Europe and the College’s foundations

Written by on January 31, 2020

When the College was founded in 1599, a strong relationship with Europe was a defining factor in the development of modern Scotland and in the development of modern medicine. The College was founded by surgeon Peter Lowe. He was born in c1550 in Scotland, but spent most of his adult life in mainland Europe, training as a surgeon in France and serving as surgeon on battlefields across Western Europe and at the court of Henry of Navarre (King Henry IV of France). When he returned to Scotland in the 1590s he had close links with both the French court and King James VI of Scotland.

Portrait of Maister Peter Lowe (reproduced in 1820)

At this time qualified doctors in Scotland relied on the medical training available at European universities. The College’s co-founder, physician Robert Hamilton, is believed to have gained his medical training in the Low Countries (he returned to Scotland on a Flemish ship in 1594).

The Whole Course of Chirurgerie by Peter Lowe (London, 1597)

Peter Lowe’s book The Whole Course of Chirurgerie (1597) is the first comprehensive surgical textbook written in the English language. The book was popular enough to go through four editions in Lowe’s lifetime. It advises young surgeons on best practice in patient care and remedies, and provides practical instruction on a range of surgical procedures. Lowe asks the reader to “reap the fruits of my travels and studies”.

Transcription of the College’s Royal Charter, in the first minute book of 1602 (RCPSG 1/1/1/1a)

Lowe’s published works and the College’s defining document, its Royal Charter of 1599, were heavily influenced by European medical and philosophical ideas and practice.  Lowe’s treatise on surgery followed in the footsteps of many other monumental texts by authors such as Ambrose Pare. His surgical training at St Come in Paris influenced the fundamental principles of the College’s Charter – to combine learning, practice, examination and social responsibility. It influenced the very identity of the College, in its unique combination of the disciplines of medicine and surgery.

In the 21st century the College is a global institution, with approximately one third of its membership in countries outside of the UK. Its foundations in the European medical tradition will live long in its purpose and identity – Conjurat amice.

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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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