A Visit to the Royal College of Physicians

Officially founded on the 29th of November, 1681, Edinburgh’s Royal College of Physicians certainly warrants the epithet of ‘venerable’ and this is reflected in both the grandness of the buildings which house it and its worldwide reputation as a centre of medical education and research. One of the physicians who campaigned voraciously for the institution to be founded, Sir Robert Sibbald, was also involved with the inauguration of the city’s Royal Botanic Garden and this link between the worlds of botany and medicine is continued through the small Physic Garden which can be seen in the College’s central courtyard. Designed by Thomas Hamilton and ready for occupation in 1846, the College’s main building is one of great distinction, acting unmistakably as an architectural signifier of the wealth of knowledge and tradition contained behind its doors.

Our interest as book historians in Sibbald’s career and legacy is perhaps more centred towards his collection of books which are held by the College to this day. One of the premier book collectors of his day, Sibbald donated 100 books in 1682 to provide the foundation for the College’s library, and he is commemorated by the Sibbald Library which overlooks Queen Street gardens at the front of the building. Although the College’s holdings are by any estimation admirably diverse, there has been a focus on the acquisition of medical texts and related topics throughout the institution’s history, and today it stands as one of the great repositories of books for the study of medical practice throughout history. The majority of these books are housed in the breathtaking New Library, where they are available to members of the College and researchers from further afield. The New Library’s interior design is intended to evoke a peaceful sylvan setting within which to study, with finely painted ‘foliage’ overhead on the ceiling. This is also perhaps another reminder of the close disciplinary relations between the fields of botany and medicine. Interestingly, the pre-twentieth century books within the library are arranged by a fixed-location cataloguing system, and as we learned from the College’s resident librarian, many of the shelves are in fact organised by order of acquisition. It is thus possible to trace not only the diverse research interests and reading habits of long-dead members – the stuff of dreams for a would-be book historian – but also to construct a history of sorts of medicine as a discipline.

Reflecting on the library in this way, as a space in which certain intellectual activities are not only represented but also in some ways defined, provides an intriguing challenge for scholars of various fields. The College’s authority as a medical body is supported by its excellent collection of medical texts, and this link between the world of the written and the medicinal is further evident in the number of portraits of past Presidents in which books are conspicuously present. The College is actively digitizing much of its collection in a bid to make the many treasures in its collection available to modern-day researchers, thus ensuring that the collection goes on being actively useful, albeit in a slightly different context to that originally envisioned by its founders.

After a tour of the buildings, including the superb Robert Adam interiors in what was originally Number 8 Queen Street, we were given a fascinating talk by Professor Iain Donaldson in the Sibbald Library. An expert in early printed books, Professor Donaldson demonstrated various aspects of the books on display, highlighting especially the relationship between illustrations and text in anatomical books and how this frequently changes as a result of varying printing practices. We were treated to a side-by-side comparison of the incomparable Icones Anatomicae by Andreas Vesalius in both its original edition and the 1930s reissue, both beautiful books in their own right. The quality of the woodcut illustrations contained within Vesalius’ work was truly remarkable and Professor Donaldson’s story about their accidental re-discovery in a museum in Munich (and subsequent fiery demise in a bombing raid of World War Two) elicited gasps of wonderment and dismay. We were also shown an original copy of A Curious Herbal, a fabulously illustrated and hand-coloured botanical text from the 18th century. Being allowed access to such remarkable material in equally inspiring surroundings was a real privilege and an experience which none of us present on the trip will forget.

Report by Benedict Jones-Williams, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh.

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