A two year project by the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE), has successfully listed almost 30,000 records in an online catalogue, enabling academics and the public to access a range of fascinating and rare documents from the RCPE’s collection.  These invaluable materials date back to the 17th Century when the College was established and demonstrate the College leading the way in providing medical services, conducting research and regulating the profession.

The online catalogue includes:

The records of the College’s very first minuted meeting, which set up a Dispensary to provide medical services for the poor. This was the first ever free provision of medical services for the poor of Edinburgh where they could access respected medical opinion and treatment. At its next meeting, the College decided that physicians would be appointed for a period of 12 months each, two at a time, to visit the poor and provide advice and treatment.

Records detailing the regulation of the profession dating back to the 17th century, which show the College cracking down on quack and unethical doctors.  The records detail that within a few months of being granted a Royal Charter the College dealt with an individual peddling ‘poysonous tabletts…as a Vomitur tablett’.  The College also tackled suppliers of “miracle” cures such as the ‘Miracle Blood Circulator’ and ‘Disease Curing Electropathic Belts’, as well as unscrupulous suppliers of contraceptive products such as the ‘Washable Sheaths' and 'The Poor Man’s Friend'. 

All the records of the College’s research laboratory set up in 1887 ‘for the prosecution of Original Research’. The laboratory attracted researchers from a wide variety of institutions and included veterinary pathologists, chemists and zoologists, as well as physicians.  The laboratory carried out early research into conditions and diseases such as leukemia, foetal death, meningitis, cancer, asthma, insanity, and pneumonia, and some more unusual conditions such as a small outbreak of epidemic plague in Glasgow in 1900, and a case of leprosy in Edinburgh. Vegetarian diets were also researched in the late 19th Century.

Iain Milne, Head of Heritage at the RCPE, said:

“This is the first time that details of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh’s own institutional records have appeared online.  Researchers now have access to a wealth of information about the role the College has played since its foundation in 1681.

“The archives show that for 335 years the College has been educating doctors, improving access to medical services for the poor, conducting research into disease and lifestyle choices, and regulating the profession to protect the public.”

Daisy Cunynghame, Project Archivist at the RCPE, commented:

“It has been a fascinating process to discover and catalogue the College’s records.  A particular highlight for me are the records on the College drawing up its pharmacopoeia. This was a manual for physicians to consult on standard recipes and methods of treatment, and was the first of its kind in Scotland. It took almost twenty years to complete, but before medical teaching and training, it was a key step to setting a professional standard of practice for physicians.”


Contact: Lisa Rooke, RCPE - 0131 247 3688 / 07717 895628 / l.rooke@rcpe.ac.uk

Notes to Editors

  1. Images are available upon request.
  2. The Archives catalogue can be searched at: http://archives.rcpe.ac.uk/calmView/
  3. The Sibbald Library was established in 1682 when the physician, botanist and geographer Sir Robert Sibbald donated “three shelfes full of books to the Colledge of Physitians”.  The collection has grown hugely during its 330 years of continuous existence and the College now looks after what is both one of Scotland’s oldest libraries as well as one of the world’s most important collections of medical books. http://www.rcpe.ac.uk/library/find/index.php
  4. The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE) is an independent standard-setting body and professional membership organisation. Our aim is to improve and maintain the quality of patient care. The College helps qualified doctors to pursue their careers in specialist (internal) medicine through medical examinations, education and training. We also provide resources and information to support and facilitate professional development for physicians throughout their careers. The RCPE helps to develop standards of medical care and training and to influence health policy. We ensure that the views and practical clinical experiences of our membership are taken into account by health policymakers throughout the UK. The College has a strong UK and international presence with over 12,000 Fellows and Members in 91 countries, covering 56 medical specialties and interests.