The Edinburgh Medical School during the Regency – and Today, by Eliza Shearer

The Edinburgh Medical School during the Regency – and Today, by Eliza Shearer

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?

How it Started

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.

Idiosyncrasies and Quirks

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).

How it’s Going

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

Do you have any doctors or medics in the family? Have they heard of Edinburgh University College of Medicine? 

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Nancy Mayer
Nancy Mayer
November 15, 2021 8:32 PM

Interesting about the medical school. Had heard of it, of course, and of its reputation as a first class school. Hadn’t heard of some of the other information. I as surprised that you said it was only 2 and a half days by horse back from London, . It took nearly a week to get to Gretna Green from London by carriage.

November 13, 2021 8:44 AM

My niece is the only doctor in the family and she has visited the school. I’m astounded that you didn’t need a degree to practice medicine. So glad that’s no longer the case.

Mirta Ines Trupp
November 11, 2021 2:54 PM

This university and its history was of great interest while I was researching for my latest book. During the Regency and Victorian eras, Jewish students faced quotas and various restrictions at university. For example, Jews at Cambridge had to subscribe to the articles of the Church of England. Jews couldn’t graduate from Oxford’s School of Medicine until after the abolition of the Test Act in 1871. Edinburgh was different because they didn’t require religious tests for matriculation or graduation. Thanks for sharing!

November 10, 2021 11:30 PM

Thank you for sharing. I know someone who will be greatly interested in this university.

Riana Everly
November 10, 2021 5:09 PM

DH’s grandfather was a medical doctor and did his PhD at Edinburgh, but I don’t think he did his MD there.
My daughter is very interested in British universities, so I should put this little bee in her bonnet. Because wherever she ends up, I’ll have to visit. RIGHT?

Jean Stillman
Jean Stillman
November 10, 2021 7:28 AM

It is a scary thought to know so many students would leave school and start practicing medicine without their degrees.

Linny B
Linny B
November 9, 2021 10:34 PM

Very interesting post about the medical school in one of my favorite cities to visit.
Thank you for sharing!

Linda A.
Linda A.
November 9, 2021 11:40 AM

I’m not sure I would want to live in even a ‘luxury’ flat if it once was a hospital! Guess I’ve seen too many television shows and movies with ‘haunted’ old hospitals. gah.

Linda A.
Linda A.
November 10, 2021 12:03 PM
Reply to  Eliza Shearer

Very nice! They did a beautiful job on it. Thanks for sharing!

Regina Jeffers
November 9, 2021 10:41 AM

Whenever I require a competent doctor in one of my stories, I write that he completed his medical studies in Edinburgh. I did not know about the exams being in Latin, however. Another tidbit to make my tales more believable.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
November 9, 2021 10:21 AM

Interesting post! No doctors in my family but still interesting.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
November 9, 2021 10:06 AM

No medics but a few heretics… oh, wrong tic, sorry. This was a very interesting post. Wow! I had no idea. Thanks for sharing with us. Blessings.

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