnological Society of London minutes


  • D. O. Hill and R. Adamson, photograph, Scot. NPG [see illus.]
  • A. Edouart, silhouette, Scot. NPG
  • caricature, repro. in Rae, Knox
  • etching, BM
  • photographs, repro. in Rae, Knox
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
British Museum, London
British Library, London