Alumni Services

Graduation firsts

As the University prepares to welcome a new cohort of graduates to the alumni fold, we look back at the very first graduation, and other milestones that followed.

Robert Rollock and pages from the first Sponsio
Left: Robert Rollock, the first Principal (University of Edinburgh Fine Art Collection). Right: Signatories of the 'sponsio' (Edinburgh University Archives)

First Principal

With the University having been established in 1583, the Town Council then looked for a regent who, in the first instance, would be solely responsible for all teaching and administrative duties.

At the recommendation of the University’s chief founder, James Lawson, the Council turned to Robert Rollock, who had been educated at the University of St Andrews and employed there as a Regent of Philosophy since 1580. Rollock had acquired a fine reputation, not only for the quality of his teaching, but for the piety that he instilled into his pupils’ minds. Having responded favourably to Lawson’s overtures, Rollock was interviewed by the Town Council and appointed Regent, initially for a one-year period, on 14 September 1583.

By 1586 Rollock had been appointed Principal of the College, and was now relieved of everyday tutoring duties.

First graduation

At the end of the 1586-7 academic year, Rollock’s original class graduated, or ‘laureated' as it was then known, with the MA degree. Although in subsequent years the principle was established that no regent would examine his own class, it was impractical to implement this at such an embryonic stage of the University’s development. So 47 final year students (known as ‘magistrands’) were examined by Rollock himself and then given their degrees.

Each graduate signed the 'sponsio', or ‘Confession of Faith’, of 1580 in the University's First Laureation Album. The sponsio was also signed by each new Regent upon taking up employment with the University. The first two regents to sign the sponsio were Rollock and Duncan Nairn in 1585, while the first student signatory from the 1587 laureation is Thomas Stewart.

Often, notes that indicated the graduate's beliefs or future career were added to the sponsio by hand. In Stewart's case the note reads “apostate”, suggesting that he had abandoned the Protestant faith.

First graduation of female students

The 1860s saw a vigorous nationwide campaign in favour of university education for women. In Edinburgh, physician Sophia Jex-Blake fought for the right for women to attend medical classes in the Extra-Mural School, achieving victory in 1869.

The Edinburgh Ladies Education Association, founded in 1868, took a different tack. The guiding force behind its establishment was campaigner Mary Crudelius, who sought to keep the organisation separate from the controversy over women becoming doctors, preferring instead to garner support among male academics.

Under her leadership, the stress was on the cultivation and improvement of female minds through its lectures. She attracted the influential support of David Mather Masson, Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, a prominent supporter of the women's cause. By 1873, women were enrolled in Association classes as diverse as Mathematics, Moral Philosophy, Chemistry, Physiology and Bible Criticism.

By 1877 the Rules and Calendar of the Association were being printed in the University Calendar thus forging the link between the University and the cause of women's education. With a change in name to the Edinburgh Association for the University Education of Women, the organisation continued to attract students to its classes, and to campaign to obtain a university education for women. In the end, the debate produced the Universities (Scotland) Act 1889 which led to the drawing up of Regulations for the Graduation of Women.

With that, women were formally admitted to the University in 1892, but classes already attended at the Edinburgh Association for the University Education of Women were deemed to count towards degree requirements. Eight women were therefore able to graduate the following summer. They were:

  • Flora Philip
  • Amelia Hutchison Stirling
  • Maude Elizabeth Newbigin
  • Lilias Maitland
  • Mary Douie
  • Margaret Nairn
  • Frances Simson
  • Grace Fairley

First American

The University’s international appeal has a long history, and it was in 1749 that the first American graduated.

His name was John Moultrie. He was born in South Carolina to a Scottish father, also called John and also an Edinburgh graduate. Moultrie graduated with a thesis on yellow fever, which soon became recognised as the most authoritative work on the subject to date and a study for which there was a pressing need.

Africa and China

The University’s educational links with Africa can be traced back to the 19th century, when the first black African graduate, James Africanus Beale Horton, of Sierra Leone, gained his MD in 1859.

Following his graduation, Horton joined the British Army Medical Service where he was appointed assistant staff surgeon, making him not only one of the first Africans to qualify as a medical doctor but also one of the first to serve as an officer in the British Army.

In 1874 he achieved the title Surgeon Major. Always keen to educate his fellow Africans, he left a large part of his estate for the development of scientific education at various levels.

Similarly, productive collaboration between the University and China stretches back more than a century and a half. The first Chinese graduate, Huang Kuan, took his MD at Edinburgh in 1855.

Related links

Beyond graduations

The history of the University