Andrew Balfour

(18 January 1630 – January 1694)
College Role: 


Andrew Balfour was born in Fife on 18 January 1630, the fifth and youngest son of Sir Michael Balfour. Balfour grew up in his family seat, Balfour Castle, and received his early education at the parish school. He studied philosophy at St Andrews and graduated MA in 1650. Balfour, encouraged by his brother, probably visited Oxford and London before travelling to France in 1657, primarily to see the gardens of the duc d’Orleans at Blois. It was at Blois that Balfour befriended Robert Morison, who would play an important role in Balfour’s botanical career. Balfour lived in Paris, studying medicine, before graduating MD at Caen on 20 September 1661.

Balfour then travelled to London where he rubbed shoulders with the most famous physicians of the day. He was presented to Charles II, who recognized his potential and appointed Balfour as tutor to the young earl of Rochester. Balfour accompanied Rochester on a grand tour from 1661 to 1664, during which he gathered a magnificent collection of medical and natural history books, curiosities, and other specimens. In 1667, Balfour returned to St Andrews where he practiced as a physician, continued collecting botanical samples and experimented in science and medicine.

By 1670, Balfour was living in Edinburgh where he established a private practice. In Edinburgh, Balfour set up a physic garden with Robert Sibbald, a distant cousin. This garden, near Holyrood Abbey, was enhanced by specimens sent to Balfour by Morison. Balfour appointed James Sutherland as the first curator of the garden, which would later evolve into the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh. Balfour convinced Edinburgh University to take the garden over as an adjunct to the medical school. Sutherland’s catalogue of 1684 indicates that the garden had about 2,000 non-indigenous species.

Balfour was a prominent member of Edinburgh’s learned society and opened his own private museum, gallery and library. He was active in establishing professorial chairs at Edinburgh University and, with Sibbald, was a key figure in founding the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1681. Balfour authored the parts on materia medica in the first Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia, published in 1685. He died suddenly while walking along the street in January 1694. His wife predeceased him and they had one known surviving son, Michael Balfour. Balfour was buried in Greyfriars kirkyard. After his death, Balfour’s vast collection was dispersed and sold. In 1699, Sibbald published an account of Balfour’s life, Memoria Balfouriana.

Notable Achievements

Balfour was founding member of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

Balfour was made a baronet and physician-in-ordinary to Charles II in Scotland in 1681.

Balfour was elected president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1685.

He was a key figure for the first edition of the Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia (1685).

Key Publications

  • Letters Written to a Friend (1700)

Joseph Black

(16 April 1728 – 6 December 1799)
College Role: 


Joseph Black was born at Bordeaux on 16 April 1728. His father was an Irish wine merchant and he received his early education from his Scottish mother. At age 12, Black moved to Belfast where his education continued before he enrolled at the University of Glasgow, where he studied medicine under William Cullen. Cullen was also beginning to teach chemistry at Glasgow for the first time in 1747 and Black became his assistant in the laboratory; a position he held for three years. In 1752, Black transferred to the University of Edinburgh to continue his medical studies, continuing in the field of chemistry and beginning to experiment on the causticity of alkalis. In 1754 Black wrote his thesis based on his experiments and achieved his MD. His thesis was communicated to the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh in June 1755 and published in a volume of their essays the following year. This was to be his most significant publication.

Black began practising as a physician and from 1755 acted as substitute professor of chemistry. Cullen arrived in Edinburgh from Glasgow in 1756 and Black filled his position of professor of anatomy and botany in Glasgow. The following year he was made professor of medicine. Black took up teaching enthusiastically and developed his private practice. Early in his period of teaching at Glasgow, Black met James Watt, and the two later entered into a partnership together. Black’s major research in this period involved the theory of heat and he developed concepts of latent and specific heat.

In 1766, Black was appointed chair of the institutes of medicine in Edinburgh, succeeding John Rutherford. Black was a popular and illustrious teacher and his lecture courses attracted large numbers of students. Black played a major role in the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, as president and in revising new editions of the pharmacopoeia. Black also acted as one of the managers of the Royal Infirmary for several years.

In 1777 Black was provided with a laboratory and classroom which ultimately proved to be unsuitable. In 1781 Black had a purpose built laboratory made available to him and he continued his work developing chemical-based industries.

Black never married but lived a well-ordered life. He continued teaching until 1796. Black died on 6 December 1799 and is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

Notable Achievements

Black was president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh from 1788 to 1790.

In November 1783, Black was one of the founders of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Key Publications

  • De humore acido a cibis orto et magnesia alba (1754)
  • Lectures on the Elements of Chemistry (1803)

Byrom Bramwell

(18 December 1847 – 27 April 1931)
College Role: 


Byrom Bramwell was born on 18 December 1847 in North Shields, where his father worked as a general practitioner. He was educated at Cheltenham College where he showed significant sporting prowess. In 1865 he went to medical school at Edinburgh which he himself described 57 years later in a fascinating talk to the Edinburgh Royal Medical Society. Bramwell tells of being taught by many Edinburgh luminarie including John Goodsir, John Hughes Bennett, James Syme and James Young Simpson, whom he particularly praised. Bramwell’s interest in sport continued at university and he captained the University cricket team.

In 1869 Bramwell became house surgeon to James Spence, the Professor of Surgery. A career in Edinburgh beckoned but his father was ill and he returned to North Shields to work in the family medical practice. His career in the North East flourished, culminating in his appointment in 1874 as physician and pathologist at Newcastle Royal Infirmary. In 1879 Bramwell took what must have been a career risk and moved to Edinburgh. He became a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1880 and, after a slow start, his risk paid off as both his private practice and his academic career flourished. He became a lecturer in the Edinburgh extramural School of Medicine where he taught women students and in 1897 he was made a physician at the Royal Infirmary.

In 1900 he was one of the unsuccessful contenders for the Chair of Medicine at Edinburgh (Osler was also a candidate but withdrew). This must have been a big a disappointment for the enthusiastic and industrious teacher and author. Evidence of his industry is contained in nine volumes of clinical reports, ten books, an Atlas of Clinical Medicine (three volumes, 1892–6), and more than 160 papers. Both Intracranial Tumours (1888), which Harvey Cushing was still praising in 1931, and Diseases of the Spinal Cord (1881) were international successes. In Anaemia and some Diseases of the Blood-Forming Organs and Ductless Glands (1899) Bramwell surveyed another large area of medicine by reviewing 14,777 cases.

Byrom Bramwell was President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh from 1910 to 1912. During his presidency one of the first steps towards the formation of the United Kingdom's National Health Service, the 1911 National Insurance Act, was being debated by the College. He was much honoured, including a knighthood in 1924, and he was the first non-member clinician to be elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London. Byrom Bramwell died in Edinburgh, close to the College, in his house at 10 Heriot Row, on 27 April 1931. Two of his sons were doctors and one (Edwin) was also a president of the Edinburgh College.

Notable Achievements

In 1882, Bramwell was appointed Pathologist at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

Bramwell became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1886.

In 1887, Bramwell was appointed Physician at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

From 1910 to 1912 Bramwell was president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

Bramwell received the honorary degree of LLD from Edinburgh, Birmingham, St Andrews, and of DCL from Durham.

In 1922, Bramwell was knighted.

Received the honorary degree of LLD from the universities of Edinburgh, Birmingham, St Andrews, and of DCL from Durham.

Key Publications

Bramwell was a prolific author who published extensively on the practice, teaching and general aspects of medicine. He produced nine volumes of clinical reports, ten books, and more than 160 papers.

  • Diseases of the Spinal Cord (1881)
  • Intracranial Tumours (1888)
  • Atlas of Clinical Medicine (3 vols., 1892–6)
  • Anaemia and some Diseases of the Blood-Forming Organs and Ductless Glands (1899)
  • Lectures on Aphasia (1897)

John Brown

(22 September 1810 – 11 May 1882)
College Role: 


John Brown was born on 22 September 1810 in Lanarkshire to a minister of the Secession church there. His mother died when he was a child and his father moved the family to Edinburgh in 1822, where he became a distinguished teacher of theology. In 1826, Brown entered the University of Edinburgh where he studied arts then medicine. By 1827 he was an apprentice to surgeon James Syme. Brown wanted to become a physician rather than surgeon, however, and in 1831 became assistant to a Scottish doctor in Chatham. Brown graduated from Edinburgh MD and set up his own general practice. In 1840 he married Catherine Scott and their marriage produced three children.

In the 1840s while Brown was establishing his medical practice, he also made his literary debut. Brown authored works on various topics and from the outset his works were enthusiastically received.
Brown was at his best when writing about the effects of illness, such as his poignant, biographical account of Marjorie Fleming, a precociously gifted child who died of meningitis when not quite eight years old. ‘Marjorie Fleming’ is chiefly a running commentary on her diary and letters.

Some of Brown’s collected writings were published in 1858 as Horae Subsecivae, which featured a range of essays on medical topics, demonstrating Brown’s firm and decidedly conservative views. He was opposed to the practice of obstetrics by men, believing that labour should be attended solely by women who were specially trained and paid for the purpose. He was also opposed to specialisation, arguing that this would destroy the valuable relationship between the family physician and his patients. Women doctors and homeopathy were anathema to him. Another favourite topic was the dangers of some of the advances in scientific medicine which he had witnessed during his own career. Brown believed that many of the then-fashionable medical instruments were damaging to the education of the physician rather than of service. He made a strong distinction between the practice and the study of medicine. While conceding the merits of the external methods of auscultation he was unimpressed by the introduction of such procedures as microscopy and chemical analysis. Brown was of the opinion that, generally speaking, doctors ought to place less reliance on cases collected by very young men, and should be chary of giving too much significance to their findings.

He strongly advocated the apprenticeship system in the study of medicine, which avoided much of the evils of class teaching and learning from books. Another bugbear was the holding of examinations during medical studies, which he believed gave no true insight into the pupil’s skill in medical science and were merely tests of memory. Brown supported the idea that ornithology should be taught as a branch of medical education, believing this would cultivate the habit of observation.

Despite these views, Brown summed up the prime qualifications of a physician in the following words: ‘Let me tell you, my young doctor friends, that a cheerful face and step, and neckcloth and kindly joke, a power of exciting, a setting a-going, a good laugh, are stock in our trade not to be despised. The hearty heart does good like a medicine.’

Brown received his LLD from Edinburgh in 1874. He died from pleurisy on 11 May 1882, and was buried with his father and family in the New Calton Cemetery, Edinburgh. On his death, Mark Twain remarked that ‘He was the most extensive slave-holder of his time, and the kindest, and yet he died without setting one of his bondsmen free’.

Notable Achievements

Brown became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1847.

Brown became a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1859.

Brown was awarded a royal pension in 1876 ‘for distinguished literary eminence’.

Key Publications

Brown was a prolific author and contributed to various newspapers and periodicals. He wrote a modest stream of essays on philosophy, art, literature, biographies, the scenery and natural history of Scotland. Brown wrote a short story about a dog titled “Rab and his Friends.”

•    Horae subsecivae (1858) Brown’s collected works, published in three volumes

William Buchan

(1729 – 25 February 1805)
College Role: 


William Buchan was born at Ancrum, where his father had a small estate, in 1729. His early education was at the local grammar school and even from an early age demonstrated a keen interest in medicine, acting as a novice village physician. Buchan entered Edinburgh University in 1749 with his family pressuring him to enter the ministry. Buchan shifted his focus to medicine, then botany and finally medicine, after nine years at the university. Upon leaving university, Buchan opened a small practice in Yorkshire in 1759 before being appointed as a physician at the Foundling Hospital in Ackworth, Yorkshire. There he wrote his MD thesis, which was published in Edinburgh in 1761. In 1760 Buchan married Elizabeth Peter and together they had a daughter and two sons.

In 1762, Parliament stopped funding foundling hospitals and so Buchan moved to Sheffield where he set up a medical practice. Buchan returned to Edinburgh in 1766, where he again established a private practice and lectured on Newtonianism and natural philosophy.

In 1769, Buchan published what would become his most famous work, Domestic Medicine. It initially cost six shillings and the first 5,000 copies printed quickly sold out. Between 1769 and the last edition, which was published in Philadelphia in 1871, there were at least 142 separate English language editions and it was published in almost every major European language. Catherine the Great was so impressed with Buchan she sent him a medal and commendatory letter. Domestic Medicine was so popular because it was one of the first works of its kind. Buchan wrote this text in layman terms and described diseases with treatments thoroughly enough so people could actually identity and treat diseases.

Buchan moved to London in 1778 where he would spend the remainder of his life. Whilst in London, Buchan published several other minor works. He died on 25 February 1805 in his son’s home and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Notable Achievements

Buchan became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1772.

Key Publications

  • Domestic Medicine, or, The Family Physician (1769)
  • On the Offices and Duties of a Mother (1800)
  • Advice to mothers on the subject of their own health, and on the means of promoting the health, strength and beauty of their offspring (1803)

Thomas Burnet

(1638 – 1704)
College Role: 


Thomas Burnet was the son of Robert Burnet, an advocate in Edinburgh, and was born in 1638. Burnet followed the trend of Scots going abroad to study in this period and travelled to France to study medicine. He obtained his MD from Montpellier in 1659. His medical knowledge was primarily based on Galen and Hippocrates. Burnet returned to Edinburgh and set up a medical practice. He is named in the original charter of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1681. He was an eminent physician of his day and had a reputation that extended across Europe. Burnet’s book, Thesaurus Medicinal Practical, served as a dictionary intended for professional medical practitioners. Burnet served as a physician to Charles II, James II, William and Mary, and Anne, successfully bridging all the reigns. He died in 1704, with his son, Thomas Burnet, following in his footsteps and obtaining his MD from Leiden in 1691.

Notable Achievements

Burnet was one of the founding fellows of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and served as its president from 1696 to 1698.

He was physician to Charles II, James II, William and Mary, and Queen Anne.

Burnet was knighted sometime before 1691.

Key Publications

  • Currus Iatrikus triumphalis, … ad Apollinarem laudem consequendam (1659)
  • Quaestiones quatuor cardinales pro suprema Apollinari daphne consequenda (1659)
  • Thesaurus medicinae (1672)
  • Hippocrates contractus (1685)