Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The Deserved Discomfiture of the Noxious Narcissist

Up the close and down the stair,
But and ben with Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.
Contemporary Rhyme 
('But and ben' means 'out and about')
               And what of Dr Knox? Robert Knox was born on September 4th 1791, the eighth of nine children, and was called ‘the darling boy of the family.’ A particularly virulent attack of smallpox in his youth had left him blind in his left eye, which was said to resemble a grape in appearance. In 1810, he joined the Edinburgh medical school, where he failed his anatomy examinations on the first sitting. He joined the extramural classes of John Barclay, the foremost anatomist of the day, worked hard and passed on his second attempt. 

Dr Robert Knox

After graduating as a doctor in 1814, he worked as an assistant Army surgeon, and treated soldiers wounded at the Battle of Waterloo, which impressed on him the need for thorough anatomical knowledge in surgery. After a tour of duty in South Africa, Knox returned to Edinburgh, where he was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1823. Soon after, he proposed a Museum of Comparative Anatomy to the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, which was accepted and Knox became the first conservator. 

Barclay's Anatomy School

In 1826, he took a position as lecturing anatomist at Barclay’s anatomy school, in Surgeon’s Square, and ran private classes in opposition to those offered at the Royal College; the flamboyant Knox attracted many more students than all the other anatomists working in Edinburgh at the time (and so, consequently, he needed more ‘subjects’ than his rivals). This led to much professional jealousy, a situation not helped by Knox’s personality, as he was vain, opinionated and possessed of an enormous ego. Knox did not only not suffer fools gladly, he took pains to actively seek them out, publicly humiliate them and with sneering relish, go on to exacerbate the damage to raw wounds he had opened by his razor-sharp tongue. Knox was, in Knox’s opinion, God’s own gift to medicine, and he revealed his brilliance to the waiting world with an evangelical zeal. 

Dr Robert Knox

The ordinary folk of Edinburgh, however, begged this prodigy’s pardon to differ and on Thursday February 12th 1829, a procession assembled in the streets of the capital and began an organised march towards the Old Town, bearing before them the effigy of a certain Edinburgh anatomist; on the back of this figure was a label bearing the inscription ‘Knox, the associate of the infamous Hare.’ As they approached Newington (the area where Knox lived), their numbers began to swell further, and they turned towards his house, where the effigy was first hanged from the arm of a lamppost, then burned, then ripped apart by the assembled thousands. All this was done in a playful spirit to begin with, but now the jeers and cries for vengeance multiplied and crowds of boys began to stone Knox’s house until they was not an unbroken window to be seen. 

Robert Knox - Man, His Structure and Physiology

The horseplay descended into outright violence, so the militia were called out and, with the best efforts of the city watchmen, attempts were made to suppress the tumult. The mob fragmented and ran riot throughout the town, breaking windows wherever they went, especially around the College, West Port and Surgeon’s Square; but as night fell, the momentum began to wane, and Edinburgh returned to normality. 

Surgeon's Square - Edinburgh

Twenty-three rioters had been arrested and were issued with fines ranging from five to forty shillings, but a public whip-round quickly covered those amounts and further autos-de-fe were planned, with some talk of gunpowder mentioned along the way. 

Cropping a Nox-i-ous plant

In an attempt to calm the whole situation down, Knox asked for an investigation into his dealings with, and relationship to, the West Port murderers; the committee of ten good men and true presented its findings on March 21st 1829 in Courant newspaper. Knox and his staff had, they found, no knowledge that subjects brought to his rooms were the victims of murder. The subjects showed no marks of violence on them, and Knox and his assistants had no reason to suspect that they were any different to subjects brought to them from other sources. Dr Knox had made it known that he would purchase subjects for anatomical research from the relatives or connections of deceased persons of the lowest ranks of society. 

Plate from Knox - Man, His Structure and Physiology

Consequently, Dr Knox had been lax in ascertaining the source of his subjects, and had allowed his assistants and door-keeper a degree of latitude in the acquisition of them that was not sufficiently robust. Too many enquiries may have diverted or diminished the supply of subjects and, the committee wrote,
“…the notoriously bad character of persons who generally engage in such traffic, in addition to the novelty and particular nature of the system, on which these men professed to be acting, undoubtedly demanded greater vigilance.”
In effect, Knox had turned a blind eye to what had been going on, and had preferred not to ask where the bodies were coming from. If he was guilty at all, he was guilty of sins of omission. Paterson, Knox’s door-keeper and porter, said it best when he opined that he was being made the,
“…scape-goat for a personage in higher life.”

William Burke had added a short paragraph exonerating Knox to the confession he had given to Sheriff Tait, which read,
“Burk deaclars that Docter Knox never incoureged him, nither taught or ineoreged him to murder any person, nether any of his asistents, that worthy gentleman Mr. Fergeson was the only man that ever mentioned any thing about the bodies. He inquired where we got that yong woman Paterson.”
WILLIAM BURK, prisner.
Condemned Cell, January 21, 1829.

Burke's additional paragraph exonerating Knox

But the damage to Knox’s reputation had been done. In 1831, the Royal Society saw to it that he was replaced as the curator of their Anatomy museum. His own anatomy classes dried up when Edinburgh University made their own anatomy classes compulsory for all medical students. He did himself no favours when he applied for the vacant position of Chair of Physiology at Edinburgh University in 1841, and in addition to the application, he included a intemperate letter that attacked the entire Edinburgh medical establishment in a tone and with language dripping in bile, vituperation and loathing. He attacked his rivals,
… their repeated and extra-ordinary failures, their bolstered up reputations, their total want of all originality, their unpopularity with the student or the taught; their powers of mystifying the plainest facts,”
the renumeration offered for the position,
“… fallen much below the income of a steady-going retail grocery or bakery,”
and the policies of the very University to which he was applying for a post,
“… the overloading of the curriculum, the absence from the University of all men of originality and of European reputation, and the baneful effects of a monopoly exercised by the University, whose sure result, like all other monopolies, is first to ruin itself and afterwards its neighbours.”
Unsurprisingly, he was not offered the Chair. Also in 1841, his wife and one of his six children died, so he left the remaining five in the care of a nephew and moved to London. He could not find a position as a surgeon, so took to writing, on all manner of subjects, from physiology to fishing. In 1856, he became the pathological anatomist at the Free Cancer Hospital at Brompton and worked there until he died, six years later, in 1862. 

Dr Robert Knox - Fish and Fishing - 1854

Maybe his legacy can be summed up in the following anecdote; 
One day, Knox was walking in the Edinburgh meadows with his friend Dr Adams, and the conversation turned to ‘outward form’ and its relation to ‘inward qualities’, and as an illustration of a point he was making, Knox turned to a little girl, who was gathering flowers nearby. The child was about six years old, and of such outward natural beauty that Knox was certain this was the result of inner intelligence. His suspicions were proven in the playful conversation that followed, or so he thought, until he gave the innocent a penny, adding jocularly,
Now, my dear, you and I will be friends. Would you come and live with me if you got a whole penny every day?
The little girl had no second thoughts.
Oh no,” she said, “ You would, maybe, sell me to Dr Knox.

Robert Knox - memorial stone

Out of the mouths of babes and infants …

No comments:

Post a Comment