Historical Collections of the RCPS of Glasgow

With the exception of the Cathedral and the University of Glasgow, I suspect that there is no other institution in Glasgow older than the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.  It was given a Charter by King James VI in 1599 – a farsighted achievement for the medical profession and the City.  The presentation by Ross McGregor (Deputy Head of Heritage), Clare Harrison (Library and Heritage Manager) and Kirsty Earley (Digital Heritage and Engagement Officer) explained the rich history of this rare College of Physicians and Surgeons.  Notably, at that time, physicians learned medicine at university and surgeons acquired their craft as apprentices, a potential cause for a professional fault-line. Nonetheless Glasgow’s model is now being copied elsewhere in the world as far afield as Canada and Pakistan.

The inspiration for the College came from, Maister Peter Lowe, who from the age of 16, trained as an apprentice surgeon in Paris.  On his return to Scotland Lowe was determined to establish a faculty to improve standards of medicine and surgery.  His book ‘The Whole Course of Chirurgerie’ was the first complete textbook of surgery in English (1597).  Driven by his passion he, in collaboration with physician Robert Hamilton and apothecary William Sprang founded the College with a group of like minded practitioners.  Surviving College minute books from the early days provide much of the source material for the College’s history.  What was interesting was how limited the licensing of the ‘graduates’ of the time proved to be; for instance ‘The art of Barbery with simple wounds in the flesh’ or ‘in cutting of ye gravell and stone’ (removing bladder stones).  A step at a time was obviously the rule of the day.

While the purpose of the Royal Charter of 1599 was very much about ensuring the ‘worthiness’ of physicians and surgeons and supervising the control and sale of drugs, it was also very enlightened by including a provision for the free care of the poor once a month.  It also gave licensees the privilege of being exempt from the need to bear arms and play any role in conflicts – possibly a much valued facility in these times.

Since the 17th Century the College has acquired a large archive of some 15,000 items.  These include letters, case books, manuscripts, photographs and instruments – a rich trove to anyone interested in medical and social historical research.  A continuing source of visitors to the Library and Archives.  The correspondence includes letters from Lister and Macewen who played such a big role in antiseptic and aseptic surgery in the 19th Century.  The earliest books were donations from members and friends.  These include 16th Century books including ‘The Fabric of the Human Body’ by Vesalius (1543) and ‘Opthalmodouleia’ on the human eye by Georg Bartisch.  Much valued in times when dissection was frowned on.  There is also a non-medical but handsome Double Elephant copy of John J Audabon’s book on birds published around 1840.  It was believed the Library inherited this book from a member running low in cash as it was purchased by subscription.

In addition, members were shown a few examples of early medical instruments and memorabilia.  This included a kerosene lamp vaporiser to help respiratory ailments but now only valued as a collector’s item.  The medical value was not significant but this didn’t deter the manufacturers.  Another example was a pneumothorax device used to collapse lungs by introducing air into the chest cavity to help people recover from TB (the TB bacteria need air to survive).  While much used in the 19th Century, it continued to be used until antibiotic treatment was available.  The Collection also includes the surgical instrument case of Sir William Beattie, attending Surgeon to Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar.  He wrote an authentic account of circumstances around Lord Nelson’s death.  A centre piece of the Collection includes Joseph Lister’s carbolic spray used in the early days of antiseptic surgery.  It was a piece of equipment which made breathing in the operating theatre unpleasant and could leave scars on the hands of the medical team.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that there was pressure to develop aseptic surgery as later pioneered not long after by Sir William Macewen.

In the question and answer session, it became clear the RCPSG is very active in providing the Glasgow and West of Scotland medical fraternity up to date in medical matters.  The heritage element, although significant, is only part of the College’s ongoing activities inspired by the original charter of 1599.  In terms of funding the College’s Heritage and Archive Collection, members learned that in addition to members’ fees and examination fees, the College enjoys financial support through grants from national Museum bodies.  And with respect to discussion on the present vocal antivaxxer lobby, it emerged that the RCPSG had been active in rolling out Jenner’s cowpox vaccine in the early 1800s.  Indeed the College still retains Registers of vaccinations from 1802!

This was a very illuminating talk on a proud Glasgow heritage stretching back over six centuries.  Thanks are due to RCPSG’s heritage team Ross, Claire and Kirsty.  Members will be pleased to know that Gordon Barclay, our Social Convener, has the College Museum on our potential list of visits for next year.  An event which will now attract attention from what was learned during the team’s presentation.