Da Vinci drawings are on display in Edinburgh as the exhibition explores the history of anatomy

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Sketches created by the Italian artist when dissecting more than 30 human corpses in the 16th century are among the star attractions of a new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, which opens on Saturday.

Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life explains how Da Vinci’s work is said to have transformed the knowledge and understanding of anatomy, but remained almost unknown until around 1900.

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The exhibit is a reminder of how Edinburgh’s growing reputation as a center of excellence for the study of anatomy has led to demand for bodies exceeding supply in the center and leading to widespread problems of ‘grave robbing’. and body theft.

Curator Sophie Goggins with an anatomical study by Leonardo da Vinci, one of the pieces in the National Museum of Scotland’s new exhibition, Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life. Photo: Neil Hanna

Much of the show, which includes a coffin and a ‘mortsafe’ designed to deter grave robbers, focuses on the infamous 19th century murderers William Burke and William Hare, who claimed 16 lives whose bodies were sold to Edinburgh professor of anatomy, Robert Knox.

He recalls how Hare escaped justice after agreeing to give evidence against his accomplice, who was executed in the Lawnmarket in front of over 20,000 spectators.

Among the exhibits are ‘life masks’ of Burke and Hare, which were taken after the couple were arrested, court documents from the trial of Burke and his wife Helen, which have not been proven , and a written confession from Burke. , written before he was hanged and dissected himself.

The exhibit explores how anatomy teachers have competed for students amid growing demand for “hands-on” dissection experiences in classrooms. A petition signed by nearly 250 Edinburgh University medical students calling for more bodies to be made available is among the exhibits.

Curator Dr Ailsa Hutton prepares for the opening of Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life, the new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland. Photo: Neil Hanna

Others include a uniform from Edinburgh’s Old Town Guard at the height of the city’s ‘body theft’ problems and a model watchtower built to deter grave robbers for St Cuthbert’s Kirkyard in the west end.

Other highlights include a full-body anatomical model by French anatomist and model maker Louis Auzoux, as well as drawings and paintings depicting some of Europe’s earliest anatomy teachers and centuries-old surgical instruments.

The exhibition, which runs until October 30, shows how the history of medical study in Edinburgh can be traced almost to the doorstep of the museum.

Dr Ailsa Hutton, curator of modern and rural history, said: ‘We really wanted to create a real sense of Edinburgh with the exhibition, as a lot of the history we tell took place in very short distance.

An anatomical study of the veins and muscles of the arm, drawn by Leonardo da Vinci. Photo: Royal Collection Trust

“Edinburgh gradually became such a center of learning and anatomy was a central part of it. But as the demand for anatomy lessons grew, so did the demand for bodies to be dissected.

“The exhibition shows how commonplace it became for anatomists to acquire the bodies of grave robbers and how this led to the employment of night watchmen and the construction of watchtowers in cemeteries. some can still be seen in the city to this day.

Dr Tacye Phillipson, Senior Curator of Modern Science, said: “Anatomical knowledge is crucial to medicine, and Edinburgh was a key center for medical education and the development of modern medicine.

“However, this work relied on the dissection of bodies, the origin of which was often controversial and agonizing.”

Curator Dr Tacye Phillipson with the skeleton and death mask of the infamous 19th century Edinburgh murderer William Burke. Photo: Neil Hanna
Etchings by Leonardo da Vinci are on display at the National Museum of Scotland as part of its Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life exhibition. Photo: Royal Collection Trust
Curator Sopie Goggins with a model used by French anatomist Louis Auzoux. Photo: Neil Hanna
Curator Dr Ailsa Hutton with the skeleton of William Burke. Photo: Neil Hanna
Miniature coffins discovered by schoolchildren chasing rabbits on Arthur’s Seat will be on display as part of the National Museum of Scotland’s new exhibition.


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