Invasion of the body-snatchers

BEHIND the classical façade of the Surgeons' Hall in Edinburgh lie the murky remains of medical specimens: a jar containing a two-headed foetus; a mummified hand; the pickled head of a cholera victim.

Or so people think. Actually, the museum as it stands today is disappointingly devoid of such gruesome trophies, which were certainly on display in the 18th and early 19th centuries. But even though the college has left its grisly past behind, it's hard to dissociate it from the macabre tales of its early beginnings.

The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh was formally established in 1505, with a document called the Seal of Cause. This granted barbers and surgeons the same privileges, although over the years their interests grew more and more separate. By 1722, the surgeons ditched the barbers, and in 1726 the college founded its medical school.

Over the years, the college has made stratospheric advances in medical knowledge, from Lord Joseph Lister (1827-1912), who discovered antiseptics while studying inflammation in frogs on Duddingston Loch, to John Fraser (1825-1906), who helped free mankind from the scourge of tuberculosis. Thomas Annandale (1838-1907) was the first surgeon to repair the torn cartilage in a miner's knee, and Norman Dott (1892-1973) pioneered surgery on the brain, as did Henry Wade (1876-1955) on the kidney.

But Edinburgh's Evening News summed it up in 1979: "Edinburgh has attracted more than its fair share of men of genius, and a history sometimes more in keeping with a Victorian melodrama than a hallowed alma mater of medicine."

Much of the Royal College's colourful history sprang up around the thorny subject of anatomy. Once a year in the early days, the body of an executed criminal would be handed over to the college for anatomical study. As the number of students increased, so the demand for bodies grew, and the situation got more difficult. Alexander Monro (1697-1767) was the first in a long line of the Monro family to hold the chair of anatomy at Edinburgh, and also the first to publicly condemn the crime that arose as a result of the need for more specimens: grave robbery. He had the backing of a horrified public, too: the outcry against body-snatching, as it was called, was so great that in 1725 there were threats to demolish the Surgeons' Hall, and Monro was forced to move his specimens to a separate anatomy theatre and museum.

But the demand for cadavers grew higher still. Master anatomist Robert Knox (1791-1862), arguably the most notorious figure in the college's history, taught an average of 500 medical students a year at his anatomy school in the 1820s, each of whom required a body to dissect. With the supply of executed criminals running low, grave-robbing became a lucrative and booming business - a fresh corpse could bring in 15, which was good money. Competition was hot: one man reportedly attempted to sell his heavily pregnant wife as a corpse for dissection; and a band of students was caught battling with relatives waiting beneath the gallows to collect a woman's body.

But the most infamous tale is that of the notorious William Burke and William Hare, who found a novel way of increasing the supply of cadavers: murder. Their 16 victims, killed over the course of a single year, included sickly lodgers and old prostitutes. Knox, who accepted the bodies for dissection, was thought to be well aware of the situation. In 1828 the pair's killing spree came to an end - as did Knox's brilliant career.

Burke was hanged the following year, and with a suitable sense of irony his body was taken off the gallows and used in a medical dissection (the students kept enough of his skin aside to cover a card case and notebook, which took pride of place in the college museum, alongside a life-size model of Knox). And while the anatomist was never officially charged in connection with Burke and Hare's crimes, the damage was done. The following year, he resigned and left Scotland to live in the east end of London for the rest of his life.

Of course, controversy such as this was rare, but nevertheless you didn't have to look far to find eccentricity among the college's fellows. Alexander Wood (1725-1807), an Edinburgh surgeon and 'character' who befriended most of the city, was usually to be seen accompanied by his two pets - a tame sheep, which trotted alongside him, and a raven, which perched on his shoulder everywhere he went, including on home visits to his patients. Nicknamed Lang Sandy, because of his lanky figure, Wood caused a stir by being the first person in Edinburgh to use an umbrella. After attending to Robert Burns's leg when he fell from a coach, the two were said to have developed a mutual admiration.

When the college was first set up, however, disease and accident were believed to be the will of God, and qualified doctors found themselves competing against quack physicians, soothsayers and herbalists. One such man was Dr Adam Donald (1703-1780), a spiritualist who practised his craft in Oldmeldrum. He was consulted by a wide audience eager to hear his wild prophecies. James Morison (1770-1840) was an even more controversial character, much satirised and attacked by medical professionals. A pill manufacturer from Aberdeenshire, he produced vegetable tablets that he claimed would purify the blood of evil. Patients were advised to take up to 30 a day, and many died as a result.

Warfare over the years presented doctors with an invaluable opportunity to hone their surgical skills on casualties. Naturally, this brought with it its own set of hazards - Dundee doctor David Kinloch (1560-1617) found himself imprisoned during the Spanish Inquisition for heresy and spying. He endured torture, which he later referred to as "six years in bitter torment", and legend has it that he was only released from prison in Spain after curing the grand inquisitor of illness.

Charles Bell (1774-1842), the surgeon who first described Bell's palsy, also served as a medical officer at the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815. A renowned artist, he returned with gruesome portraits of casualties, which today adorn the college's museum walls. And Sir Michael Woodruff (1911-2001), who was a pioneer in organ transportation and carried out Edinburgh's first kidney transplant, was captured by the Japanese in Singapore in 1942. A prisoner of war, surrounded by disease-ridden, starving patients, he devised a grinding machine that allowed simple Malaysian grasses to be turned into an evil-tasting but life-saving powder.

Unsurprisingly, women appear only rarely in the college's history. It was as late as 1920 that the first female fellow, Alice Headwards, was admitted. By the second half of the 20th century, only 4% of surgeons nationwide were female, and it wasn't until 1984 that Caroline Doig became the first female member of the college council. Since then, much progress has been made - in the same year that Mother Teresa was awarded an honorary fellowship, in 1991, the government-funded group Women In Surgical Training (WIST) was established to assist women wishing to take up a surgical career. It aims to double the number of female consultants by 2011. Today, there are 629 female members of the Royal College.

Meanwhile, its macabre history continues to be immortalised in both film and print. In the 19th century, Arthur Conan Doyle, a student working under the supervision of Joseph Bell - the surgeon who was then president of the college - used his tutor as a model for his famous fictional character, Sherlock Holmes. Ian Rankin set several scenes from his Rebus novel The Falls in the college's museum. And the infamous tale of Burke and Hare has inspired a number of films. The most recent, The Meat Trade, due out later this year, is a modern-day interpretation of the story and stars Robert Carlyle and Colin Firth.

With our morbid appetite sated, the public's appreciation and recognition of the importance of the Royal College of Surgeons is reflected in their continued generosity. Some 5 million was raised between 1997 and 2000, and a further 5 million was raised last year to fund upgrading work. When a fundraising campaign was launched in 1980, there was all manner of responses. One elderly woman anonymously handed over a brown paper bag containing 1,000 in five- and ten-pound notes.

Today the college has more than 17,000 fellows and members, with 1,560 working in Scotland, more than 7,000 in England and a similar number overseas. The influence, power and technological advances that the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh can lay claim to are evident worldwide.