It’s a relatively well-known fact that the body of notorious 18th century body-snatcher William Burke was dissected at Edinburgh Medical College, in an ironic post-mortem punishment.
It’s less well-known that the surgeon who carried out the dissection was a Dr Alexander Munro, the last private owner of the Craiglockhart Estate. He was reputed to have penned a letter in blood taken from Burke’s brain.
If this makes him sound a grimly fascinating character, the reality apparently was quite different. As a lecturer of anatomy at Edinburgh University, his lectures were so boring that they often degenerated into riots. Charles Darwin as a youth spent two years at Edinburgh University and described Monro’s lectures ‘as dull as he was himself.’ His disgust was partially due to Monro’s appearance as ‘dishevelled, scruffy and even dirty ... arriving at lectures still bloody from the dissecting room’.
The last of three generations of the famous Monro family of pioneering physicians, Monro Tertius, as he was known, died at Craiglockhart in 1859 and the estate passed into public ownership soon afterwards.
Their story starts with Alexander Monro, primus (1697-1767) who lived in Covenant Close in the High Street of Edinburgh.
He was one of the most famous anatomists in the English-speaking world whose brilliant teaching, research and publications attracted students world-wide. His father, John Monro (1670-1740), a military surgeon, had co-founded the Edinburgh Medical School. Alexander studied in the Universities of Edinburgh, London, Paris and Leiden, achieved membership of the Royal College of Physicians and the Incorporation of Surgeons, and was elected Professor of Anatomy on 29th January 1720 aged only twenty-three. The following year, along with other physicians and surgeons of the newly-founded Medical Society, he raised funds for the establishment of a hospital for the treatment and care of the poor. They rented premises at the head of Robertson’s Close and opened a small establishment. Monro petitioned the Lord Provost for a new hospital, which was soon opened nearby in what would become Infirmary Street – The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. Its Royal Charter was granted by George II in 1736 and patients were admitted from 1741.
At the age of sixty-seven and very ill, Monro primus announced his retirement. His legacy of his published works major included four voluminous books of anatomy running to several editions and fifty-three academic papers. He died in July 1767 and was buried in Greyfriars Churchyard.
His son Alexander Monro secundus (1733-1817) was the one who purchased the Craiglockhart estate in 1773, partly to indulge his passion for horticulture. He planted thousands of native trees across the estate. A medical man like his father and grandfather, Munro secundus proved himself a gifted and influential teacher of anatomy. Benjamin Rush (1745-1813), the famous American physician and politician, recalling his student days wrote “... in anatomy he is superior perhaps to most men in Europe. He is a gentleman of great politeness and humanity and much admired by everyone who knows him.” Monro secundus became even more distinguished than his famous father not only as a teacher but in his new discoveries of the anatomy of the brain, the structure and functions of the nervous system and the brain, the eye and the ear.
He was given the honour of laying the foundation stone of the new anatomical lecture theatre on 31st March 1790. The Edinburgh School of Medicine was now the finest in the English-speaking world. He attracted students worldwide doubling the size of his classes with 228 students in 1808.
After a long and distinguished career he died of apoplexy on 2nd October 1817 and was buried in Greyfriars Churchyard next to his father.
So it was into an arena of high expectations that Alexander Monro tertius (1773-1859) stepped. He also went into medicine, studying at Edinburgh University, but failed to match the high standards of his predecessors. He was appointed joint professor with his father, just as his own father before him had succeeded in this forty-four years before. His promotion in 1800 aged twenty-six and without experience in medical practice appeared premature and undeserved. As Professor of Anatomy he used his father’s and his grandfather’s lecture notes from the start of his teaching career in 1802. He became the sole teacher of anatomy from 1808, but unfortunately because of his poor teaching the reputation of the great Edinburgh Medical School began to deteriorate.
Monro tertius’s competition came from the talented but unfortunate Dr Robert Knox (1791-1862) whose reputation was marred through his dealings with the infamous body snatchers, Burke and Hare. Thus when William Burke was hanged for murder on 28th January 1829, Munro was the surgeon who carried out the dissection.
He retired from his professorship in 1846 aged seventy-three and died on 10th March 1859 at his estate in Craiglockhart. He was buried in Dean Cemetery, bringing an end to the 126-year reign of the Monros over the great Medical School of Edinburgh and the almost 100 year ownership of the Craiglockhart estate.
The name Craig of Loccart (later Lockhart) dates to 1278. Craiglockhart Castle, the remains of which are in the Craiglockhart campus of Edinburgh Napier University, was built by the Loccarts in the fifteenth century. Thomas Kincaid had the estate granted to him by James IV in 1505, the Foulis family in 1609, John Gilmour of Craigmillar in 1661, and the Lockharts again in early eighteenth century.
Published in Konect February 2019
Author: David Dick