Medicine in Edinburgh: A Photographic Essay

From where the castle sits grinning on its rock, a spine runs down the length of Edinburgh, all knobs and cobbles. Ribs arch off to north and south, threaded through with ducts and drains and channels. With all its fat flensed off, the Old Town offers up a skeletal prospect, its thorny architecture the product of slow accretions: a city built by lithiasis.

A medical town, then, lying in the shadow-zone between life and death. Might such long familiarity make Edinburgh an unfeeling place? Callous, even? Or does Edinburgh’s cool reserve come from the internalised understanding that all things share one common and inexorable fate? Vikki McCraw gives us a set of images—thin slices of geography and time—to help us with our diagnosis.

 The Prospect of Edinburgh from the North" showing the physic garden established in 1676, near where Waverley station is today
The Prospect of Edinburgh from the North” showing the physic garden established in 1676, near where Waverley station is today

1. Map of Edinburgh from the North showing the 1676 physic garden Edinburgh’s original physic garden was founded in 1670 by Robert Sibbald and Andrew Balfour at Holyrood Park. It was one of the first physic gardens in Britain. Six years later Sibbald and Balfour moved the expanding garden to a plot at the top of the Nor Loch; today this location is Waverley Station’s Platform 11, where you can find a commemorative plaque. This 1676 garden is illustrated here with four plots just to the left of the Nor Loch, in the middle of the right-hand page of the map. In 1763 the garden was moved to Gayfield Square (off Leith Walk), and from there, in 1820 the garden was moved a fourth and final time, to Inverleith in the New Town, where you can visit it today as the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh.
credit: Permission to reproduce the image courtesy of the Collection of the Library and Archives, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

 

Old Surgeons Hall, est. 1697
Old Surgeons Hall, est. 1697

2. Old Surgeons’ Hall, High School Yards: the first meeting place for Edinburgh’s Royal College of Surgeons, established in 1697. The organisation of Edinburgh’s surgeons dates to 1505, when the Barber Surgeons of Edinburgh were formally incorporated as a Craft Guild. It is one of the oldest surgical corporations in the world. For this and a complete history of Edinburgh’s College of Surgeons, see Helen M Dingwall, “‘A Famous and Flourishing Society’: the History of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh”. The Surgeons’ Hall on Nicolson Street was designed by William Henry Playfair in 1832 to accommodate the growing college, and is still in use today.
Photo: © Vikki McCraw Photography

 

The bust of Robert Sibbald (1641-1722) stands in the physic garden of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh
The bust of Robert Sibbald (1641-1722) stands in the physic garden of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh

3. Bust of Robert Sibbald (1641-1722), who, with Andrew Balfour (1630-1694), established the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1681. They also founded Edinburgh’s first physic garden at Holyrood Park, and used their expertise to stock it with medicinal plants intended for use by doctors and medical students. The bust is in the Sibbald Physic Garden at the current College of Physicians, on Queen Street.
Photo: © Vikki McCraw Photography

 

Still life with books, herbs, and medical equipment at the Library at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh
Still life with books, herbs, and medical equipment at the Library at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh

4. Still life with books, herbs, and medical equipment at The Library at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh The library was founded in 1681 by Robert Sibbald; it is the oldest, and the largest, medical library in Scotland, and one of the largest in the United Kingdom. It is open to non-members, by appointment.
Photo: © Vikki McCraw Photography

 

Mortsafe at Greyfriars kirkyard
Mortsafe at Greyfriars kirkyard

5. Mortsafe at Greyfriars Kirkyard Mortsafes were used in Edinburgh during the early 19th century to prevent graverobbing. Coffins were locked inside the mortsafe until the body had decayed considerably, and then buried. This assured that the body would be of no use to medical students, who sometimes resorted to illegal means of sourcing corpses to study. You can find out more about the history of bodysnatching and the use of mortsafes in Edinburgh.
Photo: © Vikki McCraw Photography

 

Death mask of William Burke and life mask of William Hare, at the Anatomical Museum, University of Edinburgh
Death mask of William Burke and life mask of William Hare, at the Anatomical Museum, University of Edinburgh

6. Death mask of William Burke and Life Mask of William Hare
Graverobbing was disturbing enough for the citizens of Edinburgh in the early 19th century, but the money that was being paid for these bodies and the natural limit on their availability led to even more traumatising events. Between 1827 and 1828 William Burke and William Hare murdered seventeen people in order to sell their bodies to the Anatomy School. They were discovered eventually by their last victim (who got away). To find out more, see The Doctor Dissected: A Cultural Autopsy of the Burke and Hare Murders by Caroline McCracken-Flesher.
Photo: © Vikki McCraw Photography

 

Modern medical photographer
Modern medical photographer

7. Modern Medical photographer Medical photography has a long history in Edinburgh, starting with the earliest known medical photograph—a calotype entitled ‘Woman With Goitre’ (c.1847) taken by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. Hill & Adamson were pioneers in the newly established field of photography; in 1843 Adamson founded Rock House Studioon Calton Hill, which was continuously in business until 1945. Medical photographers today are Healthcare Scientists specialising in photography, videography, graphic design and medical artwork. They work with health professionals to produce images for use in patient care, education, research, publications and websites.
Photo: © Medical Photography, NHS Lothian

 

"There are always flowers" art installation at the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh
“There are always flowers” art installation at the Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh

8. “There Are Always Flowers” art installation outside Medical Photography and Bereavement Suite, Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh. The installation was inspired by Henri Mattise: “There are always flowers for those who want to see them”.
This series of photographs has been specifically commissioned from Steve Stanton for the area that they now occupy. The images illustrate the act of selecting and isolating certain elements of plants by the photographer, thereby offering the viewer a different interpretation of the everyday flora of garden and hedgerow. Transformed, the organic structures can be viewed as having a sculptural, almost surreal quality that is further emphasized by the manipulation of the natural form. This project was commissioned with support from the Royal Infirmary Arts Committee and project managed by Ginkgo Projects Ltd
Photo: © Steve Stanton

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References & Further Information

Vikki McCraw is a professional photographer and founding director of Edinburgh-based Locations 365, which provides locations and production services for fashion shoots, tv commercials and events throughout Scotland.
vikki@locations365.co.uk

The Bottle Imp would like to offer special thanks to the following, for their invaluable help, support, and enthusiasm for this essay:
1. Map of Edinburgh: Thanks to Graham Hardy, Serials Librarian, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
2. Old Surgeons Hall: Thanks to Emma Black, Public Engagement Officer, The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh
3. Bust of Robert Sibbald and Library of the Royal College of Physicians: Thanks to Iain Milne, Sibbald Librarian, Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh
4. Burke & Hare: Thanks to Iain Campbell, Senior Technician, Edinburgh University School of Anatomy
5. Medical Photographer and “There will always be flowers” exhibit at Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh: Thanks to Gillian Nelson, Photography Dept, Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh

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