Surgeon’s Hall Museums

Nicolson St, Edinburgh EH8 9BZ

Surgeons' Hall Museums

The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh was founded in 1505. Its Museum began to amass anatomical specimens in 1699 and it grew rapidly in the 19th century through the donations of the collections of the famous Edinburgh anatomists Sir Charles Bell and John Barclay. Perhaps the museum’s most famous curator was Robert Knox, who worked here from 1825 until 1831, when  enemies within the College used his association with the murders committed by Burke and Hare to force his resignation. Today the museum is open to the public for a small fee.

Robert Knox (1791–1862).

Robert Knox (1791–1862).

Surgeons' Hall, 1890.

Surgeons’ Hall, 1890.

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Old College, University of Edinburgh

South Bridge, Edinburgh EH8 9YL

Old College, University of Edinburgh

The University of Edinburgh was first established on this site in 1582. Unusually, it was founded by the town council of Edinburgh and most of its professorial chairs remained in the gift of the  council until the reforms brought in by the Universities (Scotland) Act in 1858. Work on the building we see now was started in 1789 and it was more or less completed by 1827. The original design was by Robert Adam. Adam died in 1792 and the building was completed by William Henry Playfair. The dome was only added in 1887.

With the exception of the Talbot Rice Gallery, the interiors of the University buildings are not open to the public.

Click here to view the embedded video.



Legacy of the Genetic Codebreakers

The Wellcome Library has launched a major new digital resource which tells the story of genetics. ‘Codebreakers: Making of Modern Genetics’  contains the digitised archives of the most prominent individuals in this field, together with lots of supporting material.

To celebrate the launch of ‘Codebreakers’ we would like to show you a special selection of MediaHub resources which help illustrate the huge impact the work of these geneticists has had on society and how it has already changed our lives.

It is sixty years since’ Nature’ published  Watson and Crick’s  paper on the structure of DNA. This breakthrough is considered to be one of the greatest achievements of the 20th Century. Since that time enormous progress has been made in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Francis Crick : Nobel Prize-Winning Scientist
Getty (still images) : 23-04-1993

Legendary Geneticist : James Dewey Watson
Getty (still images) 23-04-1993

Genetic Fingerprinting

Alec Jeffreys discovered the technique of DNA fingerprinting by chance while carrying out research at the University of Leicester in 1984. It revolutionised the field of forensic science and police were now able to use DNA evidence to link  a suspect to the scene of a crime. A few years later the technique had been developed sufficiently to make it commercially available. Click on the following ITV news clip to hear how DNA fingerprinting is carried out and the impact it was to have on criminal investigation procedures.

Genetic Fingerprint Techniques
ITV News 13-11-1987

Jeffreys went on to refine the process further and developed DNA profiling, a technique which made it possible for DNA databases to be established. This has led to ethical questions about whose DNA should be stored and for how long.

However, the use of DNA evidence in court is not without its issues. In 2007 attempts to convict an individual for the Omagh bombings failed due to problems with ‘Low Copy’ DNA that ‘did not stand up to scrutiny’. Watch the ITN news clip below to find out more about the implications this has had for the Crown Prosecution Service.

DNA evidence to be reviewed after Omagh bomb trial verdict
ITN 21-12-2007

Sequencing and Mapping of the Human Genome

The Human Genome Project, established in 1989,  allowed geneticists to work collaboratively on sequencing  the entire human genome. This involved identifying every chemical  base pair within every gene of each human chromosome (around 3 billion base pairs).

Base pairs which make up the structure of a DNA double helix
Book of Life : Wellcome Film 2001

The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, based in Cambridge, carried out nearly a third of the work; the rest was sequenced by institutions  in the USA .  The ‘Book of Life‘ was made by the Wellcome Trust and is a fascinating account of how the sequencing work was done and the immense potential this has released to understand how genes contribute to human disease. We now have the information to discover the genetic basis of  cancer, diabetes and heart disease, as well as many other illnesses such as Alzheimer’s. Find out more about how the work was done by clicking on the image below:

Publication of the entire human genome
Book of Life : Wellcome Film 2001

This immense task was completed to a high degree of accuracy by 2003;  timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the discovery of  the DNA double helix.

Frederick Sanger, the researcher after whom the Sanger Institute was named,  pioneered methods of  sequencing  DNA which would form the basis of the high-speed technologies in use today. In the interview below you can hear this modest man discuss his work and how the life of a research scientist is usually strewn with failures from which occasional breakthroughs are made.

Frederick Sanger
Sanger. Sequences [Dr F. Sanger Interviewed by Mr H. Judson, 13 November 1987] Biochemical Society

The process of DNA sequencing is constantly advancing and becoming cheaper. In 2007 it cost $10 million to sequence a human genome whereas in 2012 it could be done in one day for around $1,000. This is having a revolutionary effect on  scientists’ abilities  to defeat diseases which mutate quickly, such as HIV and malaria, as well as for a multitude of other applications.

Many more genomes of other species are now being unravelled, expanding our knowledge of genetics further. Accompanying these advances will be a host of new ethical issues surrounding the use to which this information is being put and whether it is being used for commercial gain.

Greenpeace activists protest against genetically modified maize crops grown by US company, Monsanto.
Getty (images) 03-05-2005

Giant biotechnology companies such as Monsanto have been accused of introducing genetically modified organisms to the detriment of indigenous species and the environmental health of the planet.

The Genome of Neanderthal Man

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology are trying to sequence the Neanderthal genome following the discovery of ancient DNA within well preserved Neanderthal bones . It will allow scientists to compare human and Neanderthal genomes and identify the changes which are unique to modern man. It is hoped this will give clues to how man evolved and why Neanderthals disappeared.  Watch this Channel 4 Newsclip below to find out why scientists think this work could also contribute to our understanding of human speech disorders.

Neanderthal Skull
Technology: Scientists close to mapping genetic code for Neanderthal man: Channel 4 News 15-11-2006

We now stand on the threshold of a new age in which biomedical technologies will be used diagnose and treat disease, design new drugs and provide us with solutions to help make vital resources more plentiful. This promises to improve all our lives but, as with the advent of all new technologies, we will have to confront previously unknown ethical dilemmas along the way.

Further Links:

Gin and Tonic: A Short History of a Stiff Drink (from

Gin and Tonic, from Wikipedia

Jay Young was inspired to write an post on the historical background of a favourite summer drink while working as a Researcher with Trading Consequences:

The Gin and Tonic – what better a drink during the dog days of summer? Put some ice in a glass, pour one part gin, add another part tonic water, finish with a slice of lime, and you have a refreshing drink to counter the heat. But it is also steeped in the history of medicine, global commodity frontiers, and the expansion of the British Empire.

Let’s start with the gin. Although it is commonly known as the quintessential English spirit, the history of gin underlines the island’s connections to the outside world. The origin of gin – unlike the drink itself – is quite murky. Sylvius de Bouve, a sixteenth-century Dutch physician, is the individual associated with the development of gin. He created a highly-alcoholic medicinal concoction called Jenever. It featured the essential oils of juniper berries, which the physician believed could improve circulation and cure other ailments. The berry, deriving from a small coniferous plant, had long been treasured for its medicinal properties, including its use during the plague.

Some students of the spirit argue that English soldiers discovered it while fighting in Holland in the 1580s during the Dutch War of Independence, whereas others trace England’s gin tradition to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). The English nicknamed the drink “Dutch courage,” but what stuck was gin, a derivation of the Flemish word genever.

Gin’s popularity grew in England after William of Orange had become King of England following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Parliament exerted its superior authority by ousting from the throne the Catholic King James II. With William’s reign came high import duties on French brandy – the dominant hard liquor in England at the time. The English began to produce a gin at a low cost. As John Watney notes in Mother’s Ruin: A History of Gin, “[a] revolution in drinking habits, equal to or perhaps surpassing in importance the Glorious Revolution in politics, was about to occur.” Parliament ended the royal monopoly on spirit distilling within London and its surrounding area, and statutes promoted distillation from grain grown by English farmers.

Gin consumption exploded in England by the first half of the eighteenth century. London became the capital not only of a growing empire, but also the drinking of gin. The apparent rise in public drunkeness led to the “Gin Craze,” a moral panic in which elites began to worry about the amount of gin consumed by less-affluent classes. The British Parliament responded to the craze by enacting a series of laws starting in the 1730s that sought to curb the consumption of gin. Historians such as Jessica Warner have compared such policies to the war on drugs in more recent times. At first, British lawmakers imposed a stiff tax on gin, but this policy led to a flood of illegally-distilled gin. Riots against the law erupted in 1743. By 1751, the government changed their strategy to favour a policy that increased the operating costs of gin shops. The craze waned, although scholars argue that consumption declined because of rising grain prices, not government action. Nonetheless, gin remained a popular spirit in England.

“Gin Lane” (1751) by William Hogarth. Image from Wikipedia.

I’ve added one part gin to the glass, but what about the tonic? It too is rooted global relationships that stretch even farther than gin.

A key component of tonic water is quinine, an anti-malarial alkaloid from the bark of the cinchona tree. Indigenous to mountainous areas of South America, the tree is part of what historian Alfred Crosby has termed the “Columbian Exchange”: the transfer of humans, other animals, plants, germs, and ideas between Europe and the Americas.

The Quechua (Inca) peoples of Peru and Bolivia had long understood the cinchona tree’s ability to stop shivers in cold temperatures. Europeans first realized the value of the plant in fighting malaria during the seventeenth century, after the Spanish had conquered parts of South America. Two popular accounts explain the development. In one, the Countess of Chinchon, wife of the Spanish Viceroy of Peru, brought the bark to Spain during the 1640s after it had cured her of malaria in South America. In the other, a Jesuit missionary returned to Europe with the bark in 1632. No matter its origins, Europeans began to call ground cinchona bark “Countess’ powder,” “Jesuit’s powder,” or simply the “fever tree.” By the early nineteenth century, chemists had isolated quinine from cinchona bark. It formed an essential ingredient in tonic water.

Cinchona bark. Image from Wikipedia.

Adding gin to tonic water originated in India during the nineteenth century. In 1825, British officers began to mix gin with their daily ration of quinine tonic. After the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 (or the “Indian Mutiny”), the British Crown took over the governance of India from the British East India Company and strengthened its presence on the subcontinent. The growing number of Brits residing in India by the late 1850s helps explain the increased demand for quinine and the rise in popularity of the gin and tonic.

The British Raj led to a greater concern for the health of the more and more British soldiers, colonial administrators, and families living in India. Control of the colony required the ability to fight the deadly disease of malaria, so Brits in India consumed rations of quinine in the form of “Indian tonic water.” They added gin to the liquid to cut its bitter taste (and probably also for an intoxicating effect).

But there is more to the story of tonic water and the British in India. Lucile Brockway has shown that control of cinchona – and thus quinine – was key to the expansion of European colonial powers during the nineteenth century in Asia and Africa. By mid-century, the cinchona-producing areas of South America had become independent republics. Cinchona, grown as wild stocks harvested by native communities, offered an important commodity for their economic development. In 1860 alone, South America exported around two million pounds of cinchona bark to Britain and the United States. European powers, namely the British and the Dutch, feared a South American monopoly on the product raised prices, so they smuggled the plant’s seeds back to Europe, created hybrid strains, and transferred cinchona to plantations in Asian colonies like Ceylon and Java. By century’s end, the Dutch controlled most of the cinchona trade.

Without a reliable, cheap source of quinine, European dominance during the nineteenth century would have been less likely in areas such as South Asia and Africa prone to malaria. Quinine, then, was an ingredient central to not only in the gin and tonic, but also the growth of European imperialism. As a British surgeon noted in 1897, “to England, with her numerous and extensive Colonial possessions, [the cinchona bark] is simply priceless; and it is not too much to say, that if portions of her tropical empire are upheld by the bayonet, the arm that wields the weapon would be nerveless but for Cinchona bark and its active principles.”

Tonic water found in stores today must contain only minimal amounts of quinine. Recently, a number of premium tonic waters have hit the market. These brands advertise their use of natural quinine (rather than synthetic forms) and their avoidance of high fructose corn syrup, which connoisseurs claim overpowers the bouquet of high-quality gin. One brand is even called Fever Tree – harkening back to the historical roots of the beverage (although its website relies on the language of danger and exploration reminiscent of the colonial era).

Of course the final component to the classic gin and tonic is a slice of lime, and it is also linked to disease prevention and European expansion. In 1747, British surgeon James Lind carried out an experiment on mariners aboard a Royal Navy ship. His findings illustrated that a lack of Vitamin C caused scurvy. By the late nineteenth century, Royal Navy ships provided a mandatory daily ration of limes for sailors to fight the disease (hence the British nickname “limey”).

So next time you sip a G n’ T, stop and think about the history in your glass.

Thanks to Christopher Wilton for his helpful comments on the development of gin.

Jay Young is an editor at He recently completed a PhD in history from York University.