Thursday, 10 November 2011

Burn the Burkin' Hoose!

“Beware the burkers!” was a cry associated with eminent surgeons and medical students across Britain between 1810 and 1831.  To learn the human anatomy, such men had to dissect human specimens, but superstition and intolerance meant these were in short supply.  The medics paid for bodies, torn from their graves by professionals or the students themselves.  One teaching surgeon in particular, Dr Andrew Moir, would happily accompany his students on raiding excursions.

‘Clever, dirty Andrew Moir’ as he was disparagingly called by his rivals, was born in Aberdeen in 1806.  It was his dream to have his own anatomy school in order to improve the dire state of medical knowledge in Aberdeen. Due to the donations from rich supporters, Dr Moir was able to turn the dream to reality when his new school opened in 1831 on an old bleach green called ‘Hospital Row’ off St Andrew’s Street, near Woolmanhill.

Today the site of Dr Moir’s school is approximately at the corner of St Andrew’s Street and Blackfriars Street, where RGU’s property stands.  The latter was originally the Demonstration School, built around 1906.

An inquisitive dog proved the surgeon’s undoing as it dug in the school’s back yard a month into its existence.  Apprentices from the nearby tannery found the mongrel pulling at a bone, and immediately declared that it was human.  The cry went up ‘Burn the Burkin’ Hoose!’ and the quickly assembled crowd burst into the middle of a dissection lesson.  The students and Dr Moir were chased into another room, which they locked behind them and then escaped by the rear exit.

The angry citizens turned their attentions to the building; with sheer force of numbers, they literally tore the school apart.  It is said that in only four hours, Dr Moir’s dreams went up in smoke, the hated ‘Burkin’ Hoose’ now a raging inferno.  He and his supporters criticised the police and the local militia for standing by and allowing the mob to run amok, but there was little sympathy outside the medical profession for his predicament.

Dr Moir was determined to continue, and almost a decade later, he was appointed the first official lecturer in anatomy at Kings College.  Sadly he died in 1844 at the age of 38, having contracted typhoid from a patient.  His gravestone, shown above, is in St Nicholas kirkyard.

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