Our History

Historic Hospitals
Medical Pioneers
Enlightened Edinburgh

Attempts to cure and care for sick and injured people in Edinburgh and the Lothians predate the history of the NHS by several centuries, with proud and long traditions of pioneering excellence in medicine and nursing. Edinburgh’s Royal College of Physicians, founded in 1681, and the Royal College of Surgeons, formally recognised in 1778 but with roots dating back to the 16 th century, played key roles in early attempts to drive up standards of care, and to regulate their professions.

Lothian Health Services Archive

Lothian Health Services Archive holds the historically important local records of NHS hospitals and other health-related material. They collect, preserve and catalogue these records and promote them to increase understanding of the history of health and for the benefit of all.

Historic Hospitals

Improvements in healthcare in Lothian were closely linked to the development of the University of Edinburgh’s medical school, which was formally recognised in 1726. Under the stewardship of professor of anatomy, Alexander Monro, the school quickly became the leading centre for medical research in Europe – a reputation that it enjoyed for most of the 18th and much of the 19th century, and which provided a strong foundation for its teaching today.

The medical school was able to use some of the city’s first hospitals as a base for its teaching. The Edinburgh Infirmary – the 'Royal' charter came later – opened in the city's Old Town in 1729, paid for with the proceeds of a fundraising appeal by the Royal College of Physicians. St Cuthbert's poorhouse, the forerunner of the Western General Hospital, opened in 1761, and the Royal Hospital for Sick Children was founded in 1860. The Royal Edinburgh Hospital which has a long history of caring for those with mental health problems opened in 1813.

By the early 20th century, many Scottish hospitals that had been run by parishes or charities came under the control of local authorities; ownership of some 400 hospitals transferred to the new National Health Service in 1948. Initially, the South Eastern Regional Hospitals Board ran hospitals in the Lothian area; following a reorganisation in 1972, that role was transferred to Lothian Health Board.

In 2001, NHS Lothian was created as the umbrella organisation for all Lothian health services, with leadership provided by Lothian NHS Board. But patients are still being treated in hospitals whose commitment to caring for the sick can be traced back over almost 300 years.

Medical Pioneers

Edinburgh and the Lothians have produced an impressive array of doctors, surgeons and scientists who have contributed to the advancement of medicine across the globe.

Here you can find out about just a few of the most influential men and women of medicine – Sir James Young Simpson, Lord Joseph Lister, and Dr Elsie Inglis.

Sir James Young Simpson

Born in Bathgate, West Lothian, in 1811, this baker’s son enrolled at Edinburgh University’s medical school when he was just 15. After gaining his degree, Simpson specialised in obstetrics, and he became professor of midwifery in 1840, when he was still only 28.

Simpson’s determination to find new ways to ease the physical pain and suffering of childbirth led to his now world-famous experiments with chloroform in the late 1840s. After he and his two assistants tested it on themselves in November 1847, within weeks chloroform was being used at the Royal Infirmary.

The first baby to be delivered using the drug was named ‘Anaesthesia’ – a letter later written by Simpson’s daughter states that the little girl was christened Agnes Anaesthesia Carstares.

The use of anaesthetics was deeply mistrusted by religious leaders, however, who quoted the Book of Genesis in the Bible, which states that God told Eve she would bring children forth "in sorrow." Simpson stood his ground, arguing that as God had seen fit to Adam into a deep sleep before removing his rib to create Eve, he would not disapprove of easing the pain of childbirth.

The practice was finally accepted when it gained the Royal seal of approval – in 1853, Queen Victoria had an anaesthetic during the delivery of her son Leopold.

Simpson became a baronet in 1866, the first Scottish doctor to receive the honour. He died in 1870, having laid the foundations for modern anaesthesia, which has relieved the suffering of millions of patients across the world.

His name now lives on at the Simpson Centre for Reproductive Medicine at the Royal Infirmary, which is Scotland’s busiest maternity unit.

Lord Joseph Lister

Born in 1827, Joseph Lister was not a Scot, and actually graduated in medicine in London, but it would be in Edinburgh that he would forge his reputation that would lead to his recognition as one of the most influential surgeons of all time.

Lister came to Edinburgh in 1853, and trained with the professor of surgery, James Syme. In 1860, he accepted the chair of surgery in Glasgow, where in 1866, he began using carbolic acid as an antiseptic, in an attempt to kill airborne bacteria and stop the transmission of infection in the operating theatre.

In 1869, Lister returned to Edinburgh, where he succeeded Syme as professor of surgery. He continued to develop new and improved methods of antisepsis, and succeeded in reducing infection rates, though his work was regarded by many as controversial.

In July 1905, he was made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in recognition of his contribution to surgery. Lister died in 1912, having secured a reputation as the father of modern surgery.

Dr Elsie Inglis

Dr Elsie Inglis was not only one of the first women to make her mark in medicine, but also advanced the cause of women’s rights, and became a heroine during the First World War.

Born in 1864, Inglis studied medicine at a time when women had only just been allowed to enter the profession, and after qualifying in 1892, she became a surgeon at Bruntsfield Hospital.

Driven by the need for improved health services for women, she was inspired to found a maternity hospital, which opened at Abbeyhill in 1901. Despite its closure in 1994, the hospital that became the Elsie Inglis Memorial is still fondly remembered by many Edinburgh people today.

In 1906, Inglis founded the Scottish Women’ Suffrage Federation, which campaigned to give women the vote. At the outbreak of the First World War, the Federation came up with the idea of sending women to war to care for the wounded in mobile field hospitals.

Inglis set about establishing the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, and donations to the cause flooded in. Fourteen mobile surgical units were sent to France and Serbia, including one led by Inglis herself, which arrived in Serbia in 1915.

Serbian soldiers and civilians were starving and vulnerable to outbreaks of diphtheria and typhoid, but the women pressed on to help them, even when Serb forces were being pushed back by the Austrians. Inglis was captured, and spent some time working in a military hospital, looking after prisoners, before she was sent back to Britain in 1916.

In 1917, Inglis returned to help the Serbs, who were by then fighting in Russia, but her own health was failing, and she died from cancer, aged 53. Her funeral was held in Edinburgh with full military honours.

Enlightened Edinburgh

Edinburgh's reputation as a world-class centre of excellence for medicine is built on almost three centuries of teaching. The University of Edinburgh’s Faculty of Medicine was formally recognised in 1726, and it soon began attracting students from all over the Continent and beyond.

Indeed demand to study medicine was such that a 200-seat Anatomy Theatre had to built in the 1760s to accommodate the students. No other university in Europe enjoyed as high a reputation for its teaching of science-based medicine.

At an early stage, the medical school had close ties with Edinburgh’s most famous hospital, the Royal Infirmary. Initially founded in 1729, the hospital moved to purpose-built premises near the university in 1741.

By the 19th century, the medical school was at the heart of developments that would revolutionise patient care. Sir James Young Simpson’s experiments with chloroform provided the foundation for modern-day anaesthesia and pain relief during childbirth and surgery. In the 1870s, Joseph Lister’s research into antiseptics were crucial in the fight against infection and disease.

Doctors who were trained in Edinburgh travelled all over the world, and helped to found medical schools in the United States, Canada and in far-flung outposts of the British Empire.

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Last Reviewed: 01/06/2011