The Cod Skull
A most beautifully and skilfully prepared skull of a codfish is on display in the University Zoology Museum. Recently, we have become aware that this is no ordinary cod skull but a historically important anatomical specimen, a link with the days of body snatching and of Burke and Hare.
At the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries a number of private schools of anatomy flourished in Edinburgh. Although they concentrated on the training of surgeons in human anatomy most of them also had a collection of material from other animals for comparative study.
The Barclay School of Anatomy at 10 Surgeon's Square had a particularly fine museum of comparative anatomy. When Barclay died in 1826 the surgeon Robert Knox became the owner of the Barclay School and museum. He was keenly interested in the comparative approach to anatomical teaching and added greatly to the original specimens collected by Barclay. In this he was aided by his brother Frederick Knox, a supremely skilled dissector and conservator. Frederick was responsible for the production of our cod head, a fact verified by the entry in Knox's catalogue where he provides details of 696 specimens. The cod head is specimen No. 936.
By 1842 attendances at Robert Knox's classes was so reduced that he sold his school to Henry Lonsdale. This sharp change in Knox's fortune was partly due to the success of the new Edinburgh University Department of Anatomy, but mainly because of the public outrage at his connections with the Burke and Hare scandal - he had purchased many of their murdered victims for dissection in his school.
After Knox's downfall his anatomical collection became dispersed and the whereabouts of most of it is now unknown. However, it is likely that John Struthers brought the dissected cod head to Aberdeen in 1863 when he was appointed as Professor of Anatomy. Struthers had previously joined Henry Lonsdale as a lecturer in anatomy in 1845 and eventually purchased the school and its museum.
The cod head was based in the University Anatomy Museum until the early 1960s when it was transferred to the care of the Zoology Museum.