Museum’s namesake exposed as murderer


Sarah Smith

The founder of Scotland’s oldest public museum has been linked with murder and grave robbery in new research published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (JSRM).

According to respected historian Don Shelton, Dr. William Hunter, widely considered one of the fathers of modern obstetrics and founder of Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, and Dr. William Smellie were together responsible for the ‘burking’ murders of a number of pregnant women and their unborn children.

The resulting death toll is greater than the combined murders by Burke and Hare and Jack the Ripper. “Burking” refers to murders committed on order, often in the name of medical research and named for the infamous Burke and Hare, who were responsible for seventeen murders in 19th century Edinburgh.

In his paper, Shelton alleges that the probability of randomly locating the corpse of woman in the latter stages of pregnancy that had died before miscarriage or birth was only 0.1%. Despite such odds, the anatomical atlases of Smellie and Hunter indicate that the doctors “procured twenty undelivered and mainly ninth-month and healthy subjects in the five years 1750-1754, and Hunter another dozen pregnant subjects in 1766-1774”.

Shelton’s investigation into this area came about through research for his biography of 19th century surgeon and anatomist, Sir Anthony Carlisle.

He said: “I found [Carlisle] was a favourite student of John Hunter, younger brother of William Hunter and thus in the position to know ‘trade secrets’, such as the source of the subjects in the atlases of Smellie and Hunter.

“When I realised how many ninth-month dissected pregnant women appeared in their two atlases, and with the images all mainly drawn by the same artist, over the same period 1749-54, I became very suspicious about the number dissected and found no-one else ever seemed to have questioned the legitimacy of the subjects in the atlases.”

Hunter died in 1783 and bequeathed his collection to the University of Glasgow. The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery first opened in 1807, becoming Scotland’s first public museum.

Although the findings came as a shock to the staff at the Hunterian Museum, they are now reviewing the evidence put forward by Shelton before coming to their own conclusion.

A spokesperson said: “The Hunterian was concerned to hear of recent sensational allegations that its renowned founder, Dr. William Hunter, had been involved in murder to obtain bodies for dissecting and research. Being a mass murderer would see so out of the character of Dr. Hunter, as revealed by wide-ranging research over two centuries, that staff are confident the claims will prove unfounded.”

For more information on the e-book containing the detailed evidence supporting the JRSM article, The Real Mr Frankenstein by Don Shelton, see:


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