College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine

Medicine at the University of Edinburgh

The University of Edinburgh was founded in 1583 by the Town Council of Edinburgh as the first civic university in Britain.


Although the Medical School can trace its origins back to the barber surgeons of Edinburgh in the early part of the 16th century, the Faculty of Medicine did not gain formal recognition within the University until 1726.

Edinburgh’s Faculty of Medicine was founded on the models established at the University of Padua in the 16th century and at Leiden in the 17th.

It was in part a deliberate policy to boost the economy of the city by attracting foreign students to study in Scotland rather than send young Scots at great expense to the Continent.

Auld Reekie

Edinburgh was once nicknamed Auld Reekie. The Nor Loch (now the Princes Street Gardens) was a deep and foetid ditch, and when it was drained, several corpses, many of them drowned women (from the practice of ‘douking’ a woman to find out if she was a witch) were revealed.


Edinburgh’s old town perches on our chief geological defensive asset: the big volcanic plug Edinburgh Castle sits on (the ‘crag’) and the long spine of the Royal Mile (the ‘tail.’)

Over the years the population changed its size but the amount of land did not, and dwellings soared into the sky. If you were poor, you lived near ground level (where you were close to much of the street) or near the top, where construction was unstable. Rich people lived in the safe and airy middle.

The city expanded once the Nor Loch was drained (a process of grisly discovery). On the land to the north, Edinburgh’s New Town was built and most richer people moved there. However, this did nothing to help the overcrowding in the old town. The population skyrocketed and the problems of poor sanitation and disease worsened.

Disease was rife, and the city was full of quacks whose precriptions were based on superstition.

Barber Surgeons and Apocotheries

Surgery was once considered a lowly trade, as the job was given to barbers. The horror of surgery without pain relief meant that if you could work fast, you were considered brilliant.

Meanwhile, Apocotheries worked with medicinal herbs and painkillers. Since Apocatheries had religious backgrounds and were educated, the barber surgeons by comparison were considered fairly rough and ready, and Apocotheries were held in higher esteem. The two groups ended up forming their own guilds, which formalised their practice and brought them into an uneasy truce.


Inevitably, the study of Anatomy at the University of Edinburgh arose from a desire to know the human body better, to perform better, faster surgery, and to overcome the problems of pain, infection and sepsis. Formalising medicine also helped to phase out the quacks and pretenders who killed more than they cured through treatments which were unscientific. By the mid 1800s, Edinburgh University became known world-wide as the best place to study medicine.

The 18th century

By the middle of the century, the success of the School came from teaching both Medicine and Surgery in a university setting, but with a clinical base in a teaching hospital.

The establishment of the Medical Faculty was soon followed by the founding of a public hospital, originally in temporary accommodation in 1729, but after 1741 in the purpose-built Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh close to the University.

The physicians had already established a botanic garden for the study of medicinal plants and this gave the base for the development of studies in Materia Medica (Pharmacology) and Chemistry.

By 1764 the numbers of medical students were so great that a new 200-seat anatomy theatre was built in the College Garden.

Edinburgh’s fame was enhanced later by a succession of brilliant teachers, such as William Cullen, James Gregory and Joseph Black (discoverer of carbon dioxide and of latent heat).

The School attracted many students from Ireland, America and the Colonies, and Edinburgh graduates were closely involved in the founding of several of the first Medical Schools in the US and Canada.

The 19th century

The Edinburgh Medical School retained its place as one of the most prestigious in the world during the 19th century.

Midwifery was finally admitted as an essential part of the compulsory medical curriculum. James Young Simpson revolutionised obstetric and surgical practice with the introduction of chloroform anaesthesia in 1847.

There were enormous advances in surgery, under great names such as Robert Liston, James Syme and Joseph Lister, particularly with Lister’s introduction of antiseptic and aseptic techniques in the 1870s.

Edinburgh also played a part in the battle for admission of women into medicine with the reluctant acceptance of Sophia Jex Blake to some classes in 1869, though the eventual concession of full equality with men was not achieved till 1889.

New facilities

By the 1860s the development of Edinburgh medicine was constrained by its existing premises, with the Royal Infirmary in ageing buildings around Infirmary Street and the Medical Faculty still squeezed into the University quadrangle on South Bridge (now known as Old College).

A fine new building at Lauriston Place was finished in 1880. New premises were also required for the Medical Faculty as modern teaching demanded proper facilities for scientific research and practical laboratories. A site was selected just across from the new Royal Infirmary and a new Medical School was opened in 1884.

The Polish School of Medicine (1941-1949)

The Polish School of Medicine was set up at the University of Edinburgh to allow Polish servicepeople to continue their medical training during World War II. 

The School taught in Polish with a Polish curriculum. The then exiled Polish government was based in London, and the vision joint with Scotland was that the school would eventually be transplanted back to Poland.

In Poland itself all higher education had been disbanded, and any higher education activities were underground and contained considerable personal risk.

The goal for most students in Edinburgh was to finish their training and return to service, some heading back into war zones and others defending Scottish borders.

Ultimately the students anticipated being able to go back home to Poland. However, when the war ended, things didn’t go to plan. Graduates were being told by their families that it was too dangerous to return to Poland. Communism had arrived, and many found their families had been swept away by the war, been forcibly relocated, or had died in concentration camps. Returning to Poland under the new political regime was impossible for many, so they had to make a choice between staying in Britain or working elsewhere in the world.

Meanwhile, the dream of returning a fully functional Polish School of Medicine to Poland collapsed. Under the new Communist government, the School’s personnel were considered subversive. The government wanted the equipment and the curriculum, but not the people who had been running it. 

Antisemitism and anti-refugee feeling was high in Britain and the Polish graduates found finding work extremely competitive, especially when British medical professionals returned home postwar. Of the graduates, roughly half stayed in Britain to practice, while others dispersed across the world, working in Canada, America, Australia, South Africa, and Malawi.

The Polish School of Medicine now has strong connections all over the world, particularly in developing countries.

Although there are few graduates still alive, and the survivors are well into their 90s, the bond is so strong that a number of the group meet every five years, hosted by the University of Edinburgh. Over the decades the University has collected artworks made by the graduates, paintings and sculptures, and photographs which document the group from their student days to reunions across the years.

Polish School of Medicine

Polish School of Medicine Historical Collection

The College today

Our College ‘One Medicine, One Health’ strategy is built upon integration of research from bench to bedside and from process to population.

UK and World ranking

In the College’s submissions to the Research Excellence Framework 2014, Veterinary Medicine was ranked 1st in the UK, Medicine was ranked in the top 5, Neuroscience was ranked 3rd, and Social Work and Social Policy was 3rd.

Globally, in the Times Higher Educational Supplement rankings Edinburgh was ranked 12th in 2015 for clinical and preclinical medicine and health.

Research Excellence Framework website

Our strategy is delivered by the UK’s only unified College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, and our research is consolidated in multidisciplinary research Centres. These Centres are clustered within contemporary research Institutes located next to hospitals on three major translational research campuses, linking with research excellence in the other Colleges.

Institutes, Centres, Facilities and Cross-Campus Networks

College Research Summary

Getting and keeping the best talent

We are committed to recruiting and keeping the most talented early career researchers, and developing our culture of translation of research to maximise impact on health and wealth.

Career Development

The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies

The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies is one of the oldest veterinary school's in the world, founded in 1823 by William Dick. Together with Edinburgh Medical School, the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies consolidates the College's repuation for research and teaching excellence.

Read the history of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.

Famous Alumni

Read about the ground-breaking individuals who transformed medicine.