The Royal Medical Society’s roll of members encompasses both figures known worldwide and lesser-known names to whom we attribute remarkable contributions that are now commonplace in medical practice.
William Cullen (1710-1790) – one of the founders of the RMS and key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. Cullen was a beloved professor of medicine in Edinburgh, known for his patient-centred approach, and went on to found the Glasgow Medical School. He taught and inspired a generation of renowned scientists including the chemist Joseph Black and physician William Withering, and published a range of medical textbooks which became essential texts all over Europe.
The most prominent physician of his era, he acted as President of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow (1746–47), President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (1773–1775) and First Physician to the King in Scotland (1773–1790).
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) – celebrated naturalist and proponent of natural selection. Darwin was a member of the Society during his initial study of medicine in Edinburgh before devoting himself to natural history. His work on evolution revolutionised scientific thought and his geological discoveries rendered him a legend in his own time.
Sir James Young Simpson (1811-1870) – Senior President and obstetrician who introduced chloroform as anaesthesia. An early critic of the pain of surgery, Simpson read his dissertation On the Diseases of the Placenta to the Society in 1835 and was subsequently elected Senior President, thus beginning a lifelong devotion to the Society’s prosperity. He was a gifted Professor of Medicine and Midwifery at Edinburgh and improved the design of forceps for childbirth, as well as legitimising obstetrics as a respected specialty.
Sir Joseph Lister (1827-1912) – pioneer of sterile surgery and antiseptic techniques. Lister introduced carbolic acid as an antiseptic agent for the prevention of infection during medical procedures, in response to the work of Louis Pasteur. Though not an Edinburgh graduate, he was a highly respected teacher as the Chair of Clinical Surgery at Edinburgh and counted Joseph Bell amongst his students. He presented his dissertation to the Society in 1855, and at the height of his fame in 1871 delivered another treatise after his elevation to Honorary Member.
Joseph Bell (1837-1911) – medical lecturer and surgeon. As a President in 1858, he presented his dissertation on Epithelial Cancer, and a further communication two years later as a house-surgeon. Bell was Queen Victoria’s surgeon in Scotland and his skill of observation and deduction in diagnosis inspired his student, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to create the character of Sherlock Holmes. He served as President of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh from 1887.
Thomas Hodgkin (1798-1866) – prominent pathologist and the first to describe Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Hodgkin was an early advocate of disease prevention in healthcare and published the definitive histology textbooks of his era.
Thomas Addison (1793-1860) – physician who discovered Addison’s disease and pernicious anaemia. As a student, he served on the RMS’ Museum Committee. He was known as a remarkably talented lecturer in London and expanded the profession’s knowledge of pneumonia, appendicitis and fatty liver, but was not credited with much of this work during his lifetime.
Sir Charles Hastings (1794-1866) – surgeon and founder of the British Medical Association (BMA). Hastings was elected a President of the RMS in 1817 and read his dissertation, involving historically early use of the microscope, on blood vessels in inflammation. In his conclusion he celebrated the value of the Society in his education and went on to be a great philanthropist in his hometown of Worcester.
Andrew Duncan Senior (1744-1828) – six-time President of the RMS and asylum founder. Duncan fought for humane care of psychiatric patients and was recognised for his work by being twice elected as President of the Royal College of Physicians. He continued his lifelong commitment to the RMS in his role as treasurer and was First Physician to the King in Scotland.
Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842) – anatomist and Professor of Surgery at Edinburgh. Bell was the definitive neurologist of his time, differentiating motor and sensory nerve roots and becoming best known for his discovery of Bell’s palsy. He operated at the Battle of Waterloo.
John Hughes Bennett (1812-1875) – President and physician. Bennett was the first to describe leukaemia as a blood disorder and he reformed physiological teaching through the introduction of practical classes in the subject. He opposed the practice of bloodletting as a medical treatment and was a supporter of the admission of female medical students.
William Withering (1741-1799) – physician who discovered digitalis, the active ingredient in the foxglove plant. He conducted experiments to find its safest use for the treatment of heart failure and it is now widely used as digoxin.
Robert Willan (1757-1812) – physician and father of dermatology. Willan was the first to clinically describe and classify a range of skin diseases, and published the first illustrations of dermatological disorders.
Honorary members were prominent men of science and medicine whom the RMS deemed worthy of recognition. Such men to be awarded the accolade included Benjamin Franklin, Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, Lord Kelvin (William Thomson), Harvey Cushing and Joseph Black.