Further adventures in Edinburgh

EDINBURGH – This is simply too good not to share – today was an amazing day. I gave my lecture this afternoon in the Hutton Club (honoring James Hutton, the Scottish founder of modern geology) in School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh. Founded in 1583, the University of Edinburgh is the 6th oldest university in the English-speaking world and has an incredible history. For nearly 300 years, it existed as a hodgepodge of buildings until the oldest existing buildings – the Old College – were constructed from local Devonian sandstone in the early 1800’s. The School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh is very large and occupies many buildings throughout Edinburgh, but I was scheduled to speak in what was once the old Surgeons Hall (once part of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh)… which is where things started to get interesting.

First, I ran into a friendly face from the past… former student, now Dr. Shasta Marrero (née McGee, Wasatch-Uinta Field Camp class of 2004) who is currently doing a PostDoc at Edinburgh. After my presentation, Shasta explained to me that her lab space in the old Surgeons Hall was once a lecture hall that a very young Charles Darwin attended classes in while attending medical school at the Universty of Edinburgh.

She continued to explain that this building was also the place where the notorious resurrectionists (grave robbers) Burke and Hare used to deliver bodies for the infamous Dr. Robert Knox to use in anatomy classes. Initially Burke and Hare would dig up freshly buried corpses, but later resorted to murder when the supply of fresh corpses grew thin. Indeed, the rash of body thefts during this period of Scottish history led many to bury their loved ones for the first few weeks in locked iorn coffins... examples of which can be viewed in the National Museum of Scotland two blocks away.

As if this weren’t already enough history in one place, some have suggested that Robert Louis Stevenson based portions of his 1885 novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, on the story of William Deacon Brodie, a sociopath that terrorized Edinburgh late in the 18th century and may have also had ties to the area now occuped by old Surgeons Hall.

My host, Dr. Simon Mudd (another old friend from my days at UCSB) continued on to explain that the building later housed the Physics Department and that a nobel prize was earned on the street in front of this building. According to the story, in the time it took Peter Higgs to walk the half block from the front door of the old Surgeons Hall up the street to the Brass Monkey pub in 1964, he had crystallized the set of ideas that would ultimately lead to his Nobel Prize for Physics in 2013 for his work in Particle Physics. 

After my lecture, we walked up the street past the Brass Monkey to the corner, and had dinner at a café called Spoon. It turns out that Spoon now occupies a space that was once a very popular café. Locals visiting that café would often see a lone author working diligently in the corner. It turns out that a sizable chunk of the Harry Potter novels were written by J.K. Rowling in the very spot I ate dinner.

Imagine that... all of that happened over a few hundred years in the space of just one city block in Edinburgh. Cool.

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