Professor Alexander Cave

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The Independent Online

Alexander James Edward Cave, anatomist: born Manchester 13 September 1900; Senior Demonstrator of Anatomy and Curator, Anatomical Museum, University College London 1934-35; Assistant Conservator, Museum, Royal College of Surgeons of England 1935-46, Arnott Demonstartor 1936-46, Professor of Human and Comparative Anatomy 1941-46; Professor of Anatomy, St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College, London University 1946-67 (Emeritus); President, Linnaean Society 1970-73; married 1926 Dorothy Dimbleby (died 1961; one daughter), 1970 Catherine FitzGerald (died 1999); died London 17 May 2001.

Alexander Cave, who has died at the age of 100, was the author of a suppressed report on the authenticity of bones alleged to be those of St Thomas à Becket.

In 1949, as the newly appointed Professor of Anatomy at St Bartholomew's Hospital, Cave was present at a night-time exhumation in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. A shallow grave in the eastern crypt was believed by Dean Hewlett Johnson to be the secret burial place of the Archbishop who had been murdered upstairs in 1170. So sure were the Dean and Chapter that they had already commissioned a firm of architects to design a prominent cover marking the burial place of St Thomas.

However, it was agreed that the bones should be subject to modern scientific inspection before this sensational find was made public. As the stone, flush with the floor, was slowly lifted there was an unpleasant smell and it fell to Cave to put his hand inside and remove the bones.

The supposed Becket bones were taken to St Bartholomew's Hospital, where they remained for two years. The Dean had been led to believe that the bones burned as Becket's by Henry VIII's Commissioners in 1538 were a substitute. The real bones were thought to have been hidden.

Cave was able to confirm that the skeleton had once been buried elsewhere and had been exhumed, along with some of the surrounding soil containing the bone fragments of other people and animals buried nearby. He was also able to confirm that it had been exhumed in great haste before being placed in the crypt coffin under an unmarked slab. However, Cave's final conclusion was that the bones could not be those of St Thomas.

The remains were reburied in June 1951. During the same month the Chapter noted Cave's 31-page report, which, it appears, was also buried. The document was never published and no copy was deposited in the Cathedral Library. Nor was one retained by Hewlett Johnson. Several researchers including James Bentley, author of Restless Bones (1985), remained unaware of the report. The only remaining copy in existence belonged to Cave, who in 1993 was happy to make it available to Professor John Butler when he was writing The Quest for Becket's Bones (1995).

In 1960 Cave was able to authenticate a skull at Wardley Hall, the Bishop of Salford's official residence, as being that of St Ambrose Barlow, a Benedictine, who was hanged, drawn and quartered at Lancaster Castle.

In 1967 one of Cave's last tasks before retiring from St Bartholomew's was to pronounce on the alleged hand of St James the Great at St Peter's Church in Marlow. Although the Apostle's remains have long been claimed to be at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, a hand was at Reading Abbey prior to the Reformation. Prevented by cost from attempting a radiocarbon dating, Cave was forced to conclude that at best the hand might be that of a 16th-century martyr rather than a first-century follower of Christ.

Alexander Cave was born in Manchester and educated at Manchester High School, from where he won a place at Manchester University to read Medicine. In 1923 he graduated at the age of 24 with a distinction in Preventative Medicine. For the next decade he was Senior Demonstrator and Lecturer in Anatomy at Leeds University. In 1934 he moved to London to take up the post of Curator of the Anatomical Museum at University College. He was also to become Arnott Demonstrator and Professor of Human and Comparative Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons.

As Professor of Anatomy at Bart's he tended to terrify his students in the tradition of a surgeon in a Fifties film. This may partly have been due to a difficulty in coming to terms with the presence of an increasing number of female students. Whilst continuing to hold the post for over 20 years he was not only Examiner in Anatomy for London University but also for Cambridge University and the Royal University of Malta. In 1959 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. He was also made a life member of the Anatomical Society.

Cave was an expert on the rhinoceros and wrote several papers on the subject.

His willingness to advise on relics was part of his devotion to the Roman Catholic faith. He was a member of the congregation at St Etheldreda's near the hospital in Smithfield, where he enjoyed being able to hear a Latin Sung Mass. He claimed to pray in Latin. Following the death of his second wife he moved out of his Finchley home and into a convent, where the sisters found him far from intimidating and quite humble about his achievements. The celebrant at his funeral mass at the convent was his grandson Father Peter Madden.

Leigh Hatts