The Reformation, medicine and the Royal College of Surgeons

King James IV was a great patron of the arts, science and medicine in Edinburgh and in 1505 the Royal College of Surgeons was founded here as the Incorporation of Surgeon Barbers of Edinburgh, which made it the oldest medical fellowship in the world.

During the Reformation John Knox and other leaders in the church met together in Magdalen Chapel on the Cowgate, just off the Royal Mile. It was here that they developed a blueprint for a new Scotland, built on biblical Christian values. They championed such ideas as a democratic government and education and healthcare for everyone, not just for the wealthy and privileged. The impact that Christians had on medicine is shown by a prayer for surgeons ascribed to John Knox and contained later within the first minutes of the Barber Surgeons in 1581:

‘O eternal God, our loving and merciful Father – Jesus Christ – seeing we are convened to treat of those things which concern our calling, we beseech thee, O Lord, to be merciful to us, and give us grace to proceed therein without malice, grudge, or partiality: so that the things we do may tend to the Glory of God, and weal of our vocation, and the comfort of every member of it, through Jesus Christ our only Lord and Saviour. Amen.’

From the Surgeons’ Hall Museum)

John Knox (1514-1572) the Scottish Reformer who was a staunch supporter of medicine. Photo by Hollie McIntosh, Free Church College, © 2010

Gilbert Primrose, a devout Christian who was a key person in the Scottish Reformation, became the Royal Surgeon for King James VI (the king behind the ‘King James Bible’). In 1583 he raised surgery to the prime position amongst the guilds in Edinburgh, thereby giving it a prominent place in society. Peter Lowe, another keen Christian (and later a Covenanter) went to Glasgow from this city and founded the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow in 1599.