Papers of Robert Cowan, 1796-1841, and John Black Cowan, 1829-1896, physicians and surgeons

Scope and Content

  • Family certificates and correspondence 1757-1880
  • Prescription book 1787
  • Letter from John Cowan about the prescription book 1942
  • Lecture notes, essays and papers on medical matters 1821-1939
  • Volume of pathology case notes belonging to John Black Cowan undated
  • Volume of notes on pharmacology and the preparation of medicines undated
  • Pencil notes including an extract of Walter Scott's The Lord of the Isles: A Poem undated

Administrative / Biographical History

Robert Cowan was born in 1796  , the son of Robert Cowan, a surgeon in Glasgow, Scotland. In addition to studying in both the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Glasgow , he also studied at the University of Edinburgh ( 1815  ) and that of Paris, France ( 1818  ). Having read the prescribed essays and exhibited specimens of medicine, he was duly elected as a Member of the Faculty of Physicians & Surgeons of Glasgow in 1819, this qualification allowing him to practice medicine in the City. He practised at Glasgow Royal Infirmary from 1824-1830  and again from 1837-1839  . He graduated MD from the University of Glasgow in 1834  and, as a physician devoted himself to the statistical investigation of fever and smallpox, and to improving sanitary conditions. His research convinced him that poor sanitation was one of the most significant factors in the spread of infection. He was prominent in the Glasgow Public Health movement and helped to found the Glasgow Statistical Society in 1835, specifically to investigate the relationship between living standards and the incidence of disease in the West of Scotland. His most significant publications were Vital Statistics of Glasgow , published in 1837  , and Vital Statistics of Glasgow - Illustrating the Sanitary Condition of the Population , published in 1840  .

Robert Cowan was influential in improving sanitary legislation, suggesting many of the measures of Medical Police that were subsequently adopted. Other positions held were treasurer of Glasgow Medical Society from 1825-1829 and its president 1839-1840  , Medical Adviser to the Burgh of Bo'ness in 1831 and Medical Secretary of the Board of Health of Barony Parish, Glasgow, in 1832. He was also in charge of the Glasgow Fever House in 1836 and Director of Stirling's Library in 1837. In 1839  , Robert Cowan was named as the first Regius Professor of Medical Jurisprudence & Forensic Medicine at the University of Glasgow. His appointment was controversial as it was announced publicly by the Government without the prior knowledge of the Principal or Senate of the University. He held the post for only two years, until his death on 8 October 1841  .

John Black Cowan was born in 1829  , son of Robert Cowan ( 1796-1841  ). He graduated MD from the University of Glasgow in 1851  , having been a distinguished student and gaining a number of class prizes. In the two years preceding his graduation he had worked as a Resident at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. He was granted a Fellowship of the Faculty of Physicians & Surgeons of Glasgow in 1851. He also held memberships of the Glasgow Pathological Society, the Parisian Medical Society, and the Medico-Chirurgical Society and was a regular contributor to the Glasgow Medical Journal. On graduating he travelled in Europe, before commencing medical practice in Glasgow in 1852, mainly undertaking dispensary work and assisting in the editorial duties of the Glasgow Medical Journal. In 1855, he went as a Civil Physician to the hospital at Renkioi, Turkey, from where he volunteered to serve as a Civil Surgeon to the Army in the Crimea. On his return to Glasgow he lectured at Anderson's University, Glasgow , in Medical Jurisprudence ( 1856-1862  ) and the Practice of Medicine ( 1862-1865  ). He was appointed Regius Professor of Materia Medica at the University of Glasgow in 1865  . He held the Professorship until 1880  , when he resigned because of ill-health. In addition to the Professorship he had a large private practice. After his resignation, the Senate conferred on him the honorary degree of LLD. He died at Largs, North Ayrshire, Scotland on 27 July 1896  .

Sources: Glasgow Medical Journal, Vol. 46, September 1896, pp192-196 and Who Was Who.


The arrangement of this material reflects the original order in which it was received

Conditions Governing Access


Acquisition Information

Deposit : family members : 1965, 1983 Transfer : Department of Materia Medica, University of Glasgow :1994 : ACCN 1299

Other Finding Aids

Digital file level list available in searchroom

Manual file level list available at the National Registers of Archives in Edinburgh (NRA(S) number) and London (NRA number)

Alternative Form Available

No known copies

Physical Characteristics and/or Technical Requirements

None which affect the use of this material

Conditions Governing Use

Applications for permission to quote should be sent to the Archivist.

Reproduction subject to usual conditions: educational use and condition of documents

Appraisal Information

This material has been appraised in line with standard GB 0248 procedures

Custodial History

The material referenced DC 003/1 appears to have remained in the custody of the Cowan family until its deposit with Glasgow University Archive Services in two deposits from family members in August 1965 and January 1983. DC003/2 was an additional deposit from the Department of Materia Medica in 1994 (Accn 1299)


None expected

Related Material

No related material

Location of Originals

This material is original


No known publications using this material

Additional Information

Description compiled in line with the following international standards: International Council on Archives,ISAD(G) Second Edition, September 1999 and National Council on Archives,Rules for the construction of personal, place and corporate names

Scotland is the location of all place names in the administrative/biographical history element, unless otherwise stated.

Fonds level description compiled by Moira Rankin, Senior Archivist, 07 April 2000.