Three McFrankensteins you wouldn’t want as your doctor

Scalpel on a bloody hand
Who is wielding the scalpel? Picture: Jason Rogers
Scalpel on a bloody hand
Picture: Jason Rogers

Dr Andrew Ure was a talented Glaswegian. Born in 1778, he studied chemistry and philosophy at university. He attempted to bring chemistry and mechanics to the masses by inviting the local working folk to his lectures. After a spell as an army surgeon, he settled in Glasgow within the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons.

Diverse in his talents, he wrote many books, worked as a consultant to the linen trade (inventing a useful gadget called an “alkimeter” during that time), and took posts as a pharmaceutical chemist and director of the observatory at Garnet Hill.

So, to set the scene, we have:

  1. Access to an observatory with domed glass ceiling, thunderstorms and likely an electrical conductor.
  2. A surgeon interested in chemistry and mechanics.
  3. A Victorian era with profligate cadaver stealings.

Sounds like the prologue to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and this surgeon might well have been an inspiration for that novel thanks to his macabre experiments.

In 1818, Dr Ure caused a bit of a sensation when he animated or “galvanised” the body of executed ne’er-do-well Matthew Clydesdale. After the execution, a crowd was able to trot along and watch as the man was brought back to life by the liberal application of electrical current.

Incisions in the neck, hip and heel, with rods connected via a battery, had the dead man doing high kicks for all to see. Another placed in the arm and fingertip had the pallid limb pointing the finger at horrified onlookers. Rods in the diaphragm emulated breathing while one placed within a facial incision on the forehead allowed a full repertoire of ghastly grimaces and contorted smiles to entertain the crowd.

In 1864, a seriously ill Mary Pritchard was recumbent in her bed in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, attended by her doctor and husband, Dr Edward Pritchard. After an illness that had been long term and progressive, the unfortunate missus had difficulty swallowing, violent stomach pains, sickness and diarrhoea, compounded by weakness and depression. Nothing seemed to improve matters.

Her mother, Jane Taylor, came through from Edinburgh to nurse her fading daughter. She too became unwell and quickly died in February 1865. Mary followed suit three weeks later, popping her clogs as her mother had.

The public prosecutor received a tip-off from one Dr James Paterson when he was asked to sign the death certificates for the grieving Dr Pritchard. He could smell a rat and refused to sign, so Dr Pritchard took it upon himself to sign the certificates.

Dr Pritchard was arrested that day, and his court case uncovered a rather dastardly cad. Having an improper affair with a 15-year-old servant girl, he was a dodgy character and a murderer as well. It turned out that the good doctor was not really very good at all.

Post-mortem examinations of both bodies revealed antimony in their liver, an emetic poison that must have been administered to his wife in her food over a long while. As for Mrs Taylor, the antimony had been added to an opium “medication” that she regularly administered herself.

Found guilty, the doctor was the last man publicly hanged in Glasgow, on 28 July 1865.

Dr Robert Knox was another surgeon with a penchant for fiddling with cadavers, and was acquainted with Scotland’s most famous non-graverobbers, Burke and Hare. (They didn’t rob graves. They murdered people.)

Doun the close and up the stair,

But an’ ben wi’ Burke and Hare.

Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,

Knox, the boy that buys the beef.

 19th-century Edinburgh skipping rhyme

After attending the High School in Edinburgh, the young Knox went on to Edinburgh University in 1810 to study medicine, eventually becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. After a stint in the army, Knox spent time with some of the foremost ground-breaking anatomists in Europe

On his return to Edinburgh he was employed at Dr Barclay’s Anatomy School. There he wrote, and had published, a great many peer-reviewed medical and scientific papers.

A bit of a showman, Knox was arrogant and flamboyant in his approach. This attracted a great deal of interest and resulted in hundreds enrolling for his extra-mural anatomy class. Here the students would see complete and comprehensive dissections at every demonstration. And there were a lot of demonstrations, needing a lot of willing cadaver volunteers.

The only legal supply was via executed criminals – and, although Scotland’s Victorian miscreants tried to keep up with demand, the pickings were slim for the profusion of scalpel-toting Scottish surgeons.

There was a gap in the market and some unscrupulous types moved in, providing freshly dug-up corpses to the docs. The medics would turn a blind eye to the fact that someone’s poor Auntie Agnes ended up on the slab, and would slip a few shillings to the suppliers. Dr Knox was no different.

Families began to get wise to the grave robbers, so would stand guard over their loved ones after death, making the supply of fresh cadavers more difficult. Worthy of Apprentice status with Sir Alan, Burke and Hare came up with an alternative way to supply their clients and in doing so exhibited great macabre initiative.

In the West Port area of the city the dastardly duo set about murdering the sad, the poor, the drunk and the weak as they went about their business. The bodies were handed over to Dr Knox who paid the princely sum of £7 10s. Even when the students watching recognized a local retarded boy, with a pronounced limp, who had gone missing, Knox denied the fact. But he reputedly proceeded to remove the head and feet from the cadaver.

Burke and Hare eventually faced trial, with Burke being hanged in 1829 and publicly dissected at the Edinburgh medical college as a fitting tribute. Hare received immunity by testifying against his accomplice.

Although implicated, Knox was not prosecuted, which was surely down to being educated, rich and in a “chums club”. The Royal Society of Edinburgh exonerated him from any blame, but then they were all in on the act as well, with bodies falling out of cupboards and stashed under the stairs.

The illegal trade in corpses prompted the introduction of the Anatomy Act in 1832, which gave surgeons legal access to corpses unclaimed after death, or they could have bodies donated to them in the interests of science (and an agreement to pay funeral expenses). Still the corpses of the poor and wretched supplied medical science.