Papers relating to Dr. Robert Knox (1791-1862)

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 237 Coll-347
  • Dates of Creation
      19th century
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      2 letters, I note and 1 certificate.
  • Location
      Gen. 1731 Knox; Dc.4.98/8-9

Scope and Content

The collection contains correspondence, including: a letter from Knox to Sir William Fergusson testifying to his suitability for the post of surgeon at the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, 1834; a letter to Thomas Wright about a memoir on the Hythe bones, 1860s; a certificate indicating that Mr Charles Findlay had diligently dissected under his superintendence during the summer session, 1825; and, another certificate indicating that Mr. David Clark had 'actually engaged in the dissection of the Human Body', 1830.

Administrative / Biographical History

Robert Knox was born in Edinburgh on 4 September 1791. He was educated at the Royal High School and in 1810 he began medical studies at Edinburgh University. Even before his graduation he was twice President of the Royal Medical School. Knox graduated in 1814 with degree of MD and his thesis was entitled On the effects of stimulants and narcotics on the healthy body.

In 1815 he went into the army, to Brussels, as an assistant-surgeon and gained much surgical experience after Waterloo. In 1817 he was sent to southern Africa, to the Cape, with the 72nd Highlanders, and there conducted ethnological, zoological, geographical, meteorological, and medical research, before briefly returning to Edinburgh. A study visit to Paris followed in 1821 and he returned to Edinburgh in 1822.

In 1825 Knox was appointed conservator at a new museum of comparative anatomy and pathology at the Royal College of Surgeons in the city. The same year he became involved in work at an anatomical school run by John Barclay (1758-1826) his university teacher. On Barclay's death, he took over all of the anatomical work at the school and became an able lecturer attracting many students. Offering a good price for subjects for dissection, Knox became a favourite customer of the city's 'resurrectionists' and a tempting market in 1828 for the victim's of murderers William Burke (1792-1829) and William Hare (d. circa 1860). Although no action was taken against him, Knox was mobbed by the public and criticised and caricatured in the press. A committee formed to look into Knox's role found that neither he nor his assistants knew that murder had been committed in the procuring of subjects, but they did believe that he had acted incautiously in accepting them without making enquiries. As a result of the Burke and Hare case, an Anatomy Act was passed in 1832 for regulating the supply of bodies to anatomy departments. Knox continued in his work but by 1836 his lectures had become less popular and he unsuccessfully contested the Chair of Pathology in 1837. He also put himself forward as a candidate for the Chair of Physiology in 1841. Between 1842 and 1846 Knox tried to set up a new course in anatomy in Edinburgh and a school of medicine in Glasgow - but was unsuccessful in either of these ventures - then sought work in London.

In 1846 he lectured in Newcastle, Manchester and elsewhere putting forward his anti-semitic theories on The races of men. Also in 1846 he unsuccessfully sought government work and in 1852 failed to obtain work at the British Museum. During the Crimean War his application for appointment as a surgeon was turned down. In 1856 however, Knox was appointed as pathological anatomist to the Cancer Hospital at Brompton and he also took up medical practice in Hackney, London. He also gave public lectures in London. He contributed many articles to medical and scientific transactions and journals and in 1860 he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Ethnological Society of London and Honorary Curator of its museum in 1862. Dr. Robert Knox died in Hackney on 20 December 1862, and was buried at Woking.

Access Information

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Acquisition Information

Letter to Sir W. Fergusson purchased November 1974, Accession no. E74.35. Letter to Thomas Wright purchased April 1978, Accession no. E78.9. Certificate purchased November 1977, Accession no. E77.36.


The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of national biography. Vol. 11. Kennett-Lluelyn. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1909. (2) Keay, John. and Keay, Julia (eds.). Collins encyclopaedia of Scotland. London: Harper Collins, 1994.

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division.

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.


Check the local Indexes for details of any additions.

Related Material

The local Indexes show other references to Knox related material (check the Indexes for more details): ticket for admission to lectures on anatomy, physiology and pathology, 1826, at Da; ticket for admission to lectures on practical anatomy and anatomical demonstrations, 1835, at Da; mention in a letter of G. Johnston to Sir W. Jardine, at Dk.6.20/164; and, letter of R. K. Greville to Sir W. Jardine about Knox's house having been attacked following the Burke and Hare scandal, 1829, at Dk.6.20/123. In addition, refer to the HE Archives Hub description of material relating to Grave-robbing and Resurrectionists.