Medicine in the City

500 years of medical teaching in Edinburgh

By The University of Edinburgh

A story by the Centre for Research Collections

Students in Anatomical Museum (1950) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

Edinburgh has been a centre for medical teaching, influence, innovation and care for more than 500 years.  

From our early understanding of human anatomy to the discoveries, innovations and world-changing events that took place here, the Scottish capital has a long-established role in the global history of medicine. 

Human skull etching (1732) by Richard CooperThe University of Edinburgh

Medicine has been taught here since 1505, when the Barber Surgeons of Edinburgh were formally incorporated as a craft guild of Edinburgh. 

Etching of the lymphatic system as shown on a cadaver dissected at Edinburgh Medical School (1788) by Thomas DonaldsonThe University of Edinburgh

With the corporation’s support, the Edinburgh Medical School was established during the Scottish Enlightenment in 1726, making it the oldest medical school in the United Kingdom and one of the oldest medical schools in the English-speaking world. 

Portrait of Professor Alexander Monro Primus (1750) by Allan RamsayThe University of Edinburgh

A centre for teaching

The first century of the School was shaped by one family of medical men. Three generations of Monros held the School’s Chair of Anatomy for 126 years.

An exceptional lecturer, Alexander Monro Secundus (1754-1798) succeeded his father as Professor, becoming one of the most important anatomists of his generation based on his work describing the workings of the lymphatic system.  

His son followed him as Professor of Anatomy in 1798 and would later teach one of the University's most famous students, Charles Darwin.

Charles Darwin Class Ticket (1825) by Charles DarwinThe University of Edinburgh

Students, like Charles Darwin, were given class tickets to attend lectures in the School’s purpose-built theatre in Old College. 

Completed in 1764, the 200-seat theatre would be outgrown by the mid-19th century as the School became one of the most prestigious in the world. 

Edinburgh University Extension, Plans of New Medical School, No.68 (1885) by Robert Rowand AndersonThe University of Edinburgh

New premises were established on Teviot Place across from the Royal Infirmary in 1884. 

Attracting ever more students to the Capital, Edinburgh Medical School quickly became one of the largest in Europe.   

Anatomy Museum in the University of Edinburgh Medical School (1898) by Henry Bedford LemereThe University of Edinburgh

It was at Teviot Place that the School opened its new Anatomical Museum. 

Anatomical Museum in the University of Edinburgh Medical School, Teviot Place (1898) by Bedford LemereThe University of Edinburgh

In the original design by the architect Robert Rowand Anderson, the Museum displayed its collection of human and animal skeletons, including marine mammals suspended from the ceiling of the grand top-lit gallery.

Tramond wax eye model (1910) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

The collections of the Anatomical Museum still give students insight into the inner workings of human bodies and the changing technologies and methods we use to understand them. 

Lung resin cast model (1951) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

Dermatome man model (1900) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

Students in Anatomical Museum (1950) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

Trailblazing women

Although the School’s early history reflects the influence and achievements of men, who had been the only students admitted until 1892, a few remarkable women overcame considerable adversity to become drivers of equality and medical excellence.  

Portrait of Sophia Jex-Blake (1865) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

Sophia Jex-Blake led the ‘Edinburgh Seven’, the first women to register at a British university in 1869, in the fight to allow women to qualify as doctors.  

While riots and ongoing discrimination prevented them from continuing their studies in Edinburgh, Jex-Blake and some of her peers did go on to sit their medical exams abroad to become registered doctors.

Portrait of Elsie Inglis (1912) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

Elsie Inglis, one of the first women to graduate from the University of Edinburgh, left an enduring legacy of medical care for women and while working in war zones. 

After founding a maternity hospital for poorer women in 1899, Elsie went on to establish the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service in the First World War. The service sent hospital units to support allied governments in France, Serbia, Russia, Corsica and Greece.

Portrait of Gertude Herzfeld (1930) by Bruntsfield HospitalThe University of Edinburgh

Gertrude Herzfeld, the first practicing female surgeon in Scotland, graduated from the University in 1914 when there were still significant barriers to women pursuing a career in medicine.  

During her studies, men and women were lectured separately. It was only two years after her graduation, in 1916, that women were admitted to the Faculty of Medicine on an equal footing to men. 

Lecture in the nurse teaching department of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh (1957) by Royal Infirmary of EdinburghThe University of Edinburgh

The Medical School was not the only place women received training in medical care.  

The opening of Florence Nightingale’s Training School for Nurses in London in 1860 started a revolution in nursing, transforming it into a career for educated women.  

Trainee nurses at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh (1950) by Royal Infirmary of EdinburghThe University of Edinburgh

Across from the Medical School, Managers of the Royal Infirmary opened their Nurse Training School in 1872, the first of its kind in Scotland.  

Elsie Stephenson (1948) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

Under the direction of Elsie Stephenson in 1956, it became a pioneering academic programme as the first University department of nursing in Europe. 

Students in the Anatomical Museum by Nick CallaghanThe University of Edinburgh

Teaching today

With this rich history, it is perhaps no surprise that people from all over the world are attracted to study medicine and nursing in Edinburgh. Its hospitals, Medical School, and School of Health in Social Science continue a long-standing reputation for being at the forefront of medical research, innovation, education and care.   

Although Edinburgh’s hospitals and Schools are today spread across the city, its historic buildings and collections continue to welcome and inspire the medical professionals of the future.

Drawn from the Anatomy Collections and Lothian Health Services Archive, this story represents some of the highlights of the collections relating to anatomy, medicine and health at the University of Edinburgh.  

Credits: Story

Story by Malcolm MacCallum (Curator, Anatomical Museum), Ruth Honeybone (Lothian Health Services Archive Manager), Louise Williams (Lothian Health Services Archive Archivist), and Louise Neilson (Lothian Health Services Archive Access Officer).

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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