This project was carried out by Katie Dumm, an intern from the University of Edinburgh, and relates to a collection of nine physicians' canes dating mainly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


Traditionally, canes and physicians had a close association. In Greek mythology the deity Asclepius, who was associated with medicine and health, wielded a rod with a serpent wound round it. The physicians cane came into vogue in Britain in the eighteenth-century, after the fashion of cane carrying crossed the Channel from France. The cane was associated with the professions, emphasising the masculinity of intellectual rationality rather than physical prowess. Physicians’ canes were often passed from one physician to the next, some for centuries. Their popularity began to decline in the early nineteenth-century, but the tradition of the physicians cane carried over into the twentieth-century, mostly through portraiture.

The Royal College of Physicians has a total of nine canes including the presidential ‘gold-headed’ cane’. Acquired over several years, the canes are united in their type (seven are definitely of the ‘decorative’ variety) but differ significantly in their designs, thus making them an interesting and diverse collection.


An online web resource was created, which provides new insight into

  • The various individuals who owned the canes
  • The symbolism and meaning of physicians' canes
  • Connections between the canes and incidents that occurred in Edinburgh locally


Quick Links

Use the menu on the left of this page or the links below to browse and search the physicians' canes webpages.

The Physicians’ Cane: use and meaning

Alexander Blackhall-Morison’s Cane

Richard Bright’s Cane

William Cullen’s Cane

Matthew Holmes’ Cane

Plaited Snake Cane

Presidential Cane

Gold Headed Canes and the Walking Cane