Medicine: A new book that celebrates the lesser-known men and women who put Edinburgh on the medical map

THEY are among some of the greatest medical figures of all time, helping improve the health of Scots and people around the globe.

• Sophia Jex-Blake (more in page 4)

Antiseptic discoverer Joseph Lister, anaesthetic developer James Simpson and even bodysnatchers Burke and Hare have helped place Scotland at the centre of medical achievement.

But many other equally important, but less well-known, pioneers have also found their home in Scotland, and Edinburgh in particular, over the centuries. They are now getting their own little piece of the limelight, which many believe is long overdue. Bodysnatchers to Lifesavers tells the story of 300 years of medicine in Edinburgh and the figures who helped shape developments which have helped millions around the world.

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Its authors, academic Dorothy Crawford and former Scotsman journalist Tara Womersley, chart a path from the 1600s to the present day.

The medics featured include Sir Henry Littlejohn, Scotland's first Medical Officer of Health, who helped turn around Edinburgh's dreadful public health record by introducing compulsory reporting of diseases and free smallpox vaccinations during epidemics. Few may also be aware that Edinburgh was home to Britain's first full-time neurosurgeon Norman Dott and Ken Murray, who discovered a new vaccine for hepatitis B.

The hugely successful breast cancer screening programme also had roots in Edinburgh, with the work of Sir Patrick Forrest leading to it being rolled-out across the UK, saving hundreds of lives a year.

Going back to the time when women were barred from studying medicine, there is also the extraordinary struggle led by Sophia Jex-Blake in Edinburgh who refused to take no for an answer – even when protesters tried to thwart their studies by sending a sheep into the exam room.

Speaking of their fight, she said: "A certain proportion of the students with whom we worked became markedly offensive and insolent, and took every opportunity of practising the petty annoyances that occur to thoroughly ill-bred lads – such as shutting doors in our faces, ostentatiously crowding into the seats we usually occupied, bursting into horse-laughs and howls when we approached – as if a conspiracy had been formed to make our position as uncomfortable as might be."

But the fight paid off and in 1887, Jex-Blake opened her medical school for women in Edinburgh.

Crawford and Womersley hope pioneers such as Jex-Blake can now be part of a wider celebration of the other medics who have helped shape the world in which we live today.

"Edinburgh medicine has such a rich and intriguing history that we couldn't resist writing about it," Crawford says.

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"It is not only the infamous characters such as Burke and Hare and celebrated doctors like Joseph Lister but also the less well-known that add to the city's colourful medical past.

"These include Henry Littlejohn, who overturned the city's appalling public health record, and Sophia Jex-Blake who spearheaded women's fight to study medicine in the UK."

Womersley adds: "For centuries Edinburgh has been pioneering new ways to provide medicine. Yet, while discoveries such as chloroform and antiseptics are well known there is also so much more to tell.

"Fascinating stories range from James Barry, Britain's first female doctor who was discovered to be a woman after his death in 1865, to the cloning of Dolly the Sheep in 1996."


Born in Lanarkshire, Patrick Forrest graduated in medicine from St Andrews in 1945 and spent two years as a Surgeon Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He later worked as a senior lecturer in surgery at the University of Glasgow and received a Doctorate of Medicine for his work in the treatment of advanced breast cancer.

After becoming professor of surgery at Edinburgh University he started research which included the screening of healthy women for breast cancer.

In 1981, he became Chief Scientist and four years later he was appointed by the then Minister of Health, Kenneth Clarke, to chair a committee to report on breast cancer screening.

At that time Britain's death rate from breast cancer was one of the highest in Western Europe and early diagnosis was seen as key to improving survival.

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The Forrest report recommended that women between the ages of 50 and 64 be screened every three years and in 1988 the first women were invited to take part in the National Breast Cancer Screening Programme.

Hundreds of lives a year in the UK are now saved through screening and early diagnosis.

Forrest was also particularly interested in hormone treatment of breast cancer and was the main driving force behind the development of the successful multi-centre UK breast cancer treatment trials that started in the 1970s. In 1986 he was knighted for his Services to Surgery.


Norman Dott began his medical studies in the year the First World War broke out and went on to become Britain's first full-time neurosurgeon.

Dott suffered a permanent limp caused by a motorcycle accident, meaning he was not eligible to fight in the war. This accident caused him to become fascinated with the medical world. He spent eight weeks receiving treatment at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh which convinced him that medicine was his vocation – even though he had started working as an apprentice joiner and engineer.

After completing his degree, Dott worked as a resident house surgeon at the Royal Infirmary before gaining a clinical tutorship in surgery while also lecturing in physiology. He went on to work in Boston and returned to Edinburgh with an intense interest in the new medical specialty of "surgical neurology".

In 1931 Dott was appointed Associate Neurological Surgeon at the Royal Infirmary. He gained international recognition with an operation to contain a ruptured aneurysm in a network of blood vessels at the base of the brain – the first such operation of its kind.

Carrying out this pioneering brain surgery in 1931 was a bold move, not least because the patient, Colin Black, a 53-year-old solicitor, was a governor of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children and Dott, at the age of 33, was relatively unestablished.

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Dott's brother Eric later recalled how an eminent surgeon had warned Dott against operating, saying that it would not be successful and would damage his career and reputation. Yet the operation was a success and Black lived for another 11 years with no further haemorrhages in his brain. Dott raised funds to establish a Department of Surgical Neurology in the Royal Infirmary, and this was officially opened in 1939, with a fully-comprehensive department subsequently opened at the Western General in 1960.KENNETH MURRAY

The work of Kenneth Murray, alongside his wife Noreen, helped lead to the first synthetic vaccine against hepatitis B. Although Murray left school at the age of 16, when he became a laboratory technician at Boots the Chemist in Nottingham, he carried on studying part-time and eventually gained a first-class degree in chemistry and then a PHD in microbiology from the University of Birmingham.

He arrived in Edinburgh in 1967 when the university was the only one in the UK to have a department of Molecular Biology. Murray, who was among the leaders in developing DNA sequencing, and his wife, a distinguished molecular geneticist, worked there until their retirement.

In the 1960s genetic engineering was viewed as an obscure discipline and was often treated with scepticism. But Murray forged ahead and his work was eventually to lead to the vaccine for hepatitis B. The production of a vaccine is a long process, but by 1984 safety trials were completed and the world's first synthetic vaccine was ready for use in humans. It proved to be not only effective, but both safer and cheaper than earlier vaccines derived from blood products.

Despite the millions that could have been earned from the royalties of the patent to the technology, Murray instead put the money into a charitable foundation – the Darwin Trust of Edinburgh – which supports educational and research activities.

Today the global hepatitis B vaccine market exceeds $1 billion annually.


Sophia Jex-Blake was a key figure in women's entry into the world of medicine. Once a male-only profession, Jex-Blake and a team of other like-minded women challenged the status quo which led to the opening of the Edinburgh School of Medicine for women.

When she left school in 1857, Jex-Blake persuaded her parents to allow her to attend Queen's College in London, where women were taught to advanced secondary school level. In 1862 she continued her studies in Edinburgh, where she had heard that classes for women were available, particularly in mathematics, at which she excelled.

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After six months Jex-Blake left to teach English in schools in Europe before heading to the US to visit schools for young women with a view to setting up her own establishment on her return.

Returning to Edinburgh in 1869 she was introduced to two men who were avid supporters of women's further education - David Masson, Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature, and Alexander Russel, the influential editor of The Scotsman.

She then began a long quest to be accepted into medical education. It was not easy as the sexist attitudes of the male establishment froze them out of normal lectures and they were also subject to abuse from male students.

It hit a peak with the Surgeons' Hall riot when an anatomy exam was scheduled and a mob of several hundred was waiting to greet them. The women continued to struggle with the establishment and when the university refused to let them take the final medical exams, they took the fight for equal rights to London. Jex-Blake finally opened her medical school for women in Edinburgh in 1887.


In 1862, police surgeon Dr Henry Littlejohn was elected to the post of Medical Officer of Health for Edinburgh – the first position of its kind in Scotland. Littlejohn, an experienced public health doctor, commanded the respect of his colleagues. A man of huge energy and foresight, and well versed in his home city's problems, he succeeded in making long overdue changes.

One of Littlejohn's early successes was to persuade the Lord Provost's Committee to pass the General Vaccination Act for Scotland in 1863. This ensured that children were vaccinated against smallpox within six months of birth, generally at a cost to the parents, but from 1867 onwards vaccination was free to all during smallpox epidemics.

In 1865 Littlejohn presented his damning Report on the Sanitary Conditions of Edinburgh. At last convinced that sanitary reform was essential for the health of the city, the Town Council committed funds for the daunting task. Littlejohn had a remit to control epidemics and other health hazards, run the fever hospitals and take action against owners who kept their premises in an unsanitary or dilapidated state, or without a clean water supply. At last Edinburgh was coming into line with other European cities.

Littlejohn wanted to tackle infectious disease at its earliest stages, and so had his own personal surveillance team despatched to identify any disease outbreak as soon as possible. He called for compulsory notification of diseases to make sure outbreaks were recognised early and this was introduced in 1880 – the first instance in Britain. In 1897 notification of infectious diseases became compulsory throughout Scotland. Littlejohn oversaw many improvements in the care of patients with infectious diseases.ELSIE STEPHENSON

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Edinburgh was not only at the forefront of training doctors, but it was also the first UK university to set up a Nursing Teaching Unit in 1956.

The unit was headed by Elsie Stephenson, a trained nurse, midwife and health visitor who was keen to improve education and research opportunities for nurses. During the war she was Senior Sister with the Joint War Organisation of the British Red Cross Society and Order of St John of Jerusalem. The position took her to refugee camps in Egypt and northern Italy and in Germany she was acting matron of a sanatorium.

After the war she was also involved in organising Red Cross centres in Singapore and conducted a survey of child welfare conditions in British North Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak. The Nursing Times warmly welcomed the opening of the unit and the appointment of Stephenson as its head. It said: "Nurses will rejoice at this significant first appointment of a nurse as a member of the Faculty of a British University, especially as the appointment as advertised was not limited to nurses." By 1960 nurses were able to apply for courses that would let them gain a degree. Stephenson had a very international perspective and this led her to found the International Journal of Nursing Studies in 1964.

Sadly she died while still in the job in 1967, aged just 51.