Not that it was the same Alexander Monro throughout that period, of course!
Alexander Monro primus left the medical school in the hands of his son, Alexander Monro secundus, who in turn passed the position to his son, Alexander Monro tertius. By the time this third Alexander Monro resigned from the medical school in 1846, the Monro dynasty had single-handedly governed the anatomy school at this world-class medical insitution for 126 years!
So here is a brief run down of the highs (and lows) of the Alexanders Monro, Edinburgh's three medical musketeers...
ALEXANDER MONRO (primus)
The first Monro was born in Edinburgh and studied at the University of Edinburgh between the ages of 13 and 16, but never graduated. Instead he served as an apprentice under his father, a surgeon in city, and on completing his apprenticeship went to London, Paris and the Netherlands to study under successive medical professionals, before returning to Edinburgh 1719.
Monro's skill and dedication to the relatively new science of anatomy so impressed the sitting professor of anatomy at the city's surgical school at Surgeons' Hall (not yet part of the University of Edinburgh itself), Adam Drummond, that he resigned in order to give the role to the young fellow in whom he saw huge potential as a teacher and medic.
Monro primus developed a reputation as a capable and popular tutor, and from 1722 was made sole professor of anatomy by the city council, giving him full control over this division of the medical school. His lectures were delivered in English instead of Latin, a rare departure for the age, and consequently became so popular with students that in 1725 the surgical college became instituted as part of the University of Edinburgh, whose facilities and capacity for students provided a greater platform for Monro's skill.
Thus the University of Edinburgh's medical school was formally established, with Monro as chair of anatomy, alongside other professors specialising in Theory of Medicine, Chemistry, Midwifery, and 'Physic'. It was then also under Monro's guidance that Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary was initially established, in 1729.
ALEXANDER MONRO (secundus)
The second Alexander Monro was born in 1733, and at the age of 12 - like his father before him - was sent to the University of Edinburgh to prepare him for a life of academia.
From the age of 18, Monro assisted his father in anatomy classes at the university, and when his father's lectures became so popular that not all the students could be accommodated in a single lecture theatre, the pair decide to split the course, with Monro primus teaching half the class during the day, and Monro secundus teaching the second half of the class in an evening lecture.
For over forty years, from 1759 to 1800, Monro secundus taught a full year of lectures at the university, before age and illness forced him into taking classes for only half the year.
As a resident of Edinburgh's New Town in the latter period of his life, Monro secundus dedicated one of his esteemed volumes of medical writings to Henry Dundas, a member of parliament at the time known in Scotland as 'the Great Dictator'. It's likely the two had become friends through their neighbourly connections in the New Town.
Monro secundus died in 1817, and was buried with his father in the grave at Greyfriars.
Despite the early nineteenth century being the heyday of medicine in Edinburgh, under Monro tertius the university began to acquire a reputation for being staid, mired in favouritism and nepotism (a charge exemplified by the Monro dynasty situation), and Monro himself was often described as being unkempt, dishevelled and even dirty during his lectures.
It may have been his visceral response to Monro's medical lectures that turned Darwin instead to the field of natural history, where he would later be a major historical influence.
During this time, too, the popularity of the medical school resulted in significant numbers of cadavers being removed from graveyards for sale to the university - this period of bodysnatching remains one of Edinburgh's worst periods of social history.
The two most famous figures associated with the bodysnatching epidemic weren't graverobbers at all. Burke and Hare went straight to source for their 'fresh meat', and murdered at least 17 people in an effort to keep the university in medical specimens. When the pair were eventually caught, Burke was executed for his role in the murders, and his body donated to the medical school...
Monro tertius died in 1859, and was buried in the Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh's New Town. In a film version of the Burke and Hare story, made in 2010, Monro was portrayed by Rocky Horror Picture Show's Tim Curry. A fitting tribute, perhaps!
Discover more medical heroes of the city with my private Edinburgh walking tours!
Search the blog archive...