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BMJ. 2007 June 9; 334(7605): 1225.
PMCID: PMC1890002
Between the Lines

Murder he wrote

Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

There have been many doctors who murdered, but few who did so who reached the top of the profession—the medical profession, that is. Oddly enough, Robert Louis Stevenson seems, in his short story The Body-Snatcher, to accuse Sir William Fergusson, professor of Surgery at King's College Hospital, and surgeon to Queen Victoria, of having been both an accessory to murder, and a murderer, in his youth.

In the story, a degenerate doctor called Fettes meets by chance a successful, rich, and eminent London practitioner called Wolfe Macfarlane. It turns out that they knew each other when both were students in Edinburgh, and both were assistants to Mr K, a private teacher of anatomy there. They both took delivery of bodies of people supplied to the anatomy school whom they suspected very strongly to have been murdered by the Irish suppliers. In one case, however, Macfarlane murders a man himself, and delivers the body to Fettes.

Mr K, of course, is Robert Knox, and the Irish suppliers the infamous Burke and Hare. Knox was for a time the most successful anatomy teacher in Scotland, with “a popularity due partly to his own talent and address,” says Stevenson, “partly to the incapacity of his rival, the university professor”—the despised Professor Monro tertius.

Knox in real life had three assistants: William Fergusson, Thomas Wharton Jones, and Alexander Miller.

I cannot trace Miller, and suspect that he is the Fettes of Stevenson's story. Wolfe Macfarlane is either Fergusson or Jones. The latter, having been chased by a mob from Edinburgh where he was suspected of complicity in the murders of Burke and Hare, became a physiologist at Charing Cross Hospital, where he taught T H Huxley, and then professor of ophthalmic medicine at University College Hospital. I do not think he is Macfarlane, for Plarr's Biographies of the Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons says of him, “Not very human, was absorbed in his work; rather unsociable, so that he had but few friends; ill adapted to make money; bitter of speech and outspoken in criticism.” He was once so poor that he nearly died from starvation; he died alone and forgotten in Ventnor, in 1891.

No, Macfarlane is Fergusson, a larger than life bon viveur who left Edinburgh and became the most fashionable surgeon in London, as Wolfe Macfarlane of the story becomes a fashionable and rich doctor in London after he, too, leaves Edinburgh.

In his confession Burke said of Fergusson: “That worthy gentleman, Mr Fergusson, was the only man who ever questioned me anything about the bodies. He inquired where [we] got that young woman, Mary Paterson, because she would seem to have been known to some of the students.”

Why would Fergusson have questioned him, though, had he not been suspicious? Mary Paterson appears in Stevenson's story as Jane Galbraith, and when Fettes speaks to Macfarlane about her, Macfarlane says, “For me, you know, there's one thing certain—that, practically speaking, all our subjects have been murdered.”

Was Stevenson merely letting his imagination rip, for the sake of a shilling shocker, or did he know more about Fergusson than appeared, say, in Sir Gordon Gordon-Taylor's article about him in the Bulletin of Medical History? (I suspect that Gordon-Taylor himself suspected Fergusson, for he quotes Burke's confession as supposed evidence of his innocence.) Did Sir William kill in his youth, to supply Knox's school of anatomy?

One thing is certain: Stevenson published the story after Fergusson's death. You cannot libel a dead man.

Did Sir William kill in his youth, to supply Knox's school of anatomy?


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