Mary Cybulski/Cinemax
Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Interview: Dr. Stanley Burns, The Knick's Medical Advisor

Mary Cybulski/Cinemax
Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Dr. Stanley Burns is the medical advisor for The Knick, a medical drama starring Clive Owen and directed by Steven Soderbergh. He's also curator of an encyclopedic archive of historical medical photography; this comes in handy because the show is set in 1900, and is all about period details. mental_floss interviewed Burns about his role on the show and some quirks of medical history. First up, here's a brief preview to give you a taste of what the show is like (note, some surgical gore and mild early-episode spoilers are here):

Where to watch The Knick: Fridays at 10pm on Cinemax. You can catch up on clips on The Knick's website.

On Historic Medical Photography

Chris Higgins: Can you talk to me a little bit about what The Burns Archive is and what led you to start it?

Dr. Stanley Burns: Well, I was always a historian and when I discovered the value of the photographic and historic documents in 1975, I aggressively collected photographs. My original photography is The Burns Collection and The Burns Archive are the copy prints and the other paraphernalia related to my collections. And I've used that over the last almost 40 years, to write and work with the media, and create documents. It's basically a collection of medical photography, memorial photography, and historic documentary photography. As I tell everyone, there is no art, music, or sports in there, because all the other institutions have that.

Higgins: You were—and are, I suppose—an ophthalmologist, is that right?

Dr. Burns: Yes, I am. I still practice. I have a big day tomorrow in the office. I don't do major surgery anymore, I just don't have the time for that.

His Role in The Knick

Higgins: Right. So, let's get into The Knick. As a medical advisor to the show you have an unusual job. How does that job work? I mean, what do you do? Are you there on set during shooting, are you reading scripts and giving notes?

Dr. Burns: Yes, I'm on set. I was on set from three to five days a week. Certainly for all of the medical episodes when medical things of interest, all the surgeries [take place]. [Before shooting,] Michael [Begler] and Jack [Amiel] and Steven Soderbergh came to me with their pilot and they spent some time here and realized the treasure trove, the Tutankhamun Tomb of early medical photography that's here—and the stories. Remember, I had written 44 photographic historic textbooks. At least 40 of them are on medical photo history and I've written over 1,100 articles in medical photographic history. So, this is the work I've been doing and continue to do. My next book comes out in November, it's called Stiffs, Skulls & Skeletons: Medical Photography and Symbolism. [...]

Higgins: I've seen the video that shows you giving a tour of the collection and putting it in context. It is massive.

Dr. Burns: Well, I have about a million photographs and probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 good medical photographs, but it's also supplemented, which is what makes the writing and the research easy, by the major textbooks of the time period and the journals of the time period. So for instance, I have all the issues from 1880 to about 1930 of the Annals of Surgery, the Archives of Surgery, the International Journal of Surgery, and the Synopsis of Surgery. So, I have the original articles that these great doctors wrote on their great cases and also a lot of the great articles they wrote on their foibles, the things that went wrong. And so, you'll see both aspects in the show.

Organizing a Million Photos

Higgins: How do you keep all this stuff organized? Is there a database or some sort of taxonomic system?

Dr. Burns: Well, no, it's in my head. But see, every time we do a book, then that subject gets organized, it gets scanned, it gets numbered, labeled. So that as far as Stiffs, Skulls & Skeletons are concerned, the book will have 450 photographs, but in order to produce that we've scanned about somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 images from which we edit it down.

Higgins: Right on.

Dr. Burns: So, each time I do a book the subject matter gets scanned and localized. Put in a box and put up on a shelf until it's called for.

Recreating Period Props

Props (before surgery) / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Higgins: So, when you talk about folks coming through to do a production like this, are there set designers, costumers, looking at things to find period details and such?

Dr. Burns: Yeah. Well, we work with all of them. And I tell you it was a thrill, because everyone was so professional. For instance, if we had a rusty instrument, but it was important you can't have [an] instrument made in 1900 that's rusty, they'd make a new one. [...] Probably the most amazing thing [the prop people] created were Lister's antiseptic vaporizers. This is an essential part of surgery of the era and they're very expensive machines, if you can find an original one, which they did and then they accurately reproduced it, because they needed four or six of them in the operating rooms. And so, that went on throughout the entire show.

[... For one episode], they had to cool someone's head and I had in my photograph collection one of the early 1900 devices or 1890 devices that consisted of a cap with a rubber tube running around it for which they'd put cold water in with multiple layers of rubber tube. It looked like a little coil, and I would show them the picture and I worked with them and out came a hat from 1895.

Higgins: That's awesome.

Dr. Burns: But that's really a good example. And another example: [...] I said, "You know, you really need this certain neurological condition that this baby has. You really should show that, because that's really a dramatic exposé of what it meant to have this condition." And they produced it. I gave them the pictures, they sent it away to...I think it was done in California where they have the latex labs, because I think there's only one here [in New York], so most of the latex and the models came from California, and so, they made it. And that to me was the most amazing aspect of this show, other than the Lister atomizers, because they made an animatronic person, but that exhibited the medical maladies that I wanted it to. So, it was kind of strange to see that, but as a medical historian it was kind of wonderful to see that it was produced so accurately.

Reorganizing the Operating Theater

The Knick's Operating Theater / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Higgins: Are there any memorable moments where you had to step in, either in the writing phase or in the room, and suggest that something be changed to make it more accurate?

Dr. Burns: Oh, yeah. That happened on the very first day. [...] I walked into the operating room and I looked at the audience, they had already seated about a hundred distinguished doctors and they were about to operate and I said, "Steven, this is wrong." [It] was something like the fact that if Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg invited you to direct a movie he wouldn't put you in the back row. And so, likewise in medicine. In the front row would be the old distinguished doctors and the next row would be the associate professors and assistant professors, et cetera. So, what they did is they had to spend the time to reorder the entire audience [...]. They were shifting beards, hairs, and lookalikes, depending on how the film was going to be shot.

But of course I only had to do that once, because they knew afterwards what to do and they just shuffled the older doctors in the first row and the young doctors were all the way on top.

The Knickerbocker Hospital Medical School

Higgins: I gather from reading other interviews that you had to train the actors in the basics of suturing and some surgical procedures. What was that like?

Dr. Burns: Well, for me it was a lot fun. First of all we created the Knickerbocker Hospital Medical School, where I [taught] my medical students, which consisted of all the actors, including Clive [Owen]. He had a couple of extra lessons, because he really wanted to learn. I showed them the procedures, I had books that showed step-by-step the operative techniques, and most importantly I taught them how to place sutures in operative wounds. We did that because the prop department provided us with latex arms that were very realistic and I had the needle holders and needles. And so, I taught the actors how to do a mattress suture, continuous running sutures, and subcuticular sutures. I taught them how to tie with their hands very quickly as you will see onscreen as a surgeon does till this day.

I taught them how to use hemostats, which are these little clamp-like devices that we closed off blood vessels. And I showed them pictures of one procedure where there were over a hundred hemostats in this relatively small wound.

Just as a sidebar, that was one of the great accomplishments of William Halsted, whom Thackery's character is modeled after. Halsted taught people how to be delicate with tissue and how, if you want to have a great result to your surgery it had to be a bloodless surgery, that if you left pools of blood inside it would usually attract bacteria. And so, the hemostat was really an important advent of the time. [...] I taught my students how to hold a hemostat on the second finger of the hand and how to be able to tie or hold a scalpel to make a cut, while holding the hemostat in that second finger and then swing it around, open it to clamp the blood vessel and then go back to doing their stuff, and they loved it.

And one comment was, [...] of all the things they learned during the show, this would probably hold in the greatest stead throughout their entire lives, because they felt confident. They'd say, "Well, if I came across an accident or if I had to suture someone up now, I know how to do it." And this was a general comment right across the board and it is something great to learn, how to be able to put stitches in and take stitches and do all that.

Dr. Burns and Clive Owen on set / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Higgins: That is excellent.

Dr. Burns: Oh, the one other thing I should tell you. They were so attentive and so serious, more than medical students! [...] If you learn it and you don't do it right if you're a medical student, you'll do it again the next time or you'll learn next week. But when you're filming you get this one chance and you better look good. And so they all strove, not to look good, but to look great, and they did. And I'd let Clive suture me up. I mean, these guys know how to do it. This was their expertise, this one little aspect in medicine.

Scrubbing In

Higgins: So, a couple of specific questions that came up while watching. I've seen the first seven episodes. So, by 1900 the germ theory is well established and we see things like surgeons scrubbing in. One thing that jumped out at me in the first minutes of the first episode is seeing doctors dipping their hands and beards into a series of bowls of liquid—

Dr. Burns: Right.

Higgins: I'm curious—what is that liquid and why are there three tubs of it?

Dr. Burns: Well, there are three liquids used. One was an acidic solution to sterilize the hand, carbolic acid was another weak solution. Then there was a potassium permanganate solution, which colored the hands, which all sterilized. And then there was a washing solution. And the point was to get rid of germs and this was a good technique at the time.

How Doctors Became Addicts

Higgins: Now, we also see several doctors addicted to cocaine and other substances. I'm wondering if you have a sense...how common was this for doctors in 1900 to be hooked on cocaine and opiates?

Dr. Burns: Well, it was common, but not for the reasons that you think. It was common because this was an era when doctors experimented on themselves. [...] I always talk about the great neurologist Henry Head, who cut his own nervesand of course he would have a permanent defect afterwardsto find out what innervation was and what it was like.

And Halsted again, who the [Dr. John Thackery] character is modeled after, was one who developed infiltrative anesthesia, that is injecting cocaine locally, to be able to operate without giving general anesthesia. They practiced on themselves and they didn't know the side effects of all these drugs. One of Halsted's [colleagues], a close associate when he was practicing in New York before he went to Hopkins, died. Halsted's effect was the fact that he became a cocaine addict. And I know during his tenure at Johns Hopkins when William Henry Welch was the head of the institution would try to take [Halsted] on his boat during the summer to somehow make him break the habit. But I think [Halsted] was an addict until he died and I think ultimately he became a morphine addict.

Cadavers vs. 3D

Clive Owen (Thack) contemplates a pig / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Higgins: Can you talk a little about the problems obtaining cadavers in 1900? We see this a lot in the show—the use of pigs and other sort of substitutes.

Dr. Burns: Well, doctors did need to get cadavers and there was a short supply of cadavers. They used to get them from Potter's Fieldunclaimed bodies. And this had always been a problem because as medical institutions proliferated you needed more cadavers. It became almost an auction and who you knew. Stiffs, Skulls & Skeletons actually addresses this [...].

What's happening today is they're actually using, in some medical schools, three-dimensional models and stereography and interactive models to do dissections. It's not the same as going into an old-fashioned room and smelling the body, but the way medicine's going today for a lot of people this may work. [Encountering a cadaver] used to be one of the obstacles to becoming a physician to try to get through your first year anatomy course. But that was a problem, grave robbing was a problem, but most of that in New York State was really done with at that time, it was just a matter of where you could steal the unidentified bodies from.

Higgins: Also in an early episode we see some interesting photos of medical oddities, we see those briefly during a burglary. Are those from your collection?

Dr. Burns: Yes. All the photographs used are from my collection. They have 80,000 real great ones, it was just a matter of choice about which ones they would use for that particular scene, and I think they used some of my favorites. Living with this stuff every day, writing and doing work so we picked some great ones, and I think they chose some great ones what they wanted to show.

Early X-Rays


Clive Owen (Thack) with an x-ray / Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Higgins: At one point we see an early X-ray machine. Can you talk about how useful this would be and how dangerous it might have been?

Dr. Burns: How dangerous? Okay. The X-ray was discovered in November...I think, November 8, 1895 by Rӧntgen, a physicist in Germany. It was one of the few inventions that was instantly accepted medically, it went around the world. By March of 1896 people were publishing papers on the medical use of the X-ray and it was not very powerful. And again, let's talk about the cocaine, this is really the worst example of doctors not knowing the effect. Edison, who of course was a great electrical scientist of the erabecause you need electricity to run the machinerecognized that his hands were getting red, so he had his assistant [Clarence] Dally doing all the X-rays and the fluoroscopies, and Dally was dead by 1904. I think he had only been working on it for about seven or eight years and what happens is the doctor's fingers were falling off, they were getting squamous cell carcinoma, and a whole bunch of other carcinomas from exposure to the X-ray. An X-ray of the abdomen for instance in 1900 was over 45 minutes.

In the Spanish-American War there was this great woman radiologist in San Francisco who took photographs of the soldiers, of the bullets, it was really the major exposé of war injuries that was published, this Spanish-American War book, with these early X-rays. And she died also about 1904. So it was extraordinarily dangerous both for the doctor and for the patient.

But the X-ray opened up dramatic fields. For instance, by 1901 it was routine to treat skin cancers with X-rays, as well as the dreaded condition Lupus Vulgaris, which is tuberculosis of the face. And as I said, this time period was when these inventions...all the great inventions of medicine were put into practical use. It was a time, as I always explain, that the chest, the head, and the abdomen became the playground of the surgeon. They were able to operate within those organs for the first time and heal patients successfully, operate on the brain and the heart. The first heart suturing was being done at that time.

The Burns Archive

Higgins: So getting back to The Burns Archive. Is the Archive something that people can visit?

Dr. Burns: Not really, we're working. We can't have people coming through here when I'm talking and Elizabeth's writing. We work in there all the time. [...] The public gets to see our materials via our books and our website [...] But we do have researchers come all the time.

About 20 years ago we were open to the public and we were listed among the unusual museums of New York City, but we're just dancing as fast as we can. There are only four of us here and lots of stuff to do and we produce more than most museums with the number of exhibits, books, and other things that we do.

Historical Perspective in Medicine

Dr. Burns: One of the statements I say to everyone I meet, just so you get the correct idea about these doctors, is that these doctors from 1900 and the doctors from 1700 and 1800 are just as smart as you and I, just as innovative, just as genius. The problem is they labored under inferior knowledge in technology and all they tried to do was help and heal. They did the best they could, but the advance of medicine and technology is so great that a hundred years later a lot of the stuff looks foolish and you're wondering why a patient would put up with it. And what we're doing today will be looked at, I'm sure, a hundred years from now the same way.

Where to watch The Knick: Fridays at 10pm on Cinemax. You can catch up on clips on The Knick's website.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
17 Things to Know About René Descartes
iStock
iStock

The French polymath René Descartes (1596-1650) lived after the Renaissance, but he personified that age's interest in mathematics, philosophy, art, and the nature of humanity. He made numerous discoveries and argued for ideas that people continue to grapple with. (His dualist distinction between mind and the brain, for example, continues to be debated by psychologists.) Get to know him better!

1. NOBODY CALLED HIM RENÉ.

Descartes went by a nickname and often introduced himself as “Poitevin” and signed letters as “du Perron.” Sometimes, he went so far to call himself the “Lord of Perron.” That’s because he had inherited a farm from his mother’s family in Poitou, in western France.

2. SCHOOL MADE HIM FEEL DUMBER.

From the age of 11 to 18, Descartes attended one of the best schools in Europe, the Jesuit College of Henry IV in La Flèche, France. In his later work Discourse on the Method, Descartes wrote that, upon leaving school, “I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance."

3. HIS DAD WANTED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

Descartes’s family was chock-full of lawyers, and the budding intellectual was expected to join them. He studied law at the University of Poitiers and even came home with a law degree in 1616. But he never entered the practice. In 1618, a 22-year-old Descartes enlisted as a mercenary in the Dutch States Army instead. There, he would study military engineering and become fascinated with math and physics.

4. HE CHANGED CAREER PATHS THANKS TO A SERIES OF DREAMS.

In 1618, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II, attempted to impose Catholicism on anybody living within his domain. The result of this policy would be the Thirty Years' War. It would also prompt Descartes, a Catholic, to switch allegiances to a Bavarian army fighting for the Catholic side. But on his travels, he stopped in the town of Ulm. There, on the night of November 10, he had three dreams that convinced him to change his life’s path. “Descartes took from them the message that he should set out to reform all knowledge,” philosopher Gary Hatfield writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5. HE COULD BE EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT AND SHINY OBJECTS.

In 1628, Descartes moved to the Netherlands and spent nine months doggedly working on a theory of metaphysics. Then he got distracted. In 1629, a number of false suns—called parhelia, or “sun dogs”—were seen near Rome. Descartes put his beloved metaphysics treatise on the back burner and devoted his time to explaining the phenomenon. It was a lucky distraction: It led to his work The World, or Treatise on Light.

6. HE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR ANALYTIC GEOMETRY ...

In 1637, Descartes published his groundbreaking Discourse on the Method, where he took the revolutionary step of describing lines through mathematical equations. According to Hatfield, “[Descartes] considered his algebraic techniques to provide a powerful alternative to actual compass-and-ruler constructions when the latter became too intricate.” You might have encountered his system in high school algebra: They’re called Cartesian coordinates.

7. ... AND THE REST OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY.

Everybody knows Descartes for his phrase Cogito, ergo sum (which originally appeared in French as "Je pense, donc je suis"), or "I think, therefore I am." The concept appeared in many of his texts. To understand what it means, some context is helpful: At the time, many philosophers claimed that truth was acquired through sense impressions. Descartes disagreed. He argued that our senses are unreliable. An ill person can hallucinate. An amputee can feel phantom limb pain. People are regularly deceived by their own eyes, dreams, and imaginations. Descartes, however, realized that his argument opened a door for "radical doubt": That is, what was stopping people from doubting the existence of, well, everything? The cogito argument is his remedy: Even if you doubt the existence of everything, you cannot doubt the existence of your own mind—because doubting indicates thinking, and thinking indicates existing. Descartes argued that self-evident truths like this—and not the senses—must be the foundation of philosophical investigations.

8. HE'S THE REASON YOUR MATH TEACHER MAKES YOU CHECK YOUR WORK.

Descartes was obsessed with certainty. In his book Rules for the Direction of the Mind, “he sought to generalize the methods of mathematics so as to provide a route to clear knowledge of everything that human beings can know,” Hatfield writes. His advice included this classic chestnut: To solve a big problem, break it up into small, easy-to-understand parts—and check each step often.

9. HE LIKED TO HIDE.

Descartes had a motto, which he took from Ovid: “Who lives well hidden, lives well.” When he moved to the Netherlands, he regularly changed apartments and deliberately kept his address a secret. Some say it's because he simply desired privacy for his philosophical work, or that he was avoiding his disapproving family. In his book titled Descartes, philosopher A. C. Grayling makes another suggestion: "Descartes was a spy."

10. HE WASN'T AFRAID OF CRITICS. IN FACT, HE RE-PUBLISHED THEM.

When Descartes was revising his Meditations on First Philosophy [PDF], he planned to send the manuscript to “the 20 or 30 most learned theologians” for criticism—a sort of proto-peer review. He collected seven objections and published them in the work. (Descartes, of course, had the last word: He responded to each criticism.)

11. HE COULD THROW SHADE WITH THE BEST OF THEM.

In the 1640s, Descartes’s pupil and friend Henricus Regius published a broadsheet that distorted Descartes’s theory of the mind. (Which, put briefly, posits that the material body and immaterial mind are separate and distinct.) The two men had a falling out, and Descartes wrote a rebuttal with a barbed title that refused to even acknowledge Regius’s manifesto by name: It was simply called “Comments on a Certain Broadsheet.”

12. HE NEVER BELIEVED MONKEYS COULD TALK.

There’s a “fun fact” parading around that suggests Descartes believed monkeys and apes could talk. He believed no such thing. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes denied that animals were even conscious, let alone capable of speech. The factoid comes from a misreading of a letter Descartes had written in 1646, in which he attributed the belief to “savages.”

13. HE TOTALLY HAD THE HOTS FOR CROSS-EYED WOMEN.

In a letter to Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes explained that he had a cross-eyed playmate as a child. “I loved a girl of my own age ... who was slightly cross-eyed; by which means, the impression made in my brain when I looked at her wandering eyes was joined so much to that which also occurred when the passion of love moved me, that for a long time afterward, in seeing cross-eyed women, I felt more inclined to love them than others.”

14. WHEN HE MET BLAISE PASCAL, THEY GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT ... ABOUT VACUUMS.

In 1647, a 51-year-old Descartes visited the 24-year-old prodigy and physicist Blaise Pascal. Their meeting quickly devolved into a heated argument over the concept of a vacuum—that is, the idea that air pressure could ever be reduced to zero. (Descartes said it was impossible; Pascal disagreed.) Later, Descartes wrote a letter that, depending on your translation, said that Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”

15. HIS WORK WAS BANNED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

Back in the late 1630s, the theologian Gisbert Voetius had convinced the academic senate of the University of Utrecht to condemn the philosopher’s work. (Descartes was Catholic, but his suggestion that the universe began as a “chaotic soup of particles in motion,” in Hatfield's words, was contrary to orthodox theology.) In the 1660s, his works were placed on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

16. HE REGULARLY SLEPT UNTIL NOON (AND TRYING TO BREAK THE HABIT MIGHT HAVE KILLED HIM).

Descartes was not a morning person. He often snoozed 12 hours a night, from midnight until lunchtime. In fact, he worked in bed. (Sleep, he wisely wrote, was a time of “nourishment for the brain.”) But according to the Journal of Historical Neuroscience, he may have had a sleep disorder that helped end his life. A year before his death, Descartes had moved to Stockholm to take a job tutoring Queen Christina, a devoted early-riser who forced Descartes to change his sleep schedule. Some believe the resulting sleep deprivation weakened his immune system and eventually killed him.

17. HIS SKELETON HAS TRAVELED FAR AND WIDE.

Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650 and was buried outside the city. Sixteen years later, his corpse was exhumed and taken to Paris. During the French Revolution, his bones were moved to an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments. Decades later, when plans were made to rebury Descartes in an abbey, officials discovered that most of his bones—including his skull—were missing. Shortly after, a Swedish scientist discovered a newspaper advertisement attempting to sell the polymath’s noggin [PDF]. Today, his head is in a collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Jack Taylor, Getty Images
8 Arresting Facts About Scotland Yard
Jack Taylor, Getty Images
Jack Taylor, Getty Images

Depicted in fiction for well over a century as the world's premier police force, Scotland Yard might be the most famous banner for law enforcement in history. Though the name itself is officially a term for the location of the London Metropolitan Police headquarters, it’s taken on a colloquial use to describe the collective brain trust of that station’s patrolmen and detectives. Here’s what we’ve deduced about the past, present, and future of this historic—and sometimes controversial—institution.

1. IT GOT ITS NAME FROM A TRICKY BIT OF GEOGRAPHY.

London didn’t have a formal police force until 1829, when Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel arranged for a squad to replace the fractured system of watchmen, street patrols, and the River Police. Colonel Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne were tasked with organizing the force: Mayne’s house at 4 Whitehall Place opened to an adjacent courtyard that had once been a medieval palace that hosted Scottish royalty while they were in London. This “Great Scotland Yard,” which was also reportedly the name of the street behind the building, became synonymous with Rowan and Mayne’s efforts to create a new era in law enforcement.

2. CHARLES DICKENS TAGGED ALONG ON PATROLS.

Author Charles Dickens poses for a photo
London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

The renowned author of Great Expectations and other literary classics wasn’t a policeman, but he did perform the 19th-century equivalent of a ride-along. Dickens was friends with Charles Frederick Field, a Scotland Yard inspector, and their relationship led to Dickens occasionally accompanying patrolmen on their nightly rounds. He even based a character in his novel Bleak House on Fields.

3. THERE WERE DIRTY COPS AMONG THE RANKS IN THOSE EARLY DAYS.

For all of the public acceptance of Scotland Yard—Londoners were initially wary of the plainclothes cops walking among them—the squad suffered a sensational blow to its image in 1877. Known as the “Turf Fraud Scandal” or the “Trial of the Detectives,” the controversy erupted after a Parisian socialite named Madame de Goncourt was conned by two men named Harry Benson and William Kurr. Scotland Yard inspector Nathaniel Druscovich was dispatched to Amsterdam to capture a fleeing Benson while others pursued Kurr. The men proved surprisingly elusive, which prompted suspicion among Scotland Yard officials. When the two con men were finally arrested, they explained that an inspector named John Meiklejohn was taking bribes in exchange for tipping off Kurr to police activity. Two other policemen were implicated; the three each received two years in prison. The high-profile breach led to a reorganization, with the Yard inserting detectives into a new Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to help minimize misconduct.

4. THEY HELPED PIONEER FINGERPRINTING.

A Scotland Yard employee examines fingerprints
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At one time, the science of fingerprinting was more of a theory than anything that could be put into practice. Most police forces instead relied on anthropometry, a system created by French police officer Alphonse Bertillon, which used 11 body measurements taken by calipers to provide a unique physical identity for an individual. While fingerprinting was beginning to take off in India in the late 1800s, the English-speaking world didn’t adopt the forensic technique of lifting and matching prints until 1901, when Sir Edward Henry, then the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard, instituted the Metropolitan Police Fingerprint Bureau. In 1902, a billiard ball thief was convicted based on a fingerprint he left on a windowsill. In 1904, a Yard detective demonstrated the efficacy of fingerprinting at the St. Louis World’s Fair, helping spread the new science to American law enforcement officials.

5. THEIR PATROL OFFICERS DIDN’T CARRY GUNS UNTIL 1994.

The uniformed police officers who wander London’s streets with an eye on keeping the peace were unarmed for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1994 that select patrol officers were permitted to carry guns, a policy shift that stemmed from increased assaults on police. The addition of firearms was limited to armed response cars intended to be dispatched to high-risk calls; previously, officers were instructed to keep their weapons in a lockbox inside their vehicles. Today, 90 percent of Metropolitan police officers go on duty without a gun, a policy largely maintained in response to a relatively low number of guns carried by civilians. Less than four in 100 British citizens own a firearm.

6. THEY HAVE A SQUAD OF “SUPER RECOGNIZERS.”

A surveillance camera is posted in London
Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images

With surveillance cameras dotting London, facial recognition for identifying criminal suspects is in high demand. But no software can outperform Scotland Yard’s team of “super recognizers,” who are recruited for their ability to match a face to a name based on their own memory. These officers are hired by administering a facial recognition test first implemented by Harvard in 2009. Those in the top percentile have an uncanny ability to retain facial feature details and are often dispatched to cull out known criminals like pickpockets at public gatherings. One such specialist, Constable Gary Collins, identified 180 people out of 4000 while examining footage of the 2011 London riots. Software was able to identify exactly one.

7. THEY KEEP A SECRET CRIME MUSEUM HIDDEN FROM THE PUBLIC.

Housed across two floors at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police in London is the Black Museum, a macabre cavalcade of evidence from nearly 150 years of investigative work. Established in 1875, the collection houses body parts (gallstones that failed to dissolve in acid along with the rest of a murder victim) and seemingly innocuous items that take on sinister connotations: A set of pots and pans that once belonged to Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen and were used to boil human flesh. It’s closed to the public, though visiting law enforcement and sometimes celebrities can secure an invite: Laurel and Hardy and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have toured its inventory. A sample of the collection went on display at the Museum of London in 2015.  

8. YOU COULD LIVE THERE ONE DAY.

The former New Scotland Yard building at 10 Broadway
Jack Taylor, AFP/Getty Images

The Metropolitan Police have changed locations several times over the years. It was situated at its original location of 4 Whitehall Place from 1829 to 1890, then housed in a large Victorian building on the Victoria Embankment from 1890 until 1967. That’s when the operation was moved to a 600,000 square-foot building at 10 Broadway in Westminster: a famous revolving sign announced a New Scotland Yard was taking up residence. In 2014, the building was sold to investors from Abu Dhabi for $580 million: London cited operating expenses and budget cuts as the reasons for the sale. The buyers plan to mount a residential housing project in the spot. Scotland Yard staff moved to a trimmed-down facility at the Curtis Green Building in Westminster and within walking distance of the Houses of Parliament.   

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios