While out today simultaneously gaining weight for my pack while shedding pounds, I stopped in the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, a couple blocks down the hill toward the River Clyde from my hotel. As luck would have it, the librarian and archivist, Carol Parry, was at the reception desk when I arrived. She kindly agreed to give me a tour.
Founded in 1599 by a man who had previously been surgeon to the King of France, it is both a licensing body and a professional society. Its presidency alternates between surgeons and non-surgeons (which is to say, physicians). In England there are separate royal societies for the two professions.
Scotland has been a distinguished center of medical research education for centuries. It is, among other things, the place where many American Jews came when quotas kept them out of American medical schools. The Royal College is full of history.
Joseph Lister (who went to University College London because as a Quaker he was denied entrance to Oxford or Cambridge) did his studies of the antimicrobial properties of carbolic acid at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. This ushered in antiseptic surgery. There’s a meeting room named for him that includes a fireplace and heavily scarred table scavenged from his ward before it was torn down. The papers of Ronald Ross, who described the connection between mosquitoes and malaria and won a Nobel Prize, are on display at the moment. The portraits on the walls include David Livingstone of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume . . . ” fame, and Graham Teasdale, the neurosurgeon who co-designed the Glasgow Coma Scale.
One of the more interesting things, however, has nothing to do with medicine.
It is a volume of the “double elephant” folio of Audubon’s “Birds of America.” The full set consists of four volumes; the college has two, bought for 40 guineas in 1841. These books were rare when they were published from 1827 to 1838. Most of the ones that survived have been cut up to for the sale of their prints.
Ms. Parry unhooded the display case to reveal an owl and the never-ending final moment of its squirrel prey. The colors are as saturated as they were when the page was pulled off the plate. Every few months she turns a page.
Off the reception area is a grimmer picture.
“Stretcher Bearers” is a dark painting that depicts helmeted men, many of them medical students. carrying casualties of the German bombing of Clydebank, a town up the river from Glasgow. In the blitz of March 13 and 14, 1941, 528 people were killed and shipyards, armament plants and a Singer sewing machine factory were destroyed.