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Surgeon. 2005 Jun;3(3):234-41.

500 years of the College of Surgeons and 300 years of the Chair of Anatomy in Edinburgh.

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Section of Anatomy, School of Biomedical and Clinical Laboratory Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Scotland.


2005 represents the 500th anniversary of the award of the first Charter to the Guild of Surgeons and Barbers at Edinburgh, and the 300th anniversary of the establishment of the Chair of Anatomy in the University of Edinburgh, the first Chair in this discipline in Britain. The first Charter of the Incorporation, in 1505, specified that they should dissect the body of one dead condemned criminal each year. Candidates who wished to join the Incorporation were required to be familiar with all of the gross structures of the human body. In Cambridge and Oxford, those pursuing the medical courses in these Universities during the 16th and 17th centuries were expected to have both seen and undertaken a number of anatomical dissections during their undergraduate careers. Difficulties were often encountered, however, in obtaining adequate numbers of bodies for this purpose. In Edinburgh, from 1505, for more than a century, surgical apprentices were instructed in Human Anatomy. As a result of the efforts of certain surgeons during the 17th century, Pharmacy was also taught in addition to Surgery and Anatomy. During the mid-17th century, difficulties were encountered because the earlier examiners had not entered into the Incorporation's Minutes how their examinations should be undertaken. A new Act was prepared that described in detail how these should be conducted, and this emphasised the importance of a detailed knowledge of Anatomy. In 1694, Alexander Monteith, probably on the initiative of Archibald Pitcairne, requested unclaimed bodies from the Town Council to undertake dissections. Later in 1694, the Incorporation made a similar request to the Town Council, and both requests were granted. It is believed that for political reasons Monteith probably did not pursue his claim further. The Council stipulated that the Surgeons should build an Anatomical Theatre by the end of 1697 where public dissections could be carried out. This was achieved, and these were carried out in 1702 and 1704. On 1 February 1705, the Surgeons appointed Robert Elliot as their "public dissector of anatomie." He had volunteered to undertake all of the annual public dissections in Edinburgh, and the Members of the Incorporation of Surgeons unanimously accepted his offer. On 29 August 1705, at the request of the Surgeons, the Edinburgh Town Council appointed him their first Professor of Anatomy, and instructed the University's Treasurers to pay him 15 pounds Sterling per annum as his salary. As a result of the activities of the Incorporation of Surgeons and the Town Council, the first Chair of Anatomy was established in Britain, in the University of Edinburgh.

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