Dalhousie University

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Early History

William BurkeThe medical school of Dalhousie University dates back to the mid-nineteenth century (1868, the year after Confederation).  Dalhousie University itself was just 50 years old (est. 1818) when a number of local doctors formed the new school of medicine and began training young men (they were all men in those days) to become physicians.   Nova Scotia passed its first Anatomy Act to provide appropriate legislation to cover the use of human bodies for dissection in the newly-established medical school. 

It had been only 40 years since the case of the "West Point Murders" in Edinburgh, Scotland, perpetrated by the grave robbers Burke and Hare; they had been selling bodies for dissection to Dr. Robert Knox, a professor of Anatomy in Edinburgh Medical College.  Their first bodies were acquired by robbing graves, a practice known as "body-snatching" that was not uncommon in those days, and men who did this were known as "resurrectionists". 

Burke and Hare, however, soon found it easier to provide fresh bodies for Dr. Knox by murdering some of their unfortunate neighbours in the back streets of Edinburgh.  Hare testified against his colleague Burke and thus won a reprieve from capital punishment, but Burke was hanged in 1828.  Ironically, his body was used for dissection by his former clients in the medical college. 

As far as we know, no such nefarious deeds were ever associated with the teaching of Anatomy at Dalhousie!

Burke's skeleton in Edinburgh University
(photos courtesy of Dr. G. Findlater)

SinclairDalhousie's medical school started life in a university building on Halifax's Grand Parade.  One of the first anatomy teachers was Dr. Edward Farrell (term of office: 1868-1870), assisted by Dr. Thomas Almon, who lectured and prosected cadavers for teaching purposes.   Dr. Farrell was succeeded as 'Anatomy Professor' by Dr. Hugh A. Gordon (1871-1872), and he was followed by Dr. George L. Sinclair (1873-1889). 

An assistant to Dr. Sinclair, Dr. D.A. Campbell, years later (in 1914) established a foundation, in memory of his son, to fund the Dr. D.G.J. Campbell Chair of Anatomy.  The Chair has been occupied ever since by the Head of the Department.

In Dr. Sinclair's time as Professor of Anatomy, the medical school was established as the Halifax Medical College (in existence under this name from 1875 until 1911).  During this period the school moved to a house on College Street across the road from where the Tupper Building now stands.


In 1889 Dr. A.W.H. Lindsay, a founding member of the Medical Council of Canada, became the new Head of Anatomy (1889-1916).  The Halifax Medical College officially affiliated with Dalhousie University that year, as the association between the medical school and Dalhousie University went through some rocky financial periods between 1868 and 1889.

In 1887 the Forrest Building was built on the South side of College Street and housed not only the Faculty of Medicine, but the Faculties of Arts, Science and Law. 

Dr. John (Jock) Cameron (1916-1931) succeeded Dr. Lindsay as Professor of Anatomy during the First World War.

Dr. Donald Mainland (1931-1949) became the next Professor of Anatomy.  His textbook of anatomy (Anatomy as a Basis for Medical and Dental Practice, 1945, Harper & Brothers, London) was well known and used by the medical and dental students of Dalhousie for many years. 




Early History > Mid 20th Century > Modern Department > Today