AS book titles go it is not the most snappy – An Easy, Certain and Perfect Method to Cure and Prevent the Spanish Sickness. The book is more than 400 years old to be fair, which was a time when pithy titles were not paramount. As I look at the book I’m trying to work out what Spanish sickness is. A gippy tummy after eating an unwashed salad? Sunburn after a day at a costa?
Retired surgeon Roy Miller comes to my rescue. “Syphilis,” he tells me. “It’s funny that even then foreigners were being blamed for all ills.”
Oh, and the easy cure was mercury which might have halted the sexually transmitted disease, but alas attacked the brain and eventually killed you as well, so not to be recommended.
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We are discussing ancient cures in one of Glasgow’s most handsome, yet outwardly anonymous, buildings. I hesitate to say “hidden gem” as I realise that Glasgow, architecturally, has more hidden gems than the bottom of a smuggler’s suitcase.
This most pleasing of gems is the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow on a terraced row of former mansions in St Vincent Street, heading west from the city centre. Now we know that Glasgow can boast a long history, but much of what we see in the city only dates back to Victorian times. So the Royal College is a bit more special than that. It was founded in 1599.
Roy Miller, a retired ear, nose and throat surgeon, is also honorary librarian at the Royal College, where last week he was discussing the founding of the college by Peter Lowe, writer of the treatise on the pox, who was a Glaswegian who went on to train as a surgeon in Paris – they were called chirurgians then – and eventually became a surgeon to the King of France.
Returning to Glasgow in 1598 to be the town surgeon, where the population then was about 7,000, he was appalled to find that much in the way of medicine was being practised by “quacksalvers, charlatans, witches, charmers and diverse other sorts of abusers,” and persuaded the council to petition King James VI to enact a charter ensuring that medical personnel had to be examined and licensed.
Thus the as yet unnamed college was founded by nine members meeting in Blackfriars Kirk, led by Peter Lowe. They used to meet in coffee houses as well, but eventually needed a hall for examinations and took over premises near the Trongate. There was a move to bigger premises at St Enoch Square and eventually to 242 St Vincent Street in 1862, gradually acquiring the three houses beside it, so that the college premises snake through twisting corridors, leaving bemused visitors unsure of where they actually are. But you suspect that’s how the college members like it.
There may be simpler office blocks out on some anonymous trading estates somewhere which would be far more suitable, but the college’s 13,000 members around the world wouldn’t stand for it. The cosy club-like atmosphere of St Vincent Street is too dear to surrender.
There is a modern lecture theatre inside, as well as a lift, and modern library facilities. It has moved with the times. But equally the grand fireplaces, varnished wainscoting, and collections of books and paintings remain also.
Roy shows me a book written by King James VI himself, A Counterblast to Tobacco, printed in 1616, which attacks the vile custom of tobacco, which he said created a foul smoke which made you ill and ruined the taste of food.
Pretty far-sighted there James, although he also wrote that you should not take tobacco as it came from heathen Indians who were naked but for some feathers, so his political correctness needed a bit of work.
There are also two volumes of that sumptuous book Audubon’s Birds of America, one of the most sought after books in the world which would cost you $10 million at auction for a full set of four. Funnily enough, it didn’t seem to be lying around anywhere public.
Just looking around, you realise the astonishing history of medicine in Glasgow, where events of world significance took place. In a display case is the graduation gown of Joseph Lister, whose strides in antiseptic surgery saved thousands of lives.
In another is a cast of explorer David Livingstone’s humerus bone “fractured when mauled by a lion” according to the plaque. Now there’s a phrase that engravers are not asked to inscribe very often. It was this damaged bone which helped identify his body.
Since the early years, dentistry, podiatry and travel medicine has been added to the faculty. Barbers, who originally did a bit of surgery as well, were included in the beginning but were quietly let go. You sense they don’t talk much these days about the barbers.
There were also early clashes with Glasgow University about who should be responsible for maintaining medical standards.
In the early days you still had to pass examinations at the Royal College after your university degree.
Since the forties, that has swung more towards the universities, and the college has concentrated more on post-graduate qualifications. Medical training never really ends as practitioners continue to learn new methods and techniques through their working life, which is why the Royal College is still important.
But you don’t have to be a doctor to see inside the St Vincent Street premises. The library, containing medical textbooks and diaries going back centuries, is open to the public one afternoon a week.
Staff are now encouraging people to use the premises for weddings and other celebrations. Not only is it one of the most stylish buildings in Glasgow, there’s usually someone around who can help if the groom faints.