Royal Edinburgh Hospital History

Introduction

The Royal Edinburgh Hospital has a long history of caring for those with mental health problems. Based in Morningside, its origins lie in a long-held desire to improve the care of those with psychiatric illness.

A humane hospital

The hospital was founded after the premature and tragic death of the Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson, at the age of 24. Fergusson is known to have suffered from depression, but it was in fact a serious head injury, sustained after a fall down a flight of stairs, that led to the poet being deemed 'insensible.'

When his mother could no longer look after him, Fergusson was incarcerated in the city's Bedlam madhouse, attached to a workhouse, and he died there in October 1774, almost certainly as a result of his head injury.

Fergusson's doctor, Andrew Duncan, was moved by the poet's death, and he resolved to set up a hospital in the city which would look after the mentally ill with greater dignity and respect. Duncan launched a fundraising appeal in 1792, and eventually, in 1806, Parliament granted £2000 from estates forfeited during the Jacobite rebellion in 1745.

The money was used to buy a large house in Morningside with four acres of land, and the architect Robert Reid was commissioned to design a new building, which came to be called the East House.

Originally called the Edinburgh Lunatic Asylum, the hospital opened in 1813, initially for patients whose families could afford to pay. The West House, designed by William Burn, opened in 1842, for poor patients, and taking over the care of the city's Bedlam inmates in 1844.

A therapeutic approach

Thanks to the influence of the asylum's first Physician Superintendent, Dr William McKinnon, who took up the post in 1839, patients were encouraged to be active, using any existing skills such as gardening, pig farming, carpentry or sewing, and to take part in sports, including curling. A printing press was installed, and a magazine, the Morningside Mirror, was produced.

Mackinnon's successor, Dr David Skae, who was interested in the classification of mental illness, began to forge the asylum's international reputation as a postgraduate training centre.

A modern approach to mental illness

At the turn of the 20th century, attitudes towards mental illness were slowly beginning to change. In 1922, the asylum was renamed the Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Mental and Nervous Disorders.

Throughout the past century, the hospital has continued to evolve and innovate to meet the needs of patients, including the addition of the Young People's Unit and Alcohol Problem Unit in 1968.

Last Reviewed: 01/06/2011