Sir Robert Philip

THERE is no better example of a great Scot, remembered abroad but now forgotten at home, than Sir Robert Philip. Honoured by Belgium on a postage stamp on the 100th anniversary of his birth, Philip is rarely mentioned back home.

When you next walk up the Mound, between Edinburgh's Princes Street and the Royal Mile, glance up at the nondescript house opposite the courtroom, and you can see the blue plaque that sums up Philip's contribution to the world:

"Near this place in 1887, Dr Robert Philip founded a tuberculosis dispensary, the first clinic in the world dedicated to fighting a disease of which he foretold Man's eventual mastery. That vision has brought hope to many lands."

Philip, whose father was a minister, was born in 1857 in Glasgow but attended school and university in Edinburgh before travelling to Vienna where he encountered the recently discovered cause of consumption, the tubercle. Realising the importance of the discovery he went on to Berlin to study under Professor Robert Koch, the man who was pioneering work in the field of tuberculosis. He returned to Scotland to apply the new knowledge and to work towards easing and eradicating this most terrible of diseases.

Tuberculosis – or TB as it is often known – was the biggest killer in the UK by the middle of the 19th century. The scientific breakthrough that could result in finding a cure was something that Philip did not want the UK to miss out on.

His energy and imagination knew no bounds. He set up the first tuburculosis clinic in the world in two small rooms in Bank Street, Edinburgh. Named the Victoria Dispensary for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest, Philip not only treated sufferers but worked hard to educate people on how to avoid the disease. His revolutionary treatment included putting measures in place to ensure contact tracing for the very first time, whereby the illness could be tracked and measures taken to avoid further contamination.

He established the first herd of TB-tested cattle on a farm out at Gracemount, south-east of Edinburgh. He developed the sanatorium, the fresh air and medication pattern that became known through the world as the Edinburgh System. He fought hard to make TB a notifiable disease and championed the use of the drug BCG for 16 years before Britain took it up.

In his lifetime, honours rained down on him, medical men flocked to catch his enthusiasm and ideas and the world took up his imaginative solutions.

Yet today there is no book about Philip. There is simply a folder of memoirs held in the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, where he was president from 1918 to 1923. It contains one enlightening anecdote.

In the early days, one of the doctors working in the TB clinic at the top of the Mound realised he did not have a patient for Philip, who was due to come and demonstrate his diagnostic techniques to students. The man rushed out into the High Street and "captured" an undernourished looking lad. Maybe with the help of a penny or two, the boy was persuaded to come up to the surgery and be put to bed. Sure enough, he was indeed suffering from an interesting form of TB and Philip was able to enlighten the students.

The fact that it is no longer possible to pick up a TB sufferer at random in a British high street is due in large part to Philip. He deserves to be better known in his home country and his home city.