With Nazi forces occupying Poland during the Second World War, the only place in the world to earn a Polish accredited degree was in Edinburgh.

The Polish School of Medicine in Edinburgh (1941-1949) was originally established to support Polish medical students and officers in exile, who had been previously pushed out of Poland, then France as Nazi forces progressed through Europe.

The roughly 17,000 men and officers of the 1st Polish Corps were stationed in Scotland in 1941, to help protect the coast from an anticipated German invasion, according to former Edinburgh University surgeon Dr Iain Macintyre, who has written a history of the Polish School. 

Among these were many doctors and medical students who had been cut off from their homes and left with no opportunities to earn their degrees or continue their practice.

Colonel Kurtz, the Director of Medical Services of the Polish Forces in Scotland, and Colonel Archer Irvine-Fortescue, the Deputy Director of Medical Services, Scottish Command, worked together to create hospital settings for the Polish medics to train.

Eventually, Lt Colonel F.A.E. Crew convinced the university to take on a teaching role. From there, the idea for the Polish School of Medicine quickly grew legs, Dr Macintyre wrote. 

"The School was formalised by an agreement between the Polish Government-in-exile and the University of Edinburgh, which was signed on 24 February 1941.

"Under this agreement, the Polish  School of Medicine was to be governed under the academic rules and regulations of Polish universities.

"In this way, the school was given the power to award undergraduate and postgraduate medical degrees."

Most teaching was initially conducted at Edinburgh's main teaching hospital, the Royal Infirmary. Soon, however, organisers felt that the Polish School of Medicine in Edinburgh should have its own hospital where Polish doctors could care for Polish patients.

The Herald: A plaque commemorates the Polish School of Medicine in Edinburgh at its former site near the Western General Hospital.A plaque commemorates the Polish School of Medicine in Edinburgh at its former site near the Western General Hospital. (Image: Dr Iain Macintyre)

The school received support from the United States through the “Refugees of England” Anglo-American Committee as well as a major final donation from the Paderewski Testimonial Fund, named after former Polish Prime Minister Ignacy Paderewski.

With this new funding in hand, a portion of the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh was transformed into the Paderewski Hospital. Between 1941 and 1946, as many as 40,000 patients received treatment at the hospital.

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The Polish School of Medicine in Edinburgh's first graduate was Konrad Bazarnik, a former medical student-turned-fighter pilot who rejoined the Polish squadron of the Royal Air Force even after his graduation, Dr Macintyre.

The Herald: Konrad Bazarnik (centre), became the first graduate to receive a diploma. He is seen outside the McEwan Hall after the ceremony.Konrad Bazarnik (centre), became the first graduate to receive a diploma. He is seen outside the McEwan Hall after the ceremony. (Image: Historia Hufca Lubliniec)

Over its eight-year lifespan, 227 students graduated with medical diplomas and 19 earned doctorates. Initially, the school was only open to military personnel but soon began accepting civilians. 

Students arrived at the university from all over Europe. As the war dragged on, the Polish School of Medicine in Edinburgh welcomed students from newly liberated Poland and even those who had survived Nazi concentration camps.

After the school formally closed in March of 1949, very few of the graduates returned to Poland. Then under Stalinist rule, opportunities back home would have seemed little more encouraging than they had under the Nazi occupation. Many remained in the UK or took up practice in other parts of the world.

Beginning in 1966, former students held regular reunions every five years. In 1986, graduates helped establish the Polish School of Medicine Memorial Fund. The scholarship supports Polish medical scientists Polish universities and research institutes to come to Edinburgh for further research.

The Polish School of Medicine's Paderewski Hospital closed in 1947 and was eventually demolished in 2010. Visitors can still find a plaque at its former site, recognising the University of Edinburgh's contributions to Polish medicine "in the dark days of 1941, when Polish universities were destroyed and Polish professors died in concentration camps".