Staff at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE) spent two years trawling its archive to catalogue more than 30,000 records which offer a fascinating insight into history of Scottish medicine.
Within a few months of being granted its royal charter in 1682, the college took on charlatans peddling all manner of mischief, from “poysonous tablett... as a Vomitur tablett” to so-called miracle cures such as “Disease Curing Electropathic Belts” and the “Marvellous Whirling Spray Syringe”.
Unscrupulous suppliers of dodgy contraceptives, nick-named the “Washable Sheaths” and “The Poor Man’s Friend”, were also hunted down by private detectives employed by the college.
Project archivist Daisy Cunynghame said: “The early history of the college is particularly interesting, as in the time before the NHS and the BMA existed the college’s remit was much wider. A lot of people were claiming to be doctors who didn’t have anything to do with the medical profession, so that’s where the college would step in.
“What’s really interesting is in those early days there is actually quite a fine line between medicine and quackery. There was no proper registration for doctors and they hadn’t reached real landmarks such as germ theory.”
A pre-cursor to the NHS, the RCPE also set up the UK’s first dispensary to provide free medical services to the poor living in squalid conditions in the Old Town.
There were few public hospitals and healthcare was only affordable to the wealthy, so the RCPE appointed two doctors every 12 months to visit the poor at home.
Diets and lifestyle fads were all the rage in Victoria society as the college’s research laboratory shows studies were done into types of vegetarian diets in the late 19th century. One was conducted by a man who believed he would become stronger the less he ate. After consuming nothing but bananas and hot water for five days, he decided to switch back to bread and butter, the papers reveal.
Another study made the discovery that students in Edinburgh University halls were not eating a balanced diet.
The college led early research into conditions such as leukaemia, foetal death, cancer, insanity, and pneumonia, and helped provide patient diagnoses before the establishment of the NHS.
The archives also give details of an outbreak of epidemic plague in Glasgow in 1900 and leprosy in Edinburgh.
Iain Milne, RCPE head of heritage, said: “Researchers now have access to a wealth of information about the role the college has played since its foundation in 1681.
“The archives show that for 335 years the college has been educating doctors, improving access to medical services for the poor, conducting research into disease and lifestyle choices, and regulating the profession to protect the public.”
The RCPE will be delivering talks on “Quackery and Fake Medicine” at the Edinburgh Science Festival in April.