Scope and Contents
Manuscript petition, ink on vellum (approx. 190 x 60cm in total, consisting of four joined membranes) with 248 signatures of medical students penned underneath text of the petition, also signed and dated by “J.Weatherspoon writer to the signet,” some light dustiness, several patches of discolouration, a few frayed areas at margins not affecting text.
This huge vellum scroll bears the manuscript text of a petition dated 28 March 1828 signed by 248 medical students of the University of Edinburgh requesting an increase in the supply of cadavers for anatomical study.
Addressed to “His Majesty’s Commissioners for visiting the Universities and Colleges of Scotland”, the text notes “that according to the established course of education in the medical schools throughout the United Kingdom a thorough knowledge of anatomy is required.”
Considering that “this knowledge can only be obtained through dissections”, the students advise “that it is of the highest importance to the welfare and the proper culture of medical science that an ample supply of subjects for the purpose should be obtained.” They continue by commenting that the scarcity of cadavers, caused principally through “want of legislative regulation ... has of late years been so great as much to impede the progress of medicine in the British schools,” the “exorbitant price demanded for them” amounting “nearly to a prohibition to the study of this essential branch of medical education” and leading to “the practice of exhumation to which so many evils detrimental both to the feelings and morals of the community have been ascribed.” The students finish by noting that as a result many students have “resorted to Paris and other foreign universities,”
requesting that the Commissioners “will grant such remedies ... as ... may seem meet.”
Biographical / Historical
Petition stating, 'To the Right Honorable, Honorable and Reverend His Majesty’s Commissioners for visiting the Universities and Colleges of Scotland. The Humble Petition of the medical students of the University of Edinburgh humbly sheweth that according to the established course of education in the medical schools throughout the United Kingdom a thorough knowledge of anatomy is required ...' [Edinburgh, 28 March 1828].
This is a document of significance in British medical history, the urgency of the students’ petition aligning with the exactly contemporaneous Edinburgh murders by William Burke (1792-1829) and William Hare (b. 1792/1804) committed to supply the anatomy table of Professor Robert Knox (1791-1862).
Given that at the time Edinburgh was at the forefront of British medical study it is not surprising that the practice of exhumation was prevalent in the city. The shortage of supply of cadavers was caused by the law allowing only the corpses of executed criminals to be used for medical research. The Anatomy Act of 1832 remedied the situation by permitting the legal custodian of a corpse to pass it to a medical school for anatomical study or surgical practice.