The Royal Medical Society is the MedSoc of the University of Edinburgh, run by medical students for medical students. The history of the Royal Medical Society traces the development of almost three hundred years of modern medical thought and teaching, and these values are carried on today in its educational and social activities.
In 1734, six Edinburgh medical students began to meet informally in local taverns with the purpose of enhancing their education, through the dissection of a cadaver as well as the preparation and reading of dissertations on a medical subject. In this era, the lack of set curriculum for attainment of a medical degree allowed candidates to pursue as much (or as little) they chose of any subjects they desired. Hence, the initiative of these students showed exceptional commitment to their knowledge and profession, and this drive attracted the most gifted, committed and innovative aspiring doctors to the Society. The RMS was formally constituted in 1737, and flourished in its educational and social provision. Its contribution to medicine was recognised with the awarding of a Royal Charter in 1778, and it remains the only student society in the United Kingdom to have attained this distinction.
These fortnightly meetings became the events that continue to be held today. By 1776, the Society’s wealth of activity demanded its own premises, and the Medical Hall was subsequently built at Surgeons’ Square to accommodate its library, museum of anatomical specimens for study and, later, experimental laboratory.
The celebrity of illustrious members such as William Cullen, James Young Simpson and Joseph Lister – and their gratitude to the Society in their development – drew students worldwide to study in Edinburgh. The intellectual opportunities offered by the RMS, comprising a platform for open, reasoned debate of accepted teachings and access to the most recent research, were vital to the distinguished international reputation of the Edinburgh Medical School. Members were privy to the earliest works of great names in medicine, and this centre of medical advancement placed graduates well to influence the course of civilisation, as well as form real bonds of friendship. See our list of notable members for their contributions to medicine and society.
As the old Royal Infirmary took over all the other buildings of Surgeons’ Square, the Society purchased 7 Melbourne Place as its new hall in 1852. During the demolition of the old Medical Hall, the foundation stone (covered by a carved slab) was unearthed, which is still displayed in the Society’s rooms today. A plaque bearing the RMS coat of arms remains on George IV Bridge, commemorating the second hall site. During this century, the Society was involved in petitions to parliament for cadavers to facilitate teaching and experiments investigating chloroform.
As the medical curriculum became more time-consuming, regular meetings took the form of lectures from prominent doctors on their area of interest rather than the debate of dissertations. However, students are still permitted to write their dissertations for incorporation into the Society’s substantial archive of medical research that includes original dissertations by centuries’ worth of medical pioneers, noted here.
In 1969, much of the extensive library collected by the Society over its history – encompassing over 14,000 books, including copies of the works of Galen and many first editions from its famous members – was sold, as their number could no longer be stored. The revenue from this sale permitted the acquisition of the current Rooms above Potterrow in 1975 and added to the RMS Trust, which has charitable status and continues to manage the Society’s estate.
The RMS has close connections with the Royal Colleges of Surgeons and Physicians of Edinburgh, having built its original rooms beside what is now the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. As a cordial mark of thanks for use of the Medical Hall for meetings, the RCSE made valuable donations to the Society’s library. A number of members progressed to serve as Presidents of the two Colleges.
Several other alumni went on to found medical schools around the world, including the first in the United States of America at what is now the University of Pennsylvania. The Society also has strong links with the medical school at Leiden in the Netherlands, the alma mater of many of Edinburgh’s original medical professors. Council members have participated in an annual exchange with Leiden medical society members since 1977.
The first two hundred years of the RMS’ history is recorded in The History of the Royal Medical Society by James Gray, edited by Douglas Guthrie (1952). A BMJ article about the heritage of the RMS is archived at https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.2.2185.1615.
Details for historical and research enquiries are found here.