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Professor Struthers and the Tay Whale

This article by M. J. Williams was published in 1996 in the Scottish Medical Journal. (Scot Med J 1996: 41 92-94). It is reproduced with permission. Additional material is shown in red.


Sir John Struthers, MD, LLD, FRCSE (1823-1899) occupied the chair of anatomy in the University of Aberdeen with distinction for 26 years. This was a time of great change in medical education, both locally and nationally.

The Aberdeen Medical School had been launched in 1860, following the enforced fusion by the University Commissioners of the previously separate universities and medical schools at King's and Marischal Colleges. Medical teaching was thereafter centred at Marischal College, and John Struthers, who was appointed professor of anatomy in 1863, by his forceful personality, was to emerge as a major figure in local medical politics. He was the initial proponent of the proposal to establish a chair in pathology, eventually endowed in 1882, was the driving force behind the reorganisation and extensions to the Old Infirmary Buildings at Woolmanhill, and was much involved with the major extensions at Marischal College.1

In 1883, he was also appointed Aberdeen University member of the recently established General Medical Council, and was later elected chairman of their education committee, and had a profound influence on medical education in the United Kingdom. It was on his initiative that the council endorsed the motion to extend the course of study for a medical qualification from four years, which was then common, to at least five years, and introduced proposal to strengthen clinical training.1

His background

He was born near Dunfermline in 1823, the middle of three sons of a flax spinner. All three sons studied medicine. John qualified in Edinburgh in 1845 after a distinguished undergraduate career. His initial intentions were to be a surgeon and he took the post of extra-mural lecturer in anatomy in Surgeon's Hall before obtaining his Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1847. He was then appointed assistant surgeon and later full surgeon to the Royal Infirmary, but continued as lecturer in anatomy. He then decided to make anatomy his full-time career, and was appointed to the chair in Aberdeen.2

His early researches were on the orbital muscles and their nerve supply, but in the early 1860s he became a convinced Darwinian, and most of his subsequent studies were concerned with the study of vestigial and rudimentary structures, and variation and adaptation.2 Following his appointment in Aberdeen he spent much time and effort building up a museum of zoological specimens to illustrate Darwin's theory of common descent. This led to constant demands to the Senatus for extra space and funds to house and purchase specimens, to the alarm of his faculty collegues.1 Many of the specimens were prepared by himself and he became particularly interested in the study of nature's largest mammal - the whale.

Interest in whales

Carcasses, skulls and bones were regularly washed up on the North East shore, and these would be transferred to his department for dissection and study, and his private work room was said to reek "…like the deck of a Greenland whaler".1

He published details of the anatomy of a Great Fin-Whale (now named the blue whale) (Balaenoptera musculus) which had been washed ashore near Peterhead in 1870,3 and the skeleton of another leviathan - a Sei Whale (Balaenoptera borealis) hung over the heads of generations of medical students in the hall of the anatomy department, before being moved around 1970 to the museum in the zoology department. It was through this interest in the Cetacea that he became involved with an even larger monster, in what became known and immortalised as the Tay Whale Incident.

Saga of The Tay Whale

In early December 1883, a large whale appeared in the estuary of the Tay and disported itself freely to the inhabitants of Dundee, swimming up and down the river.4 It was later identified as a male Humpback Whale (then Megaptera longimana, now Megaptera novaeangliae). Although worldwide in distribution, migrating between polar waters, it was rarely seen off British coasts, but was thought to have been attracted by the unusual presence that year of immense shoals of young herrings off the East Coast.5

Dundee was then Britain's premier whaling port, some 700 local seamen earning their livelihood in the summer season in hostile arctic waters, hunting the oily monsters.5 The fleet was however laid up for the winter, but some local whalers decided to attempt to catch this potential profit on their doorstep. Initial forays were all unsuccessful, but on 31 December, the quarry was finally struck by several harpoons.

A great chase ensued. The injured, heavily bleeding mammal towed two six-oared rowing boats, a steam launch and a later added steam tug to and fro in the estuary, before heading out to sea. The attached flotilla was dragged north to near Montrose, then South to the Firth of Forth, before returning north. Sundry other missiles including a 4-foot long iron, two marley spikes and several nuts and bolts were brutally fired into the tiring beast The battle lasted all night, and then at dawn, when the victim was lying exhausted on the surface, a freshening wind put strain on the harpoon lines, and with a last despairing effort, the lines were parted, and the whale was free. The whalers returned tired and empty handed, but were convinced mortal injury had been done.6

Seven days later, some fishermen from Gourdon, spotted a large object floating six miles off Inverbervie. It was first thought to be an upturned wreck, but on rowing out to investigate, they found the carcass of the self-same whale, bristling with the Dundonians' hardware. It was towed with difficulty to Stonehaven and there beached. Struthers immediately visited the site and when fully exposed at low tide took measurements and photographs. It was 40 feet in straight measurement and the tail fin 11ft 4 in at its extreme width.4

Local fishermen, anxious for recompense for their exertions, put the carcass on public sale. At the auction on 10 January, the professor was outbid at £226 (equivalent to £11,800 in 2003) by a John Woods from Dundee.6 An oil merchant and local worthy known better as "Greasy Johnny",7 he was an astute business man, whose dreams of profit were to be fulfilled, although not without unexpected problems.

A tug boat was chartered to return the purchase to its rightful "home" in Dundee. It arrived at the docks there at midnight the next day, with a crowd of several thousand assembled to watch. A 70-ton crane had been leased, and with a chain placed around the tail, the monster was slowly lifted high in the air and appropriate photographs taken. The whale's weight was recorded as 16 1/2

The spectacle was then marred by the early effects of decomposition, causing the tongue, itself weighing half a ton, with other soft parts and several cervical vertebrae, to at this point fall out of the mouth onto the dock, from where they had to be retrieved. The massive carcass then crushed tow successive pairs of heavy duty lorries which had been lashed in tandem as a "hearse".6 A specially strengthened bogie, used to transport huge boilers, was then hired, and pulled by 20 horses, the load was towed to John Wood's yard. It took 26 hours to complete the half mile journey.

A final disaster was only narrowly averted. It was 2am before the cortege reached its destination and naptha flares were used to enlighten the area. One was knocked over, setting some loose oil alight, and only the most strenuous efforts prevented remains being consumed in a spectacular funeral pyre. Damage was fortunately averted and profit making ensued.8 Further photographs were taken, and with altered background, whereby the dull surroundings of the yard were replaced by a scenic view of the Silvery Tay, with rail bridge and sunset on imaginary hills, were sold at either 6d or 3s depending on size and quality.6 The monster was also placed on public display, admission being charged at 6d or 1s depending on time of day. The enterprise, aided by local press, caught the public's imagination, and special buses and rail excursions were laid on to carry interested spectators from Perth and Arbroath and intervening points - 12,000 on the first Sunday alone.6 John Wood's palms had been truly greased!

On 25 January, Professor Struthers was invited to dissect the now decomposing remains. He arrived with two of his assistants and was also helped by some local whalers.4 Wood's entrepreneurial skills were however still to the fore. The dissection was opened to the public, at a special admission charge, with the added attraction of background music by the band of the 1st Forfarshire Rifle Volunteers.7

Struthers and the Tay whale
Struthers (in top hat) and the Tay Whale. George Washington Wilson


Professor Struthers commented adversely on these distractions to his scientific work, which was also interrupted by snow-showers. He opened the abdomen with a massive incision from umbilicus to anus, and removed a large width of the abdominal wall. The half putrid mass was then pickled and removed to Aberdeen for dissection. The viscera and muscles were all decomposed and poured out in a messy pulp, in which; the helping whale-fishers were said to wade knee deep.4 He removed most of the vertebrae, sternum, ribs and hyoid for detailed examination and then at Wood's request, the remains were embalmed. A wooden backbone and frame introduced, and the whale stuffed and stitched back to its original form.

The showman again took charge and his prize exhibit taken on a triumphal tour. Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Liverpool, London and Manchester were all visited, and doubtless further great profits accrued. It was summer before it returned to Dundee and on 7 August, Struthers was invited back to complete the removal of the skull and remaining bones.

Full details of his studies, covering the history, external characters and all aspects of the anatomy of the skull and skeleton were published as seven separate articles in the Journal of Anatomy and Physiology in 1888-98 4,8 and as a separate monograph in 1889.9 After completing his studies, the skeleton was cleaned, prepared and re-articulated and returned, as earlier promised, to Mr Woods. Honour and civic duty then prevailed. He declined several tempting financial offers from British and continental museums and fulfilled an earlier pledge to present it to the Royal Burgh.6 In November 1884 it was assembled in the Albert Institute (now McManus Galleries, Dundee). In 1984, as part of the rationalisation of the museum's collections, it was moved to its present home in the Barrack Street Natural History Museum, and was the centre-piece of an exhibition whose opening was timed to coincide with the centenary of the dissection. It has recently been cleaned, and is now sparkling, awaiting the new season, when the museum reopens after repairs.

The whole saga attracted great interest in the local press and was later immortalized by the Scottish poet William McGonagall in his poem "The Famous Tay Whale". Factually accurate, it seems to lack the pure iambic tetrameter remembered from my school days!


Professor Struthers effected major changes in the anatomy department in Aberdeen. Accommodation at the time of his arrival was described as "hopeless" and "depressing to contemplate" but his transformations left it "unequalled by any in the United Kingdom".

Some of his other local contributions have already been mentioned. One of his last acts in Senatus was the introduction of the Science degree. The teaching of anatomy in his latter years was however felt not to advance.1 This was probably related to his several national activities. He remained a member of the GMC until 1891 and was president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh from 1895-1897. He received an LLD from Glasgow in 1885 and was knighted in 1898.

John Struthers retired to Edinburgh in 1889, and lived in George Square. He died on 24 February 1899 in his 76th year. Four days before his death he added a codicil to his will making provision for the delivery of a lecture in anatomy every third year at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.2 The first such lecture in 1911 was appropriately given by one of his most famous students, Arthur (later Sir Arthur) Keith, the famous anatomist and anthropologist. He is remembered in Aberdeen by his zoological collection and by the Struthers Medal and Prize, which he founded in 1891. Originally intended for the best dissection which would be kept for posterity, the monetary prize is now awarded by the professor of Anatomy for the best research dissertation. With depreciation, the Gold Medal is now impractical.

The involvement of the Tay Whale was clearly not the professor's finest hour but it certainly presented him with his largest ever cadaver for dissection.


1. Pennington, C. The modernisation of medical teaching at Aberdeen in the nineteenth century. Aberdeen University Press, 1994.

2. Keith, A. Anatomy in Scotland during the lifetime of Sir John Struthers (1823-1899). Edin. Med. J. 1912; 8: 7-33.

3. Struthers, J. On some points in the anatomy of a great fin whale (Balaenoptera musculus). J. Anat. Physiol. 1871; 6: 107-125.

4. Struthers, J. On some points in the anatomy of a Megaptera longimana. Part 1 History and external characters. . J. Anat. Physio. 1888; 22: 109-125.

5. Anon. The history of the whale. Dundee central library.

6. Henderson, D. S. The Tay Whale. Natural History Museum. Barrack Street, Dundee. 1994.

7. Anon. The diverting story of the Hogmanay Whale. The Dundee Courier 27th July 1950.

8. Struthers, J. On some points in the anatomy of a Megaptera longimana. Parts II-VII History and external characters. . J. Anat. Physio. 1888; 22: 240-282, 441-460, 629-654: 1889; 23; 124-163, 308-335, 358-373.

9. Struthers, J. Memoir on the anatomy of the humpback whale. Maclachlan and Stewart. Edinburgh 1889.