Knox, Robert (1791-1862) (DNB00)


KNOX, ROBERT (1791–1862), anatomist and ethnologist, descended from a family of Kirkcudbright farmers, was the eighth child and fifth son of Robert Knox (d. 1812), mathematical master at Heriot's Hospital, Edinburgh, and Mary Sherer or Schrerer, daughter of a farmer of German extraction. Knox was born on 4 Sept. 1791 at Edinburgh, and early lost the sight of his left eye through a virulent attack of small-pox. At the Edinburgh High School he rapidly rose to the head of every class, and was dux and gold medallist of the school in 1810. In November of that year he began medical study at Edinburgh University, and was twice president of the Royal Medical Society before his graduation. Failing once in his examination in anatomy, he entered as a pupil of John Barclay (1758–1826) [q. v.], and gained a masterly knowledge of the subject. He graduated M.D. in 1814. His thesis, ‘On the Effects of Stimulants and Narcotics on the Healthy Body,’ was followed in January 1815 by an important paper on ‘The Diurnal Variations of the Pulse and other Functions,’ especially as affected by muscular exertion (Edinb. Med. and Surg. Journ. xi. 52–65, 164–167). In 1815 he obtained a commission as assistant-surgeon in the army, and was sent to Brussels, where he gained much surgical experience after Waterloo. In April 1817 he was sent to the Cape with the 72nd Highlanders, and made ethnological, zoological, geographical, meteorological, and medical researches, becoming at the same time a practised shot and keen collector. He returned to England on half-pay on Christmas-day, 1820, and remained in Edinburgh, contributing papers to the Wernerian Society. In the autumn of 1821 he obtained permission to study for a year on the continent, and spent the time in Paris under Cuvier, Geoffroy St.-Hilaire, De Blainville, and Larrey. At the end of 1822 he returned to Edinburgh. He remained on army half-pay till 1832, when he received 100l. as a commutation payment. During the next few years he contributed to the Wernerian and Royal Societies of Edinburgh zoological and anatomical papers, some of which contained important discoveries on the structure and physiology of the eye. He succeeded in persuading the Edinburgh College of Surgeons to form an adequate museum of comparative anatomy and pathology, and was appointed its conservator in 1825, becoming also a fellow of the college. He advised the purchase and arranged for the transfer of the collection of Sir Charles Bell from London, and worked actively in the museum until 1831. In 1824 he privately married a person beneath him in station, and thus greatly injured his prospects. His wife died in 1841, having borne him six children, of whom only one son, Edward, survived him.

His old teacher, Barclay, being desirous to retire, Knox signed articles of partnership with him on 2 March 1825, undertaking the whole of the work. Barclay's death in 1826 left his anatomical school entirely under Knox's control. He at once took first rank as an anatomical lecturer, and his classes increased until his students numbered 504 in 1828–9, when he lectured for three hours daily.

Naturally Knox, who was an enthusiast for practical dissection, was the best customer of the ‘resurrectionists,’ from whom alone ‘subjects’ for dissection could be procured. He gave higher prices than others, and consequently offered a tempting market in 1828 for the victims of Burke and Hare [see Burke, William, 1792–1829]. The populace involved Knox in the obloquy of the murderers, and mobbed and burnt him in effigy. For months he was in danger of violence, but attempted no public defence of himself. He was caricatured in lithographic prints, termed ‘Wretch's Illustrations of Shakespeare,’ in one of which the devil was represented with a big pair of shears in his hand about to crop ‘a nox-i-ous plant;’ in another he was depicted as Richard III looking for Tyrrel, whom he finds in Burke. Burke in his confession exonerated Knox from all blame, but John Wilson, in ‘Blackwood’ (‘Noctes,’ March 1829), attacked him savagely. On 17 March 1829 Knox addressed a letter to the ‘Caledonian Mercury,’ with the report of an influential committee, including John Robinson, secretary to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Russell, professor of surgery, W. P. Alison, professor of medicine, and Sir W. Hamilton, bart., to whom he had given every facility for ascertaining the facts. This committee reported that they had ‘seen no evidence that Dr. Knox or his assistants knew that murder was committed in procuring any of the subjects brought to his rooms,’ and ‘firmly believed’ in his complete innocence. There were circumstances calculated to excite suspicion of murder, but no proof that they did excite such suspicion. They thought that Knox had acted incautiously in the reception of subjects, and especially in allowing his assistants to receive them without making particular inquiry whence they came. Many did not consider Knox cleared by this verdict, and his chief assistants, T. W. Jones, William (afterwards Sir William) Fergusson, and Alexander Miller, shared in his unpopularity. Sir R. Christison thought Knox had rather wilfully shut his eyes to suspicious circumstances. The difficulty of procuring subjects was at last remedied by the Anatomy Act of 1832.

Knox's pupils were enthusiastic in his favour, and on 11 April 1829 presented him with a gold vase, acquitting him of every imputation and expressing sympathy with his mental sufferings. He continued his anatomical work, published various books and papers, and especially devoted himself to anatomising and describing a fine whalebone whale in 1831–4.

When the College of Surgeons vacated their old hall in Surgeons' Square in 1832, he moved thither from Barclay's old premises, and built a large class-room, in which he repeated his morning's lecture each evening. On Saturdays he lectured with eminent success on ‘Comparative and General Anatomy and Ethnology,’ often rousing enthusiastic cheers. In January 1833 Dr. John Reid [q. v.] joined Knox and Fergusson. Soon afterwards Knox's popularity in Edinburgh declined, partly in consequence of his heterodoxy and of his sarcastic and passionate habits of speech, and in 1836 Reid left him, to lecture on physiology at the Argyle Square school, and Fergusson almost gave up his work as assistant. Knox had now to rely principally on his younger brother, Frederick John, but anatomical material was scarce, and the students at Edinburgh decreased. Knox's ‘Edinburgh Dissector,’ brought out anonymously in 1837, to rival the ‘Dublin Dissector’ of Harrison, fell flat. In the same year he unsuccessfully contested the professorship of pathology, vacated by Dr. John Thomson. In April 1839 he failed to induce John Goodsir to join him, but Henry Lonsdale, his biographer, became his demonstrator and partner in May 1840. Alexander Lizars about this time gained the professorship of anatomy at Aberdeen, and Knox took his place at the Argyle Square medical school as anatomical lecturer. In the ‘Medical Gazette’ of 30 Oct. 1840 Knox announced as his own a discovery respecting the placenta which had been previously shown him by Dr. John Reid. Reid strongly censured Knox, and public opinion went against him, although he claimed to have given his new views to his class in 1839. Unfortunately it became evident that Knox's truthfulness or memory could not be strictly trusted. In 1841 he was a scarcely serious candidate for the professorship of the institutes of medicine (physiology) at Edinburgh, vacated by W. P. Alison. In his letter of application he sarcastically criticised not only the university course, but the other candidates, Allen Thomson, who was elected, John Reid, and W. B. Carpenter, and spoke of the chairs of the university as having ‘fallen much below the income of a steady-going retail grocery or bakery.’ After having formally resigned his right to give separate lectures in Edinburgh (with the idea, it is believed, of emigrating to the United States), he announced a course of anatomy there in November 1842, but got no class. In the following session he attempted a course of physiology with a similar result. For lack of better occupation he joined the small Portland Street school of medicine in Glasgow in November 1844, but returned his fees to his pupils before the end of the month. From 1842 to 1846 he was very unsettled, now living with an old pupil, now seeking employment in London. In 1846 he lectured on ‘The Races of Men’ at Newcastle-on-Tyne, Manchester, and other towns, and gained considerable popular reputation. He believed that the races of men, like the species of animals, were distinct, and that the secondary laws of evolution, as well as the origin of life, were beyond human inquiry. In 1846 he vainly sought a government appointment. In 1852 he tried to obtain office in the British Museum. Meanwhile he was delivering popular lectures, and was incessantly writing papers in the scientific journals and popular periodicals. Some of these were successful, and the proceeds, together with those from his text-books, enabled him to keep his family in Edinburgh. In May 1854 the death of his son Robert greatly distressed him. He shortly afterwards made application to be sent as surgeon to the Crimea, and when his application failed he retaliated by attacks on the administration in the ‘Morning Advertiser’ and other newspapers, based on letters from correspondents in the field. In October 1856 he was appointed pathological anatomist to the Cancer Hospital at Brompton. In his latter years he took to medical practice, especially obstetrics, in the Hackney district, continuing to lecture at public institutions in London and large towns. In 1860 he was made an honorary fellow of the Ethnological Society of London, and in 1862 honorary curator of its museum. Early in 1861 he was elected foreign member of the Anthropological Society of Paris. He formed many abortive projects, and in the autumn of 1862 talked of writing his own life. On 9 Dec. he had an apoplectic seizure after returning from his duties at the Cancer Hospital, and died on 20 Dec. 1862, at 9 Lambe Terrace, Hackney, aged 71. He was buried at Woking on 29 Dec.

Knox was slightly above middle height, with strong muscular body and firm, upright gait. His features were coarse and marred by small-pox. His left eye was atrophied, but the right was very vivid and expressive. In speech he was agreeable and persuasive, and in lecturing he rose to high eloquence. He dressed for lectures in the highest style of fashion. He may be ranked among the greatest anatomical teachers, though, owing to his disappointments and his untamed eccentricities, he failed to produce works of permanent value. His religious opinions were deistic.

Knox wrote, besides many memoirs in scientific transactions and contributions to medical, scientific, and other journals: 1. ‘The Edinburgh Dissector,’ Edinb. 1837, 12mo. 2. ‘The Races of Men,’ a fragment, 1850; 2nd edition, with supplementary chapters, 1862, London, 8vo. 3. ‘A Manual of Artistic Anatomy,’ London, 1852, 8vo. 4. ‘Great Artists and Great Anatomists’ (Leonardo, Michael Angelo, Raphael, Cuvier, Geoffroy St.-Hilaire), London, 1852, 12mo. 5. ‘A Manual of Human Anatomy,’ London, 1853, 8vo. 6. ‘Fish and Fishing in the Lone Glens of Scotland,’ London, 1854, 8vo. 7. ‘Man, his Structure and Physiology popularly explained,’ London, 1857, 8vo. 8. ‘The Greatest of our Social Evils, Prostitution. By a Physician,’ 1857. He also translated or edited Scarpa's ‘Engravings of the Cardiac Nerves,’ with descriptive letterpress, 1829, 4to; Cloquet's ‘System of Human Anatomy,’ with notes, 1829, 8vo, 2nd edition, 1831; Béclard's ‘Elements of General Anatomy,’ 1830, 8vo; Quételet's ‘Treatise on Man and the Development of his Faculties,’ 1842, 8vo; J. Fau's ‘Anatomy of the External Form of Man,’ 1849, 8vo and 4to; Milne-Edwards's ‘Manual of Zoology,’ 1856, 8vo. His name also appeared in 1834 on the title-page of a new edition of ‘Anatomy of the Bones of the Human Body,’ after Sue and Albinus, with explanations by Dr. Barclay.

[Lonsdale's excellent Life of Knox, 1870, with two portraits; Life of Sir R. Christison, vol. i. passim; H. Cockburn's Memorials of his Time, pp. 457–8; Journal of Anthropology, 1870–1, pp. 332–8, by C. C. Blake; Lancet, 1863, i. 1, 19; Medical Times, 27 Dec. 1862 (by Dr. Druitt); Wretch's Illustrations of Shakespeare, Edinburgh, 1829; Noxiana (six caricatures), Edinburgh, 1829.]

G. T. B.