22/05/2017
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Skull of 18th-century Edinburgh autopsy patient reconstructed

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The face of an early autopsy patient in Edinburgh has been revealed for the first time, to celebrate the launch of the City Art Centre's new Edinburgh Alphabet exhibition.

The reconstruction is based on the skull of a skeleton unearthed in 1993. Identified by Council archaeologists as an Edinburgh woman in her mid-twenties to early-thirties, she was found within Lady Yester’s Church – now part of the University of Edinburgh’s Offices in Infirmary Street. The facial reconstruction, by Josie Ide from the University of Dundee, is based on modern forensic techniques and has been placed on display for the first time.

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The area where the skeleton was found lies 300 metres from the site of one of Edinburgh’s most notorious medical practitioners - Dr Knox. In findings reminiscent of the infamous physician, who traded with graverobbers Burke and Hare, the Council-found remains also bear evidence of ‘underground’ medical money-making.

Forensic analysis demonstrates that the subject’s front teeth were forcibly removed post-mortem. It is believed the teeth were stolen and sold to supply Scotland’s 18th century industry for real ‘false’ teeth.

The dark side of medical excellence

John Lawson, City of Edinburgh Council archaeologist, said: “In 18th Century Edinburgh, the Royal Infirmary became one of the UK’s most important hospitals. The city was quickly establishing a name for itself as a centre for medical excellence, and the findings of the hospital physicians significantly developed enlightened medical research.

“However, this quest to advance medical science had a well-known dark side. It could be difficult to trace a deceased patient’s relatives, and indeed many families were too poor to provide a proper burial. As the move towards graverobbing in the later 18th and early 19th centuries tell us, such readily available bodies for research were in great demand. This led medics and hospital staff to meddle with Edinburgh’s criminal underworld.

“This woman's teeth were almost certainly removed post-autopsy, most likely by one of the hospital porters. Help was possibly provided by one of the nurses or washerwomen charged with preparing the deceased for burial. These staff were poorly paid and corruption was commonplace. Such teeth, therefore, made a tempting and significant addition to a wage packet.”

Edinburgh Alphabet: An A to Z of the City's Collections

The facial reconstructions will be accompanied by artworks of the Old Town by Ned Holt, Walter Geikie and John Kay. The exhibition has been curated to highlight everyday objects, treasured items and unique paintings, drawings and sculpture from the collections of Edinburgh’s Museum and Gallery service. 

Visit the exhibition for free at the City of Edinburgh Council’s City Art Centre, 19 May to 8 October 2017. For more information visit the website.

(images from top: Front facial reconstruction by Josie Ide, University of Dundee; Skull unearthed 1993, City of Edinburgh Council; Side facial reconstruction by Josie Ide, University of Dundee)

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