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Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh - Library

Address. 9 Queen Street, Edinburgh EH2 1JQ [Map]
Telephone. (0131) 225-7324
Fax. (0131) 220-3939
e-mail. [library@rcpe.ac.uk]
Internet. htpp://www.rcpe.ac.uk/

Governing body or responsible institution. College Council
Functions. Research library.
Subjects. Medicine, anatomy, zoology, topography, alchemical and chemical literature.

Access. Open to Fellows and Members of the College, but also to any bona fide enquirer. Use of the historical collections on the basis of prior arrangements. - Opening hours: Monday to Friday 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Special facilities. Photocopying, photography (undertaken on the premises by commercial firms).
Travel directions. Within easy walking distance from the railway and bus stations. - Parking in the immediate vincinity is almost impossible.


1.1 The attempt to found a College of Physicians in Edinburgh in 1681 was by no means the first, for there had been three earlier attempts that century, in 1617 under King James VI, in 1630 under Charles I and in 1656 under Cromwell. It is a curious fact of history that a family link existed between the first and the fourth of these attempts, the first having been instigated by Dr George Sibbald (fl. 1617-1630), and the fourth by his nephew, Dr (and later Sir) Robert Sibbald (1641-1722).

1.2 Sibbald's desire to establish a College of Physicians in Edinburgh was felt to be as necessary in 1681 as it had been in 1617, namely to set and maintain a standard of professional practice in the midst of the general pattern of quackery and competing jealousy between the academically trained and qualified physicians and the members of the Incorporation of Surgeon-Apothecaries.

1.3 On completing his medical studies on the Continent Sibbald set up in practice in Edinburgh in 1681, where he was joined by his relative, Dr Andrew Balfour (1630-1694), whose diplomatic skills helped in overcoming the opposition of the Incorporation of Surgeon-Apothecaries to the establishment both of a physic garden and of a College of Physicians. The College received its charter in 1681, under which it was empowered to have a care for standards of medical practice, to examine the quality of medicines in an apothecary's shop and to test an apothecary's competence.

1.4 The first Fellows gave much time to preparing a Pharmacopoeia, whose various editions rendered invaluable service from its first appearance in 1699 until 1864, when the standardised British Pharmacopoeia was published.

1.5 Although the College's charter had forbidden the College to gage in medical teaching, this was effectively circumvented at an early date by Sibbald's appointment to a university chair, which was designed to allow him to train apothecaries. When, later in the century, the fame of the Medical Faculty's teaching and the reputation of its degree, in contrast to the other Scottish universities, were such that large numbers of students were attracted to Edinburgh not only from many parts of Scotland but also increasingly from England, Ireland and the colonies in the Caribbean and in North America, these cannot be ascribed to the University professors in isolation, as they were also active members of the College.

1.6 The College first acquired its own premises in 1707 in the Old Town, moving to the New Town in 1781. The present site was occupied first in 1846.

1.7 A strong, well maintained library was an indispensable part of Sibbald's plans for establishing the College of Physicians, and to this end he donated almost 100 vols from his own large collection. Two years later two of the Fellows, Dr Archibald Stevensone and Dr Archibald Pitcairne (1652-1713), were appointed to particular care of the book stock, a further provision for the administration of the library being enacted in 1705 with the appointment of a library committee, of which Sibbald was appropriately a member. In 1696 the College copied a long-standing practice in universities when it laid down that every new member should contribute a volume or several volumes to the library. Duplicates received in this way were occasionally sold, as were some of Sibbald's own non-medical books, in order to provide funds for the purchase of new medical works.

1.8 In 1705 the next single, considerable increase of the library's stock was effected by the purchase of the books of Patrick Murray of Livingstone. That, however, was dwarfed by the bequest in 1741 of the library, numbering some 1,250 works, of a former President, Dr John Drummond, an acquisition which doubled the library's book stock. To this bequest two conditions were attached, the first that the books should be kept in separate presses and the second that none could be borrowed unless a sum of money equal to the item's value had first been deposited with the librarian. A printed catalogue of Drummond's collection, with the legal documents of conveyance and acceptance appended to it, was presented along with the books. In 1791 parts of the library of William Cullen (1710-1790) were purchased for £ 100.

1.9 In 1763 the independence of the College's library was threatened by a proposal to amalgamate it with the university library on terms represented as favourable to the former institution. This and a similar, later proposal were rejected by the College. In the 1960s another proposal was made to amalgamate the library resources of the College, the Royal College of Surgeons and the University of Edinburgh, negotiations collapsing only when the University received a large bequest intended to provide it with its own improved medical library.

1.10 The first catalogue of the library was printed in 1767, followed by an alphabetical catalogue in 1793. After several attempts to prepare a new catalogue in 1826, a final revision of the catalogue for the press was undertaken, which resulted in the catalogue's publication in 1849. The rapid growth in the book stock was recognised by the decision in 1861 to prepare a new catalogue, which was published in 1863, but despite two supplements, the first in 1870 and the second in 1879, a completely new catalogue was needed, which appeared in two volumes in 1898. Since then no published catalogue has appeared, the decision having been taken in 1922 to begin entering all new accessions in a card catalogue. This in its turn is being overtaken slowly by the new technology of an online catalogue, so that it can be accessed anywhere in the world.

1.11 In 1767 the library book stock was estimated at over 2,300 works, in 1849 at 9,000 rising by another 8,000 between 1863 and 1879. This dramatic increase was credited to the purchase of current medical literature and of older monographs acquired from the libraries of eminent British and foreign physicians. By 1890 the figure was estimated to stand somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000, by 1898 at 100,000 and in 1981, the tercentenary year of both the College and the library, at 200,000 vols (including periodicals), making it the largest medical library in Scotland and the third largest in the United Kingdom.


Chronological outline and analysis by language

2.1 At present the library contains c. 50,000 pre-1900 printed monographs, of which c. 30,000 are pre-1851 titles. There are 22 incunabula, c. 700 pre-1600 items and 70 STC titles. No attempt has been made to calculate the number of titles from the following centuries, but a very significant part of those come from German presses, particularly in the 18th century.

Subject outline

2.2 Sibbald's donation of numerous non-medical texts was a reflection not only of his own wide scholarly interests but also of his determination that his fellow members of the College should have material available to them on subjects besides their narrowly professional concerns. Drummond's bequest was particularly appropriate both for its size and for its conformity to Sibbald's double-sided vision, an appropriateness not vitiated by the fact that the non-medical titles were sold later to facilitate the purchase of contemporary medical texts. This vision of Sibbald can be seen in a randomly chosen page, 87, of the first published catalogue of the College, where one finds Virgil's De rerum inventoribus (Strasbourg 1613), Jacob Ulfeld's Legatio Muscovitica (Frankfurt 1627) and Joannes Caselius's Opera politica (Frankfurt 1631).

2.3 However, the bulk of the catalogue is taken up with solid texts on medicine and still closely allied subjects such as botany, e.g. Johannes Bohn's Circulus anatomico-physiologicus sive oeconomia corporis animalis (Leipzig 1686), Constantinus Africanus's De omnibus morbis (Basel 1536), Commentarii de rebus in scientia naturali et medicina gestis (37 vols, Leipzig 1752-1759) and Caspar Bauhin's Πυτoπιναξ

 seu enumeratio
plantarum (Basel 1596), Theatrum anatomicum (Frankfurt 1605) and Anatomicae institutiones (Basel 1604). The ancient Greek, Latin and Arabic writers on medicine were also not neglected, e.g. Galen's Opera omnia (Basel 1538), Celsus's De medicina. Cura G. Pantini (Basel 1552), Nonus's De morborum curatione (Strasbourg 1568) and Albucasis's Libri theoricae et practicae medicinae (Augsburg 1519).

2.4 The 1793 catalogue and its supplement of 1821 contain evidence of the continuing acquisition of older medical texts as well as up-to-date ones from Continental presses, the latter of which includes five works by Joseph Jacob von Plenck, of which one can mention Doctrina de morbis oculorum (Vienna 1783) and Methodus nova et facilis argentum vivum aegris venerea labe infectis exhibendi (Vienna 1766). An interesting early acquisition of what would have been for that time rather an exotic branch of medicine is Carl Peter Thunberg's De medicina Africanorum (Leipzig 1797).

2.5 Evidence of the early, close link between medicine and botany can still be seen in the catalogue of 1849, which includes authors such as Leonhard Fuchs, De stirpium historia commentariorum (Basel 1546), Albrecht von Haller's Opuscula botanica (Göttingen 1749) and Carl Linnaeus's Systema naturae, sive regna tria naturae systematice proposita, per classes, ordines, genera, et species (Leipzig 1748). However, the most spectacular link in the library between these two disciplines, and arguably the library's visually most attractive book, is Basilius Besler's Hortus Eystettensis, sive diligens et accurata omnium plantarum, florum, stirpium, ex variis orbis terrae partibus ([Eichstätt] 1640), a copy whose existence was unknown to N. Barker (see Hortus Eystettensis: the bishop's garden, and Besler's magnificent book, London 1994).

2.6 A particularly useful feature of the College's early catalogues is the listing of individual works incorporated in such large-scale compilations as the productive Albrecht von Haller's Disputationes anatomicae selectae (Göttingen 1746-1751), Disputationes chirurgiae selectae (Lausanne 1756), and Disputationes ad morborum historiam et curationem facientes (Lausanne 1757-1760) and Heinrich Friedrich von Delius's Fränkische Sammlungen von Anmerkungen aus der Naturlehre, Arzneygelehrtheit, Oekonomie, und den damit verwandten Wissenschaften (Nuremberg 1756-1765). Again in line with standard contemporary practice these early catalogues also make use of formal headings such as ``Anonymi', ``Catalogus and ``Medical case book to draw together works lacking an author.

2.7 While the vast majority of the early German and other foreign imprints are in Latin, as one would expect, the catalogues, like those of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, show that German developed in the 18th century as a suitable medium for the dissemination of scientific and technical information. As an illustration of this one may mention two anonymously published works, Unterricht vors Volk gegen die Pest (Danzig 1770) and Pestbeschreibung und Infections-Ordnung (Vienna 1763), which would have a particularly practical appeal to Edinburgh physicians, considering the frequent outbreaks of the plague. Another example are two works by Johann Heinrich Pott, e.g. Physikalisch-chymische Abhandlung von dem sonderbar feuerbeständigen und zartflüssigen Urin Saltz und dessen weitläufigen Anwendung und Nutzen (Berlin 1757) and Neue wichtige physikalisch-chymische Materien, in einer chymischer Zerlegung der Vorwürfe und Beschuldigungen die ihm der H. Bergrath von Justi zur Last gelegt hat (Berlin 1762).

2.8 An interesting example of the College's willingness not only to buy German-language material in the early 19th century but also material of a controversial nature is provided by its copy of Samuel C. F. Hahnemann's Organon der rationellen Heilkunst (Dresden 1810). Hahnemann (1755-1843) had practised medicine for a short time in Dresden and Leipzig with some success before rejecting the abusive polypharmacy and the bleeding, purging and vomiting which were then in vogue. Some of his disquiet with current medical practice can be seen in his early work, Ueber die Arzenik-Vergiftung, ihre Hülfe, und gerichtliche Ausmittelung (Leipzig 1786), which is in the College's library. After much thought and experimentation with quinine he evolved a revolutionary system of homoeopathy. Although this work aroused the enmity of the apothecaries in Germany, his system spread rapidly in Europe and the United States, where it enjoyed considerable success until the introduction of pure chemicals and controlled animal experiments led to the establishment of more rational therapeutics and the rise of modern pharmacology. Other German-language works by Hahnemann in the College's collections are his Kleine medicinische Schriften, ed. by E. Stapf (Dresden 1820), Organon der Heilkunst (Dresden 1829) und Reine Arzneimittellehre (Dresden 1830).

2.9 However, as with the holdings of the library of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, there is evidence that, presumably for good marketing reasons, the tradition of publishing scholarly monographs in Latin continued into the second half of the 19th century, e.g. Bernhard Nathaniel Gottlob Schreger's De bursis mucosis subcutaneis (Erlangen 1825) and Johann Peter Frank's De medicina clinica opera omnia (Königsberg 1844). The library's German-language accessions at the end of the 18th century not only provide evidence of the physicians' continuing interest in pursuing non-medical interests, as can be seen in works such as Peter Kalm's Reise nach dem nördlichen America in the original Leipzig edition of 1754 and the continuation published at Göttingen in 1764, but also confirm what is known of the increased interest in the language among members of other learned professions in the city, an interest represented most notably at the individual level by Sir Walter Scott, and at the corporate by the acquisitions at that time of the Advocates Library.

2.10 The library's increasing willingness to acquire German-language publications from the end of the 18th century on is illustrated most clearly in its early specialised periodicals, e.g. Medicinische Unterhaltungen: eine Wochenschrift für Gesunde und Kranke (Berlin 1781), Medicinisch-chirurgische Zeitung (Salzburg 1790-1799), Journal der practischen Arzneykunde und Wundarzneikunst (vols 1-98, Jena 1795-1800; Berlin 1800-1844), Deutsches Archiv für die Physiologie (vols 1-14; Halle 1815-1832), Gemeinsame deutsche Zeitschrift für Geburtskunde (vols 1-7, Berlin 1826-1832), Repertorium für Anatomie und Physiologie (Berlin 1837-1843) and Jahresbericht der gesammten Medicin (Erlangen 1843-1845).

2.11 In view of the physicians' general interest in all matters relating to the healing arts except surgery and of their involvement in the preparation and publication of successive editions of the Edinburgh Pharmacopoeia, it is hardly surprising to find in the catalogues a good collection of local pharmacopoeiae, including foreign ones. Examples of the latter from the 17th and 18th centuries are Pharmacopoeia Galeno-chemica catholica (Frankfurt 1651), Pharmacopoeia Augustana reformata (Nuremberg 1675), Pharmacopoeia Wirtenbergica (Stuttgart 1754) and Pharmacopoeia Austriaco-provincialis emendata (Vienna 1794). Associated with these are monographs by the highly productive Professor of Medicine at Jena University, Georg Wolfgang Wedel, Opiologia (Jena 1682) and Pharmacia in artis formam redacta (Jena 1677). The library's holdings of works on alchemy, e.g. Hans Jacob Wecker's De secretis libri XVII ex variis authoribus collecti (Basel 1642; Basel 1662), were possibly acquired for their historical interest, although they also complement the library's important collection of manuscripts on the subject.


3.1 Modern catalogues

Card catalogue

[contains details of pre-1900 works which have been acquired after that date]

Computerised catalogue

[For new accessions; used also for the recataloguing of all the older books in the library. It is not possible to say when this catalogue will become online.] 3.1

3.2 Historic catalogues

Catalogus librorum Joannis Drummond ...quos ...Medicorum Edinburgensium bibliothecae donavit, anno 1741. [Edinburgh] 1741

Catalogus Bibliothecae Collegii Regii Medicorum Edinburgensium. [Edinburgh] 1767

Bibliothecae Collegii Regii Medicorum Edinburgensis catalogus, secundum auctorum nomina dispositus. Edinburgi 1793. Appendix catalogi Bibliothecae Collegii Regii Medicorum Edinburgensis, secundum auctorum nomina dispositus. Edinburgi 1821

Catalogue of the library of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Edinburgh 1863. Supplement 1863-1870. Edinburgh 1870. Second supplement 1871-1879. Edinburgh 1879

Catalogue of the library of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. 2 vols. Edinburgh 1898

3.3 Special catalogues

Hargreaves, G. D.: A catalogue of medical incunabula in Edinburgh libraries. Edinburgh 1976

The incunables are recorded in the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC).

Bird, D. T.: A catalogue of sixteenth-century medical books in Edinburgh libraries. Edinburgh 1982


4.1 Archival sources

Jolley, L.: The records of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. In: The Bibliotheck 1, no. 3 (1958) pp. 20-26

4.2 Publications

Wood, A.: Historical sketch and laws of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, from its institution to December 1865. Edinburgh 1867

Wood, A.: Historical sketch and laws of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, from its institution to August 1882. Edinburgh 1882

Anon.: Historical sketch and laws of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, from its institution to August 1891. Edinburgh 1891; repr. 1925

Craig, W. S.: History of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Oxford 1976

Cunningham, A.: The medical professions and the pattern of medical care. The case of Edinburgh, c. 1670 - c. 1700. In: W. Eckart and J. Geyer-Kordesch (eds.): Heilberufe und Kranke im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert. Münster 1982, pp. 9-28

Girdwood, R. H.: Doctors, pharmacists and the public. In: Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh tercentenary congress 1981, ed. by R. Passmore. Edinburgh 1982, pp. 190-198 (Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh publication no. 56)

McHarg, J. F.: Dr John Makluire and the 1630 attempt to establish the College. In: Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh tercentenary congress 1981, ed. by R. Passmore. Edinburgh 1982, pp. 44-58 (Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh publication no. 56)

Simpson, A. D. C.: Sir Robert Sibbald - the founder of the College. In: Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh tercentenary congress 1981, ed. by R. Passmore. Edinburgh 1982, pp. 59-91 (Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh publication no. 56)

Tait, H. P.: The College and community health. In: Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh tercentenary congress 1981, ed. by R. Passmore. Edinburgh 1982, pp. 162-178 (Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh publication no. 56)

Stott, R. M.: The Incorporation of Surgeons and medical education and practice in Edinburgh 1696-1755. Ph.D. thesis. University of Edinburgh 1984

Lawrence, C.: Ornate physicians and learned artisans. Edinburgh medical men, 1726-1776. In: W. F. Bynum and R. Poeter (eds.): William Hunter and the eighteenth-century medical world. Cambridge 1985, pp. 153-174

Guerrini, D. A.: Archibald Pitcairne and Newtonian medicine. In: Medical History 31 (1989) pp. 70-83

William Cullen and the eighteenth century medical world. A bicentenary exhibition and symposium arranged by the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1990, ed. by A. Doig. Edinburgh 1993

McHarg, J. F.: In search of Dr John MakLuire: pioneer Edinburgh physician, forgotten for over three hundred years. With a historical introduction by H. Dingwall. Glasgow 1997


Ferguson, J. P. S.: The College library. In: Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh tercentenary congress 1981, ed. by R. Passmore. Edinburgh 1982, pp. 103-115 (Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh publication no. 56)

See also: A directory of rare book and special collections ...2nd ed. London 1997, p. 645

January 1999

William A. Kelly

Quelle: Handbuch der historischen Buchbestände in Deutschland. Digitalisiert von Günter Kükenshöner.
Hrsg. von Bernhard Fabian. Hildesheim: Olms Neue Medien 2003.