Long handled axes, rusted kitchen knives and a homemade cosh are just some of the weapons that make up the collection of renowned forensic pathologist Sir Sydney Smith (1883-1969); recently acquired, researched and catalogued by the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. These items can be viewed and searched on a new website, launched today (Thursday 27 April) which provides access to high quality digitised images of the College’s 3D artefacts collections.

Some of the series of weapons retained their original evidence labels, which enabled the College to link them to murder investigations, trials and resultant verdicts using archive newspaper and high court material held by the National Records of Scotland.

One example is a short-handled axe identified as being evidence in the case against John Maxwell Muir of Dumfries who was arrested and tried for the murder of his wife in 1933. The axe was recovered from the scene with evident blood staining on the handle. Sydney Smith, as the forensic expert, gave testimony in court regarding the forensic evidence available from the weapon. Smith ascertained that the blood on the axe handle was human blood, the same type as that of the victim, and that hairs recovered from the handle were also a match to the victim. Muir was found guilty of culpable homicide for the murder of his wife, his insanity plea dismissed.

 Along with the catalogued weapons the College has also acquired hundreds of glass negative slides which refer to cases he was involved in, these were used by Smith as teaching materials, while serving as Professor of Forensic Medicine at the University of Edinburgh from 1928 to 1953. These include images of poisonous flowers, hair samples, fingerprints, wounds, and handwriting samples.

The collection will feature in the upcoming event ‘Deadly Nightshade: The Darker Side of Edinburgh’s Medical Past’. Guests can take a behind the scenes tour of the College and learn about the sinister side of Edinburgh’s medical history, through dark texts, gruesome illustrations and talks on murder trials, Burke and Hare and the history of poisonous plants.

Iain Milne, Head of Heritage, The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, said:

“This collection provides a wealth of information on early to mid 20thcentury forensic science, an era when the death penalty was in place and Sir Sydney Smith a key forensic expert in many murder trials.   

“While many of the items do have a grisly history, we also believe Smith used them as teaching aids in his role as Professor of Forensic Medicine, educating the next generation of forensic experts”.


Contact: For more information contact s.collier@rcpe.ac.uk 0131 247 3658

Notes to Editors:

  1. Sir Sydney Smith (1883-1969) was a forensic pathologist, originally from New Zealand, who trained in medicine at the University of Edinburgh, before pursuing a career in forensic medicine. After spells working in New Zealand and Egypt he returned to Edinburgh in 1928 as Professor of Forensic Medicine, and spent the rest of his career working as both an educator and forensic expert alongside police forces in Scotland and the criminal high court. His 1959 autobiography ‘Mostly Murder’ details many of the cases he worked on.
  2. Some of Sir Sydney Smith’s collection was given to the College by his family following his death, with the weapons and further slides acquired in October 2016 by donation from collector Harry Shute.
  3. The weapons collection can be viewed online at artefacts.rcpe.ac.uk
  4. The slides are not displayed online but most can be accessed for research purposes by appointment with the College library, library@rcpe.ac.uk
  5. ‘Deadly Nightshade: The Darker Side of Edinburgh's Medical Past’ will be held at the College at 18.30 on Wednesday 7 June 2017. For more information and to buy tickets visit: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/deadly-nightshade-the-darker-side-of-edinburghs-medical-past-tickets-33391828859