Dr John Inglis Nicol was provost of Inverness 180 years ago and died a hero after catching cholera while treating patients during a local epidemic.
Yet this distinguished man was apparently not averse to recruiting body thieves to dig up corpses for his medical studies.
Body theft was a relatively common occurrence in 19th century Scotland, when doctors and surgeons were legally prohibited from dissecting bodies for research purposes.
Guardhouses have been erected in cemeteries to guard against body thieves, with relatives taking turns keeping guard. The Guard House remains a feature of Dunlichity Cemetery where a relative who had been drinking alcohol shot his blunderbuss at a shadow he believed to be a thief. The marks of the gunshot are deemed to still be on the gravestone he touched.
From Teawig, near Beauly, Nicol was apprenticed to Dr Kennedy in Inverness and continued his education in London and the University of Tubingen, Germany.
He returned to Inverness in 1812 to establish a medical practice and rose to fame locally, being described by the Inverness Courier as “not only a distinguished physician, but a spirited citizen”.
Nicol was involved in the establishment of Holm Woollen Mills and farmland in Campfield, which stretch from what is now Ladies Walk along Stratherrick Road and takes its name from a militia training location.
His scientific inclinations led him to undertake a series of experiments to improve cultivation, including testing the value of different fertilizers and crop species. He also cultivated herbs for potential medical use.
His young daughter died and was buried in Chapel Yard cemetery next to another young daughter, one of his patients, who had also recently died. Annoyed at not being able to diagnose the cause of his patient’s death, this led him to recruit body thieves so that he could perform an autopsy.
The doctor apparently placed a yellow pebble on the correct grave as a marker for “recovery”, but someone innocently picked it up for examination and then threw it down to land on the grave of the daughter of Nicol instead.
The next morning, when the doctor entered and saw his assistant preparing the body for dissection, he was shocked to recognize his own daughter. The corpse was quickly hidden and later buried, but the girl’s dress was not thrown off and Ms Nicol fell on it, suffering from a deep mental trauma that would trouble her for the rest of her life.
It’s a sad story, but the doctors of the day required corpses to study anatomy, and many saw body theft as a necessary endeavor.
The murderous activities of Burke and Hare helped trigger the Anatomy Act of 1832, allowing the medical use of unclaimed bodies and those deemed available by loved ones.
Nicol then joined Inverness City Council and was elected provost in 1840. He resigned as civic leader in April 1843 after being outvoted on issues such as a harbor bill and a new post office.
Cholera broke out in North Kessock in January 1849, and in March there was an epidemic in Ardersier. The terrible disease reached Inverness on April 26 and in September, tirelessly in the service of patients, Dr Nicol also contracted cholera and died at the age of 61, with the Courier describing his death as “the most severe blow. hard”.
He was buried in the courtyard of the chapel next to his wife and daughter.
A portrait and commemorative bust of Nicol are on display in the townhouse – an imperfect but remarkable Invernessian.
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