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Historical Enquiries

Founded in 1505, the College has amassed an extensive library of books, journals, pamphlets and biographical material and an archive dating from 1460 onwards, of the Incorporation (later ‘Royal College’) and its membership, the history of medicine and surgery and of Edinburgh. Our collections include architectural drawings by Playfair (architect of the present College building), personal papers from some of the most significant names in the history of medicine and surgery such as Sir James Young Simpson, Sir John Struthers, Sir Henry D. and Sir Henry H. Littlejohn, Sir Henry Wade and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Access the frequently updated page outlining these collections.

The library team’s primary function is the support of the current (and historical) information needs of the College's Fellows and Members, but we are always pleased to support enquiries from individual medical historians, researchers and the public.

Historical Enquiries - FAQs

  • I am not a Member of The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. Can I submit a historical enquiry?

    Yes. Each year the Library at The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh receives hundreds of historical enquiries from researchers and the public. Most are of a genealogical/family history nature, and while we are very keen to assist with these, such research can be time-consuming. So it is helpful if enquirers have already checked with the other information resources generally available to them first, before contacting us.

  • I am researching my family history, and believe my ancestor received a qualification from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. Will you have a record of this?

    Almost certainly we shall. We have records of the College membership since 1505, which is updated regularly. We also maintain comprehensive listings of those who received Dental Fellowships, Diplomas, Licentiateships, Honorary Fellowships etc. So if your ancestor obtained a diploma from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh at any time throughout our history we will have a record of this. There is usually no search fee applicable for a simple confirmation of the award of a diploma.

  • You have confirmed that my ancestor was a Fellow – what else can you tell me about them?

    With a database of almost 45,000 names in our consecutive Fellows Roll (dating from the sixteenth century to the present day), it’s not surprising that we have varying amounts of information on each. In some cases a large amount of material is available on an individual – biographies, articles, obituaries, photographs or perhaps a portrait. In other cases the information amounts to little more than a formal record of success in a College examination in the Minutes of the College Council.

  • My ancestor was a Licentiate not a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. What’s the difference?

    The first recorded examination appears in the minute books on 14 June 1582, when William Bisset was tested, 'fund qualifiet' and admitted as a master surgeon on payment of the standard entrance fee and funding of a dinner for the assembled masters. So originally (from this College’s inception in 1505 to well into the 18th century) the only examination available was that for the full 'Mastership' [Fellowship]. However, in March 1757 the War Office in London requested that the Incorporation 'try the qualifications' of John McLean, who had applied for a post as surgeon to Lt. Col. Fraser's Battalion of Highlanders. Examiners were nominated, the candidate tested, and the “Diploma” awarded to McLean would prove to be the first of many – in the 1770s after it was introduced fully and developed it became a widely sought after qualification for prospective country, naval or army surgeons, or those who wished to act as doctors on slave ships. From 1815 these Diplomas were standardised into one qualification, renamed Licentiateship, and became a prerequisite for the Fellowship qualification.

  • I think my ancestor was a Licentiate of both The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh – was this possible?

    From 1858, after the Medical Act, candidates could continue to take the single licence examination of the College. However, those looking to become Army doctors had to have a surgical and medical qualification. As a result, RCSEd entered into negotiations with the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh to create a “Double Qualification”, and thus many Licentiateship Candidates were military practitioners. From 1884 the “Triple Qualification”, adding in the Faculty, (later the Royal College) of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, was introduced to supersede both the single and double licences, and was a route to an initial medical qualification parallel to the university degree. After 1944 the universities became the main entry portal for a basic medical qualification, but the Triple Qualification remained available until the 1990s. Administration for the Triple Qualification was based here at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, so we are fortunate to hold a large amount of archived material relating to this qualification and its successful candidates.

  • Would my ancestor have had to study in Edinburgh for his/her examination?

    Not necessarily. The College recognised that its diplomates would be operating in many parts of the world. So it was resolved that "no person shall be admitted as a candidate for the full diploma unless he produce certificates of his having studied at least two sessions in a recognised medical teaching establishment". As time moved, on these medical schools and universities became more numerous and widespread, and by the early twentieth century thousands of candidates of all nationalities travelled from around the globe to sit examinations, particularly after 1944, when residence was required for the university MBChB degree – but not for the Triple Qualification.

  • Do you hold as much information on early Licentiates as Fellows?

    While there are a number of instances where we have accumulated considerable information on Licentiates, in general we hold less material on them compared to those who obtained our Fellowship. However, we do hold considerably more primary resources relating to those who obtained the Double and Triple Qualifications, and we always check all resources available to us for information that may be of use. At the very least you can expect a date and proof of qualification in any enquiry.

  • Can I visit the Library with my historical enquiry?

    Some historical material is accessible only by the Library staff. If you contact us with details as to the nature of your project, we can usually arrange a visit. For application to handle and use private papers here, where possible, undergraduate or academic researchers should apply on institutional headed paper or through their tutor. We will then arrange an appointment. Photo identification will be required on arrival. We would request that researchers wishing to access private papers do not visit the College Library without prior appointment due to examination diets, surgical events etc.

  • I am unable to visit your Library in person. I would like you to carry out a full historical enquiry on my behalf. Is there a fee for this?

    If you wish us to carry out a full archival enquiry on your behalf, a search fee, will be applicable. Please contact the College Library (library@rcsed.ac.uk) for details regarding this. Fees acquired are applied directly to the cost of conservation of our archival collection material. Although no specific deadline can be guaranteed, the Library will attempt to answer each enquiry within 15 working days. If you feel there is a particular reason why you might be exempt from the fee, please let us know and that will be taken into consideration.

  • My ancestor was a member of The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and I have accumulated some information about them that you may not have. Is this of interest to you?

    We are always delighted to receive details of any additional information descendants are able to offer us regarding an ancestor’s life and career - as you can imagine, it is our constant objective here in the Library to build as comprehensive a picture as possible of our historical membership, and such information is therefore always welcome and appreciated.

  • Can you recommend any books on the history of The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh?

    Two major works on the College’s history were published in 2005 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh - both are available through the college shop. “A Famous and Flourishing Society: The History of The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh” by Helen M Dingwall, and “Surgeons Lives: An Anthology of College Fellows over 500 Years” edited by Iain Macintyre & Iain MacLaren.

Other titles of interest are available through the College Shop

Please contact us if you require any further information.

The College Library & Archive
The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh
Nicolson Street

Tel: (+44) 131 527 1632 / 1707
Fax: (+44) 131 557 6406
Email: library@rcsed.ac.uk

The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh is a Registered Charity (No. SC005317)