The Edinburgh Medical School was a top destination for medical students during the Regency. It’s a topic that has raised its head in the forums a few times, so I thought that, as an Edinburgh resident myself, I had to have a close look at it.
Edinburgh is 430 miles or 700 km north of London, which is about two and a half days way away on horseback. As the capital of Scotland, it only became part of the United Kingdom in 1707, after centuries of strained Anglo-Scottish relations. So how did this reputation come about?
Medicine learning in Edinburgh has its origins in the barber surgeons of the city in the early 16th century. Until then, students often had to trek to the continent to learn from the best medics.
Edinburgh had a University since 1583, and in 1726 founded the Faculty of Medicine to flip this: it wanted to become the destination of choice for medical students everywhere, and it succeeded exceedingly well.
By the mid-18th century, students from everywhere, including the American Colonies, were flocking to Edinburgh to learn from the best, then spreading their knowledge. Edinburgh medical graduates co-founded medical schools like Pennsylvania, Yale, Columbia, Harvard and Dartmouth.
What Made the Edinburgh Medical School Different?
One attraction of the Edinburgh Medical School was the mix of classroom-focused medicine and surgery lessons with lessons in a teaching hospital. Students also learnt from all branches of science, not just medicine, and had a wide choice of courses to choose from.
As the reputation of the Faculty of Medicine grew, the public hospital was replaced with the grand Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh in the centre of town (now developed into luxury flats; the hospital moved to the outskirts of the city in 2003).
The city also had a well-regarded botanic garden, which contained the seed of future pharmacology and chemistry studies.
A quirk of the Edinburgh Medical School is that, although it was relatively easy for students to matriculate, the requirements to graduate were very strict. Students had to attend all lectures for a minimum of 3 years. Many of the oral and written exams were in Latin, and had to deliver a thesis in the same language. English didn’t become the language of examination until 1833.
Students also had to learn about the human body through dissection in order to become licensed surgeons. However, with the rise in the number of medical students, the demand for bodies outpaced the supply (usually the corpses of criminals executed for murder). A surprising number of gentlemen then turned to grave robbing and body snatching…
Considering that the medical degree wasn’t necessary to practise medicine, it’s no surprise to discover that many students only stayed in Edinburgh for a while, and then moved on: between 1765 and 1825, only 20% of Edinburgh students graduated as a Doctor in Medicine (MD).
A quick look at this year’s The Guardian’s University Guide, a compilation of UK university rankings that is published once a year, tells me that the top ranking for medicine in the country is the University of Edinburgh.
Globally, the school isn’t faring too bad either: in the Times Higher Educational Supplement rankings, Edinburgh fared 12th for clinical and preclinical medicine and health in 2015.
I dare say that many aspiring doctors would love the prospect of joining the Edinburgh Medical School’s illustrious list of alumni, which includes Thomas Addison, Richard Bright, William Hewson, Lilian Lindsay, John Collins Warren, James Young Simpson, Charles Darwin, Arthur Conan Doyle and my personal favourite, Abraham Colles.
To know more, visit the Edinburgh University College of Medicine website https://www.ed.ac.uk/medicine-vet-medicine/about/history/medicine
Do you have any doctors or medics in the family? Have they heard of Edinburgh University College of Medicine?