Great minds: the brain in medicine, surgery and psychiatry

Written by on September 10, 2019

Our new exhibition ‘Great minds: the brain in medicine, surgery and psychiatry’ shows how doctors have treated the brain over hundreds of years of learning, practice and innovation. Using our rich historical collections we show how the College’s community and the city of Glasgow have contributed to our understanding of the brain over centuries.

The exhibition was inspired by the 140th anniversary of a special moment in surgical history. In Glasgow in 1879, young surgeon and fellow of our College William Macewen performed the first ever successful removal of a brain tumour. The patient was fourteen year old Barbara Watson. Our collections contain Macewen’s notes describing the patient’s condition, diagnosis and treatment. Watson visited Macewen in his ward at Glasgow Royal Infirmary in the years following the operation, allowing Macewen to assess her progress and photograph her as part of the record of her treatment. This detailed and historic record, including the photographs, is preserved in his book of surgical cases. You can see our digital visualisation of this case here.

Detail from the Private Journal of William Macewen, 1876 – 1879 (RCPSG 10/9/1)

This notebook, one of many in our archive collection, is the centre-piece of our exhibition. Its significance sums up the tremendous value of these collections, and the importance of showcasing them to a wide audience. The College’s collections include notebooks, letters, instruments, books, pieces of equipment, lecture notes, and much more, all donated by our community of members and their families. It is a unique collection telling the stories of clinical practice, research, teaching and caring. As with the Macewen notebook, the patient is often at the centre of this work. Our physicians and surgeons have been striving to improve the health of patients for hundreds of years, and our collections are the tangible record of this learning, practice and innovation.

The exhibition covers the very broad areas of medicine linked to the brain – from anatomical investigation, to emergency surgery, phrenology to electrical stimulation, asylums to mental health. This reflects the broad range of interests and specialisms of the College’s community of physicians and surgeons over the past 400 years. Our heritage is created by our community. This exhibition provides a snapshot of how our community has treated the brain since our foundation in 1599.

Photograph of Glasgow Coma Scale poster in Chennai hospital (reproduced courtesy of Dr Jonathan Crossar, FRCP(Glasg), FFTM RCPS(Glasg))

By far the most well-known is the development of Glasgow Coma Scale in the 1970s, by former College president Professor Sir Graham Teasdale and Professor Bryan Jennett, which is used in hospitals around the world. Much less well known are the mid 20th century innovations in neuroscience by surgeons such as Sloan Robertson and Joseph Schorstein, both connected to famous psychiatrist R.D. Laing. These lesser known items are great examples of how we can use an exhibition theme to really uncover relatively ‘hidden’ collections and encourage further research into them. 

In the 16th century College founder Peter Lowe wrote about both the practical treatment and surgery of the head, and of the “perturbations and passions of the minde.” Improving knowledge and care of our great minds is central to our health and wellbeing. To reflect this we have collaborated with Samaritans Scotland for part of the exhibition, and will programme events next year focused on mental health awareness. The exhibition will run from September 2019 to July 2020. During this time we will develop digital content that will enhance the exhibition and provide further access to collections via our website ( We will also continue to explore these and more collections relating to the brain, encouraging research and public engagement with this fascinating subject.

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About Us

The College’s heritage collections – including thousands of medical and surgical instruments, rare books, archives, and pictures – span over 6 centuries and are an excellent resource for exploring the history of medicine and the history of the city of Glasgow. Many items from the collections have been digitised and are available to view here. Our digitisation work is ongoing, and we add new items to the site regularly, so keep checking back to discover more.

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