Robert Sibbald

(15 April 1641–August 1722)
College Role: 


Early Life

Robert Sibbald was born on 15 April 1641 in Fife to a prosperous landed family. Sibbald’s early education at the Royal High School in Edinburgh and the Town’s College initially prepared him for a career in the church. However, his theological studies were short lived and in his memoirs Sibbald recalled that “there were then great divisions amongst the Presbyterians [that] occasioned factions in state and private families. I saw none could enter the ministry without engaging in these factions and espousing their interests. I was disposed to affect charity to all good men of any persuasion and I preferred a quiet life wherein I might not be engaged in factions of Church and State. Under this consideration I fixed upon the study of medicine.”

In March 1660, Sibbald travelled to Leiden where he learned anatomy, surgery, botany, chemistry and natural philosophy. After only eighteen months in Leiden, Sibbald travelled to Paris where he studied for nine months. Sibbald then presented himself at Angers for his examinations. After graduating, he spent three months in London with his cousin, Andrew Balfour, with whom Sibbald would later found what would become the Royal Botanic Gardens. In London, Sibbald was introduced to Robert Moray, the president of the Fellows of the Royal Society.

Sibbald returned to Scotland in October 1662 with the ambition of emulating the institutions he had encountered on the continent. As a qualified physician, Sibbald set out to improve the faculties of medicine in Scotland. Throughout his life, Sibbald concerned himself with the improvement of agriculture, mining, industry and commerce. 

Notable Works

Sibbald’s first major project in Scotland was creating a physic garden together with Andrew Balfour. In a short period of time, Balfour and Sibbald created a garden with over 800 medicinal plants. They joined forces with James Sutherland who also had a great knowledge of plants and gardening. The garden was fully established by 1670 and received a royal warrant in 1699. Sutherland was appointed King’s Botanist in the same year. The garden continued to grow, move and expand until it moved to its current location in 1820 and opened as the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh.

After the garden had become firmly established, Sibbald set out on his next great project for Scotland; studying the natural resources and geography of Scotland. Sibbald’s cousin, Patrick Drummond, Earl of Perth, proved to be an incredibly important relationship for Sibbald. Perth, one of the King’s most influential advisors in Scotland, persuaded the king that Sibbald’s project of surveying Scotland would be beneficial in the management of Scotland’s resources and economy. Sibbald was appointed Geographer Royal and embarked on a comprehensive survey of all the natural and cultural resources of Scotland. The results were going to be published in two volumes. However, Sibbald did not receive any financial support for the enterprise and consequently the project was never complete. By 1698 it had become clear this project was not meant to be. Perth had been imprisoned following the Revolution of 1688 and Sibbald himself had suffered humiliation. Sibbald remained committed to uncovering Scotland’s natural resources and in 1698 wrote A Discourse anent the improvements that may be made in Scotland for advancing the wealth of the kingdom.

Failure did not deter Sibbald, who then set upon a course to unite Scotland’s intellectual capital. Following the examples he had seen on the continent of intellectual minds coming together, Sibbald attempted to found a Royal Society of Scotland based on the London model. His attempt was partially successful; forming what would later become the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which received its charter in 1783.

Royal College of Physicians Of Edinburgh

Another concept in Sibbald’s plan for improving Scotland was establishing a College of Physicians. Sibbald admired the medical colleges he had encountered on the continent and Scotland in this period did not have any medical institutions to compare. Early attempts at regulating medicine in Scotland by creating a College of Physicians had been unsuccessful. Sibbald renewed attempts to found a College and held meetings with the leading physicians in Edinburgh by 1680. This early group shared a commitment to science and medicine and discussed cases, books, philosophy and natural history. The opportunity to found a college presented itself in 1681. For the first time in almost a hundred years there was a royal court in Edinburgh and at this time Perth still had political clout with the king. Sibbald and Balfour obtained an audience with the Duke of York and presented their petition for the establishment of a College of Physicians. The proposed charter was signed and the Great Seal was appended on St. Andrew’s Day 1681.

Sibbald remained a key figure in the College and contributed greatly to the foundation of the College’s library. Sibbald became president of the College in 1684 and began planning to create a medical school within Edinburgh’s university. The death of the king in 1685 and succession of James II, a Roman Catholic, led Sibbald to convert to Catholicism, an unpopular move. Sibbald quickly recognised flaws in the Catholic priests of Edinburgh, however the damage had been done and a mob broke out, choosing Sibbald as one of its Catholic targets. Sibbald escaped to London and was made an honorary Fellow of the London College of Physicians. In September 1686 Sibbald returned to Edinburgh and rejoined the protestant church, but the damage had been done and the Fellows of the College no longer trusted him. The College divided into factions fraught with internal differences stemming from religious bigotry and political rivalry.

Sibbald continued, as aforementioned, on other projects and continued to play a role in the College. Sibbald and Balfour had drafted early versions of the Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia and by the 1690s efforts were renewed to finalize the Pharmacopoeia. The College’s most long-lasting dispute was over the new pharmacopeia, with Sibbald and Balfour in one camp and the “new science” in the other.

Later Life

In the early eighteenth century, Sibbald continued to play advocate for the faculty of medicine at Edinburgh University. In 1706, Sibbald, now 65 years old, was still denied the right to teach medicine at the university and so he attempted to teach medicine on his own. An ad in the Edinburgh Courant appeared on 24 February 1706 offering private tutorship in natural history and medicine. Whether any students answered Sibbald’s ad is unknown, though it is known his scheme was abandoned. He also spent the early years of the eighteenth century writing a number of works on geographical and statistical data

Sibbald was married twice and had two surviving daughters. By 1707-8 he faced severe financial difficulties and was forced to sell a large portion of his library. Sibbald died in 1722 having contributed much to the medical profession and intellectual life of Edinburgh. He is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

Notable Achievements

In 1682, Sibbald was appointed Geographer Royal for Scotland.

In 1684, Sibbald was appointed president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

In 1685, Sibbald was appointed the first professor of medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

Key Publications

Throughout his life, Sibbald published numerous writings on historical, antiquarian, botanical and medical studies. His publications include:

  • Nuncius Scoto-Britannus, de descriptione Scotiae antiquae et modernae (1683)
  • Scotia illustrata; sive prodomus historiae naturalis; in quo regionis natura, incolarum ingenia et mores, morbid iisque medendi methodus, et medicina indigena, accurate explicantur (1684)
  • Provision for the poor in the time of dearth and scarcity (1699)
  • History ancient and modern of the Sheriffdom of Fife and Kinross (1710)
  • An Account of the Writers Ancient and Modern . . . of North Britain, called Scotland (1710)
  • Description of the Islands of Orkney and Zetland with the Maps of Them (1711).
  • Specimen glossarii de populis et locis Britanniae borealis, in explicatione locorum quorundam difficilium apud scriptores veteres (1711)

James Young Simpson

(7 June 1811–6 May 1870)
College Role: 


Early Life

Born at Bathgate in Linlithgowshire to village bakers, Simpson showed early promise as an academic and his family committed themselves to financially supporting his college education. Simpson enrolled at Edinburgh University in 1825, aged fourteen, as an arts student and began his medical studies two years later. In December 1829, his father became terminally ill and Simpson returned home in time for his fathers’ death. Simpson fell into a deep depression and only at the encouragement of his family was he able to return to Edinburgh to complete his studies. In April 1830, Simpson passed his exams at the College of Surgeons, but continued to suffer from depression. In October 1831 Simpson returned again to Edinburgh at the insistence of his family saying that he had only returned “just to please you all.”

In his sojourns at home, Simpson practiced as a country surgeon where he discovered midwifery was a major part of that practice. In 1831, Simpson enrolled in extramural classes on obstetrics and assisted in the work of Edinburgh’s Royal Dispensary for the Poor. In October 1831, Simpson was appointed assistant to the director of the Dispensary, Dr W.T. Gairdner. Simpson went on to complete his MD thesis on inflammation in 1832. In 1835, Simpson joined John Thomson, professor of pathology and his mentor, on a tour of Europe, visiting the leading medical schools of London, Paris, and Belgium. As a consequence of this tour and his close relationship with Thomson, Simpson experienced renewed faith in his abilities as a medical practitioner upon returning to Edinburgh.

Simpson quickly established his own private practice in general medicine and obstetrics. By 1839, Simpson’s practice was rapidly growing in the direction of obstetrics and his patients were no longer the poor of Edinburgh’s Old Town, but the wealthy residents of the New Town. In 1843, Simpson left the Church of Scotland and joined the new Free Church of Scotland.

Despite having quickly made a name for himself in the field of obstetrics, Simpson suffered from continuing financial difficulties. It was only through his private practice that his finances were alleviated and Simpson became able to support his young family. Since Simpson was a licentiate of the College of Surgeons and had been trained by Robert Liston, his skills in obstetrics surpassed every other obstetrician of the time. Simpson’s services as gynaecologist were also in high demand. He quickly caught the attention of the nobility and royalty.


Even though he had reached the top of his career, Simpson wanted more. “Anaesthesia” was a new development in the medical profession, consisting of inhalations of ether and Simpson was quick to recognize the significance of this development. He had always been concerned with the issue of surgical pain and began experimenting with potential solutions. On 19 January 1847, he effectively used ether during a complicated labour, but was not satisfied with the effects. In the summer of 1847, Simpson and his assistants, George Keith and James Matthews Duncan, began the search for new forms of anaesthetic. The three men tested numerous toxic and ineffective compounds before getting their hands on chloroform. They tested inhaling the sample and quickly fell to the ground and upon further attempts agreed chloroform was the solution they had been searching for.

In November 1847, aged 36, Simpson made his “Announcement of a New Anaesthetic Agent,” having already successfully utilized chloroform in minor procedures. Simpson used it in obstetrics for the first time on November 8, 1847. Simpson published an account which was features on the front page of the Scotsman. His pamphlets on the subject were also published in London, alerting the public to an anaesthetic that was better than ether. By the end of the year, manufacturers were struggling to supply the increasing demand for chloroform. Chloroform quickly spread as the anaesthetic of choice; however Simpson was not initially successful in introducing chloroform into obstetrics.

While it was seen as acceptable to utilize chloroform during long and difficult deliveries, many opposed its use during normal childbirth. Many viewed pain during childbirth as natural and unless the delivery involved operative obstetric procedures, commentators saw no need. Simpson ignored these objections and insisted on using chloroform during regular childbirth. Within a year of Simpson’s introduction of chloroform, surgeons and their patients were confident in its usage. Chloroform was the anaesthetic of choice for general surgery, but still not used widely for obstetrics. Chloroform, though arguably more effective and apparently safer than ether, had its own dangers. Overdoses and adverse reactions led to increased regulation and the discovery of safer anaesthetic agents of chloroform. Nonetheless, Simpson must be attributed with the discovery of the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic.

Later Life and Works

Simpson continued his private practice, his home overflowing everyday with patients. He continued to travel to assist in births almost until his death. Simpson was an attentive father and had close relationships with all of his children. Simpson lost two young daughters and displayed grief at their loss, his wife seemed never to recover from their deaths. Simpson received many accolades for his discovery surrounding chloroform and in 1850 his position in Edinburgh was heightened by various prestigious appointments. (see below)

On 7 April 1853, Queen Victoria gave birth to her eighth child with the successful administration of chloroform. This quickly silenced all opposition to Simpson and his stance on pain-free childbirth. Simpson was subsequently awarded honorary memberships of the most distinguished medical societies in Europe and America and enjoyed more power and influence than ever before. Simpson’s authority now extended well beyond obstetrics and midwifery and his influence extended beyond Scotland. However, Simpson’s professional life continued to centre on his private practice.

Simpson’s later career focused on hospital infection and surgical sepsis, with an emphasis on puerperal fever. Once puerperal fever was recognised, it became accountable for more than half of all maternal deaths. Simpson’s last great contribution to science involved the spread of hospital infections. In 1850, Simpson argued that puerperal fever and surgical fever were one in the same and both were highly contagious. Simpson argued that the spread of infections could be reduced if all medical attendants washed their hands in chlorine before every examination. He argued that both puerperal fever and surgical fever were caused by spreading “poisoned” blood from patient to patient. Simpson advocated for preventative methods such as cleansing hands and instruments against sepsis.

In 1858, Simpson described a new method of controlling blood loss during surgical operations – acupressure. This technique, though developed further and found successful, failed to gain Simpson the recognition he was expecting. In December 1864, Simpson published his book on acupressure. Simpson was successful in creating a vogue for acupressure that lasted at least thirty years, though it did not lessen the mortality rates in British hospitals. Simpson had previously written on the negative effects of overcrowding in hospitals in 1844 to 1846 and subsequently conducted a study on the correlation of poor hospital conditions with mortality rates. Simpson argued that post-operative surgical infection was closely linked to deficiencies in hospital design, ventilation and management, coining the term “hospitalism” to describe those awful conditions. He proposed building better hospitals, but was met with opposition.

Simpson never was able to achieve the same level of acclaim as he had from chloroform again. However his contributions to medicine and obstetrics are undeniable. Simpson achieved rank of baronet in 1866. In 1869, one year before his death, Simpson took up one final cause by promoting the rights of women to enter the medical field. He persuaded the Medical Faculty to allow Sophia Jex-Blake “to attend the class of any professor who was willing to teach her.” Simpson died peacefully on 6 May 1870.

Notable Achievements

In October 1835, Simpson was elected president of the Royal Medical Society.

In 1836 he accepted the position of house surgeon at the City Lying-In Hospital.

Also in 1836, Simpson was elected fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

He began lecturing on obstetrics by 1838 and on February 4, 1840, Simpson was elected Professor of Midwifery at the University of Edinburgh.

In 1847, Simpson was appointed physician to the Queen in Scotland

In 1850, Simpson was appointed physician to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, president of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh and president of the Medico-Chirurgical Society of Edinburgh.