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History and Vision

The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh is one of the oldest surgical corporations in the world. Its story begins in the late 1400s when the roles of surgeons and barbers, both requiring sharp instruments to practise their trade, were indistinctly defined as regards such tasks as bloodletting, lancing, shaving, bandaging and treating wounds in battle. From its formal foundation in 1505, the Incorporation of Surgeons and Barbers, now The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, has dedicated itself to promoting the highest standards in surgical education, training and clinical practice.

The 16th Century: The Incorporation is Founded

In 1505, the surgeons and barbers of Edinburgh were formally incorporated as a Craft of the Burgh, when a Seal of Cause (a charter of privileges) was granted to them by the Town Council of Edinburgh on 1st July. They wished to have exclusive rights to perform surgery and to have the powers to prosecute individuals who operated outside these boundaries.

The Seal of Cause conferred various privileges and imposed certain crucially important duties, the most important of these being that every master should have full knowledge of anatomy and surgical procedures; that all apprentices should be literate, and that this knowledge should be thoroughly tested at the end of apprenticeship - all clauses still relevant to surgical practice and the College today. Their ancient given right to "brew aqua vitae" under the terms of the Seal of Cause has long since ceased to be exercised.

The 17th Century: The first permanent meeting place

Old Surgeons Hall watercolour after restoration 2008.jpgDuring the 1600s, the Incorporation met in rooms in Dickson's Close, in St Giles and in other places. In 1697, their first purpose-built Surgeons' Hall was completed, by the architect James Smith. Their fine building contained a 'Great Hall', a library, a laboratory and an anatomy theatre (for which they were granted additional cadavers for teaching purposes). Public dissections were held there once a year.

The 18th Century: The growth of scientific medicine in Edinburgh

The University of Edinburgh Faculty of Medicine (established in 1726) and TheHIS14 Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh (established 1729) rapidly developed systematic medical teaching on a sound scientific basis. As Surgery was still perceived by many as a manual craft, rather than an intellectual discipline, the members of the Incorporation of Surgeons, by1722 completely separated from the Society of Barbers, undertook the task of education and did much to establish Edinburgh's reputation as a centre of surgical teaching. In 1778, King George III granted a new charter giving the surgeons the title "The Royal College of Surgeons of the City of Edinburgh".

The 19th Century: A new meeting place, Playfair's Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

By the beginning of the 19th Century, the 1697 Surgeon's Hall had become inadequate, partly due to the need to provide suitable accommodation for a large collection of pathological specimens being presented to them by anatomist John Barclay. A site was acquired by the purchase of a riding school (The Royal Academy for Teaching Exercise) in Nicolson Street. William Henry Playfair, 1790-1857, the foremost Scottish architect of that era, was commissioned to design a building containing a Meeting Hall, Barclayan Hall, for the specimens (which included a full size elephant and rider), Lecture Room and Library. The College's new home was formally opened in July 1832 and in 1851 Queen Victoria granted a further charter giving the College its present title and establishing its independence from the City. This was the century of important initiatives in anesthesia and in antisepsis, through James Young Simpson and Joseph Lister, notable figures in the College's rich history.

The 20th Century: A period of expansion

PLAYFAIR SH (25).jpgIn July 1905, the College marked its Quatercentenary by conferring Honorary Fellowship upon 36 of the world's most distinguished surgeons. These included Lord Lister, who famously initiated the antiseptic era, influenced profoundly by the work of Pasteur. Lister had become a Fellow of this College in 1855. In 1955, on the 450th Anniversary of the foundation of the College, Honorary Fellowship was conferred upon His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh, who had consented to become Patron of the College earlier in that year.

The 21st Century: The College today, as expansion and innovation continues

In July 2005, many Fellows and guests, including Prince Philip and Mr Kofi Annan, joined in celebration with the President, Council, College and friends to mark the College's Quincentenary with the opening of a large skills laboratory and conference venue within its new 'Quincentenary Hall', and the College's Hotel, Ten Hill Place, all on the campus.


Scapel sculpture.jpg

Today, in our sixth century, we are a modern, thriving, global network of medical professionals with a membership of well over 23,000 professionals who live and work in more than 100 countries around the world. 15,000 of these live and work in the UK and 80% of that figure are based in England and Wales. Our membership includes people at every stage of their career, from medical students through to trainees, consultants and those who have retired from practice.


With our interest in professional standards, the College’s primary role – and the main concern of our Fellows and Members - is to ensure the safety of our patients and provide them with the best possible care. We do this by championing the highest standards of surgical and dental practice; through our provision of courses and educational programmes, training, examinations and Continuous Professional Development; our liaison with external medical bodies; and by influencing healthcare policy across the UK.

We are the home of the UK’s only Faculty of Surgical Trainers. Its purpose is to help support and develop surgeons in their role as surgical trainers. It works to increase the profile and recognition of surgical education and training and to disseminate the message that excellent surgical training means excellent and safer patient care. We are also home to UK’s only Faculty of Perioperative Care, which recognises the importance of the entire surgical team, and the essential role which perioperative practitioners play in all aspects of patient care and safety.

Our motto: 'Hinc sanitas' - 'From here, health'

For any questions about the 500 years of College history, its Fellows and Members of the past, its paintings, portraits, busts, furniture, books and archives, please contact the College Library & Archive. We are always pleased to arrange visits for enquirers and researchers, by appointment. Our Surgeons' Hall Museums house one of the largest and most historic collections of surgical pathology material in the United Kingdom. Developed as a teaching museum for students of medicine it has also been open to the general public since 1832, making it Scotland's oldest museum. Alternatively, some literature is available for purchase from our RCSEd bookshop.

Tagged with: History

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