Surgeons' Hall Museums – Edinburgh, Scotland - Atlas Obscura

Surgeons' Hall Museums

A book bound in the skin of an infamous criminal, along with countless other specimens. 

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The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh is home to Surgeons’ Hall Museums, which is primarily housed in the college’s beautiful early 19th century William Playfair building.

The entire recognized collection of national significance forms one of the finest and most historic pathology collections in the UK. Surgeons’ Hall Museums is divided into the Wohl Pathology Museum, the History of Surgery Museum and the Dental Collection. Collectively they form Scotland’s largest medical museum which has been open to the public since 1832.

Of particular interest in the History of Surgery Museum is the exhibit on Edinburgh’s criminal duo Burke and Hare. Burke and Hare became infamous when instead of simply digging up corpses to sell to Robert Knox, conservator at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, they began killing, to manufacture their own corpses. They sold over 15 of these corpses to the college before they were discovered. After turning King’s evidence, Hare was released, but Burke was hung, dissected, and a book was bound from his skin. Burke’s death mask and the book bound from his skin can all be found at the History of Surgery Museum.

Despite popular misconceptions, the skeletal remains of Burke are actually kept not far away at the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum, Teviot Place. Viewing times are limited, so check the website to avoid disappointment. 

Know Before You Go

Surgeons' Hall Museums is situated in the City Centre, a short distance from the University of Edinburgh, and 10 minutes walk from Princes Street or the Castle. The Playfair Building on Nicolson Street, pictured below, was designed by the Scottish architect William Henry Playfair for the surgeons of the day and opened in 1832.

For obvious reasons, photography is not allowed. The museum consists of several floors, there are elevators and the building is handicap accessible.