Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Why did Darwin drop out of medical school?

Richard Brown and Thalia Garvock-de Montbrun
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Plaque on the National Museum of Scotland where Darwin lived while studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

Erasmus Alvey (Ras) Darwin, the elder brother of Charles Darwin, completed six months of hospital training in Edinburgh in 1825-26 and then went to London to study at the Great Windmill Street School of Anatomy.1,7 Charles Darwin studied medicine at Edinburgh University from 1825-1827 and then decided to drop out of medical school. In January 1828 he went to Cambridge University to study mathematics, classics, and theology, as his father wanted him to become a clergyman.2 Charles was at Edinburgh University for two years: from October 1825 until June 1827. He did not attend many classes, spending much of his time collecting specimens of flora and fauna, and in his second year he studied Natural History.2 Darwin shared rooms with his brother Erasmus in the house of Mrs. Mackay at 11 Lothian Street and in a letter to his sister Caroline, Darwin discussed his lectures saying, “I attend Munro on Anatomy – I dislike him and his Lectures so much that I cannot speak with decency about them.3 He is so dirty in person and actions. Thrice a week we have what is called Clinical Lectures, which means lectures on the sick people in the Hospitals – these I like very much.”4 Munro was Dr. Alexander Munro III (1773-1859), whose father and grandfather were both also professors of anatomy at Edinburgh University. In his autobiography, Darwin says, “Dr. Munro made his lectures on human anatomy as dull as he was himself, and the subject disgusted me. It has proved one of the greatest evils in my life that I was not urged to practice dissection, for I should soon have got over my disgust, and the practice would have been invaluable for all my future work. This has been an irremediable evil, as well as my incapacity to draw.”5

But why was Darwin disgusted by dissection when he was a student, and why did he drop out of medical school? Two letters from Erasmus Darwin give a possible reason. On 24 February 1825 (before Darwin went to Edinburgh), Erasmus wrote, “I am getting a little case-hardening in anatomy; for yesterday seeing a body and being the Junior they gave me a deal of the dirty work, and I was not the least annoyed while an old physician also present kept leaving the room perpetually. I don’t fancy it would have suited your stomach especially before breakfast.”6 On 10 October 1826, Erasmus wrote from London, “The dissection is going on languidly; there is but one subject come in yet & there are six engaged before the one I have put my name down to: they are cheap compared to Edinburgh being £8″8 which however when it comes to be multiplied three or four times is a heavy draw back.”7 Darwin also found many of his lectures dull and stupid.4,8

Reading the correspondence of Charles Darwin suggests that he may not have been so squeamish about the dissection of the bodies in the Anatomy Laboratory, but by the procurement of the bodies for dissection. At that time, bodies for dissection were dug up from graveyards by “resurrection men” or “body snatchers.” Until 1832 bodies for anatomy classes could only be obtained legally if someone was hanged and the jail sold the body to a medical school.9,10 But there were so many medical students at the University of Edinburgh that “sack-em-up men” were going to graveyards and digging up bodies, putting them in a sack, and selling them to medical schools. The term “resurrection men” was given to men in eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain who dug up cadavers from graves to sell to surgeons. At this time a person’s wages might be £1 a month, so £8 for one body would be almost a year’s wages.10

Resurrectionists at Work

At the time Darwin was a medical student, only executed prisoners were available for anatomical dissection.10,11 Before 1760 a professor lectured, a demonstrator dissected the body, and students watched. Only one body per class was needed. But after this each student needed their own body to dissect, and as there were no preservatives, each student required three or four bodies for a complete dissection, as indicated by Erasmus Darwin.7 In order to be granted a license from the Royal College of Surgeons, a course in dissection was mandatory, which increased the need for anatomical subjects. The cost of obtaining bodies legally also increased as public opposition to dissection escalated. Surgeons had to bribe the sheriff and tip their assistants for each body seized and pay police to protect their rooms when a body was delivered. It became far less expensive to pay resurrection men for subjects.9,10,11 During the early years of resurrection men, body snatching was mainly the work of anatomy students, professors, and surgeons, hence the term “sack-em-up men.” In some schools, students were encouraged to form a physician-apprentice relationship with their teachers, and students supplied subjects for dissection.

Looking back at the letters of Erasmus Darwin, it is obvious that he was buying bodies for dissection from resurrection men.3,4 The fact that students and professors both may have dug up bodies may be why Darwin said that Munro was “so dirty in person and actions.” It is thus possible that the young, religious Darwin, who was only seventeen when he started medical school, was disgusted by the act of digging up bodies. In her biography of Darwin, Janet Browne points out that anatomy classes in Edinburgh in Darwin’s time required hundreds of bodies for dissection but only a few criminals a year were hung.12 The rest were supplied by resurrection men, shipped in barrels of whisky from Ireland, or sent from London. The Resurrection Era came to an end in Britain when the Anatomy Act was passed in 1832.13 This act was largely a response to the fact that the profits made by selling bodies to anatomy schools were so great that people began to be murdered and their bodies sold to medical schools. The most famous of these murderers were Burke and Hare in Edinburgh. However, there were also London Burkers, and Burke-ing became a way of killing people without leaving marks. Because of these murders, the British government passed the Anatomy Act in 1832 that allowed medical schools to dissect unclaimed bodies and bodies from the poor houses.10,11,13

Watchtower in an Edinburgh cemetery

Burke and Hare operated a rooming house in Tanner’s Close in Edinburgh, and when an elderly man died of natural causes owing them £4 rent, they sold the body to Dr. Robert Knox of Surgeon’s Square for £7 10 shillings. So rather than digging up bodies as resurrection men, they developed a method of killing people by plying them with whisky and then suffocating them by a method later known as “Burking.”14,15 In the winter they were paid £10 for bodies because they would last longer, and in the summer they were only paid £8 for bodies, as they would not last as long. Burke and Hare sold seventeen bodies to Professor Knox between November 1827 and October 1828, the term after Darwin left Edinburgh. Burke normally committed the murders, Hare was the lookout, and Knox was the professor who bought the bodies. A popular poem after the trial of Burke and Hare went:

“Up the Close and doun the stir;
But and ben wi’ Burke and Hare:
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
And Knox the boy who buys the beef”

Hare was convinced to turn King’s evidence, so he was set free and escaped. But Burke was hung and his body publicly dissected by Professor Munro, the same professor that Darwin did not like. In an odd twist of fate, Darwin did use the bodies that were dissected at the University of Edinburgh in his book The Emotions of Man and Animals.16 Figure 1 in this book shows the muscles of the human face as depicted by Charles Bell.17 In 1806 Bell was a professor at the University of Edinburgh and obtained his bodies for dissection from resurrection men.18 After leaving Edinburgh, Bell moved to London and taught at the Great Windmill Street School of Anatomy, where Darwin’s brother Erasmus was his student. Bell also taught anatomy to art students. In his letter to Darwin of 29 September 1826, in which he describes his training in London, Ras writes, “From 1 to 2 demonstrations by Caesar Hawkins & from 2 to 3 Mr Bell on Anatomy &c.”19

As suggested by Janet Browne, Darwin may have left medical school because he was little interested in medical practice and was disgusted by the practice of grave robbing to supply “subjects” for anatomy dissections.12 Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, the training of doctors relied on dead bodies supplied by grave robbers, and it seems that this is what Darwin was upset about. In addition, many people were opposed to dissection, and depictions of dissections such as those of Hogarth were quite grotesque. People were afraid of being dissected when they died and that is why the cemeteries were so well guarded. Darwin was, in many ways, lucky to have left Edinburgh before the Burke and Hare murders, for if he had stayed another year as a medical student he may have become involved in the dissection of bodies supplied by Burke and Hare.


  1. Aydon, Cyril. Charles Darwin: His life and times. London: Robinson, 2002.
  2. Darwin, F. (editor). The autobiography of Charles Darwin and selected letters. New York, Dover publications, 1958, pages 17-20.
  3. Darwin Correspondence Project. Letter 16 – Darwin, C. R. to Darwin, R. W. 23 October, 1825.
  4. Darwin Correspondence Project. Letter 20 – Darwin, C. R. to Darwin, C. S. 6 January, 1826.
  5. Darwin, F. (editor). The autobiography of Charles Darwin and selected letters. New York, Dover publications, 1958, page 12.
  6. Darwin Correspondence Project. Letter 13 – Darwin, E. A. to Darwin C. R. 24 February,1825.
  7. Darwin Correspondence Project. Letter 35 – Darwin, E. A. to Darwin C. R. 10 October, 1826.
  8. Ashworth JH. Charles Darwin as a Student in Edinburgh, 1825-1827. Proc R Soc Edinb. 1935; 55: 97-112.
  9. Gorman M. University of Aberdeen. An Introduction to Grave Robbing in Scotland. abdn.ac.uk/bodysnatchers/background.php. Published 2010.
  10. Resurrection Men: Stalking the Dead. http://leseay.tripod.com/index-2.html
  11. Magee R. Art Macabre: Resurrectionists and Anatomists. ANZ J Surg. 2001; 71(6), 377-380.
  12. Browne J. Charles Darwin. Voyaging. Volume I of a Biography. London: Jonathan Cape; 1995, pages 49-64.
  13. Hughes JT. The Good is Oft Interred with Their Bones, Brain. 2007; 130(4), 1167-1171. https://doi.org.10.1093/brain/awm015
  14. Roughead, W, ed. Burke and Hare. Edinburgh and London: William Hodge & Company, Ltd; 1921.
  15. Barzun J. Murder for Profit and for Science. In Burke and Hare: The Resurrection Men; A Collection of Contemporary Documents Including Broadsides, Occasional Verses, Illustrations, Polemics, and a Complete Transcript of the Testimony at Trial. The New York Academy of Medicine’s History of Medicine Series No. 43,. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1974.
  16. Darwin CR. The emotions of man and animals. London, 1872.
  17. Bell C. Essays on the anatomy of expression in painting. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme, 1806.
  18. Gordon-Taylor G, Walls EW. Sir Charles Bell: His Life and Times. Edinburgh and London: E. & S. Livingstone Ltd; 1958.
  19. Darwin Correspondence Project. Letter 34 – Darwin, E. A. to Darwin C. R. 29 September, 1826.

RICHARD BROWN is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Dalhousie University and conducts research on the neurobiology of behavior. His research is on mouse models of human neurodegenerative disorders. He is also interested in the history of neuroscience.

THALIA GARVOCK-DE MONTBRUN is an honors student in psychology and neuroscience at Dalhousie University. She has wide interests in behavioral neuroscience.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 10, Issue 4 – Fall 2018

Winter 2018



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