Edinburgh, a world centre for medicine

In 1681 the Royal College of Physicians was founded by Sir Robert Sibbald, James Halket and Archibald Pitcairne, and in 1697 the first purpose-built Surgeons’ Hall was erected and many of the founding members of both were Christians. Douglas Guthrie wrote:

[The torch of learning] which had been lit in Greece and passed to Salerno then to Montpelier and Padua then to Leiden and early in the 18th century … handed on to Edinburgh, which then became the centre of medical learning.

From Douglas Guthrie, Medical Historian, from the Museum at the Surgeons’ Hall

The famous medical school in Salerno, Italy was founded by the Archdeacon Adelonus in about AD 820 and the Benedictine monks ran it. This influence eventually spread to Leiden in Holland. Sir Robert Sibbald of Edinburgh studied medicine at Leiden and his colleague, Archibald Pitcairne, was the professor of medicine there in 1692, but it was the dedicated Dutch Christian, Herman Boerhaave (1688-1738) who pioneered the famous Medical School at Leiden in 1701. Dr Samuel Johnson, the biographer who came to Edinburgh, says of him:

He asserted, on all occasions, the divine authority and sacred efficacy of the holy scriptures; and maintained that they alone taught the way of salvation, and that they only could give peace of mind. The excellency of the Christian religion was the frequent subject of his conversation.

The Life of Herman Boerhaave, 1739

Over two hundred Scottish students flocked to Boerhaave’s medical school, including five who went on to set up the world-famous Edinburgh Medical School in 1726, which was based on Boerhaave’s model. The Royal Infirmary hospital, which was opened in 1738, came out of this movement, as did the modern hospital movement in Edinburgh. From the beginning the churches were very much involved in this process.

The Edinburgh Medical School has produced many leading doctors who have gone on to alleviate the suffering of multitudes in the world. Of these, some of the best known were Christians. Below is a small selection of these men, their details all being taken from Dan Graves’ book, Doctors Who Followed Christ (1999, Kregel Publications).

One of them was John Fothergill (1712-1780). His opposition to the bad medical practice of blood-letting was important in medical history, as was his Christian bed-side manner and philanthropic deeds, often done in secret.

The founder of the London Medical Society was a friend of John Fothergill called John Coakley Lettson (1744-1815); he was a fellow Quaker Christian.

Nathan Smith (1762-1829) was trained in Edinburgh and went back to America where he was the key person in founding five medical colleges there. Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842) was the pioneer of the anatomy of the nerve system and Sir John Richardson (1787-1865) was the famous navy surgeon and naturalist who grew up in Dumfries and was helped every Sunday in reciting the Psalms by the famous poet, Robert Burns. After studying medicine in Edinburgh he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons there and spent much time with people like Sir Walter Scott, the artist Raeburn and Dugald Stewart the philosopher. His scientific library was so excellent that both Charles Lyell, the Scottish geologist, and Charles Darwin, who studied at Edinburgh University, had to have permission to do some research there.

Another Quaker Christian was Thomas Hodgkin (1798-1866) who studied rare lymphatic disorders and was the discoverer of Hodgkin’s Disease. Others followed their example in medical science; two of the greatest follow next.