Records of the Royal Public Dispensary of Edinburgh

Scope and Content

The records of the Royal Public Dispensary of Edinburgh consist of several volumes manuscript and typescript records and an album of photographs, 1871-1964. There are also notes of cases, 1778-1779, and case lectures by A. Duncan and C. Webster, 1778. The volumes include a students' register, minute books of the Visiting Committee, and minutes of meetings of the Controlling Committee.

Administrative / Biographical History

In the eighteenth century, as now, infirmaries and hospitals were expensive to set up and run. They allowed the growth of study and teaching but the throughput of patients was small and the costly institutions required heavy support from philanthropists. A cheaper and more extensive form of care was required and this was delivered in the form of the dispensary, the first of which in England was the General Dispensary in Aldersgate, London, set up in 1770.

Dispensaries were served in large degree by free student labour, and costs were kept down too through a high (working-class) patient turnover. Dispensaries would come to spread across Scotland's cities too, delivering medical advice and simple treatments.

In the early 1770s, Andrew Duncan (1744-1828) was offering extra-academical lectures and instruction for medical students in Edinburgh. Persons too poor to afford medical treatment were given free advice and their individual cases were presented to medical students. No out-patient care was given at the Royal Infirmary at this time, and so poor patients came along to Duncan's sessions instead. Indeed so many turned up that he proposed the establishment of a public dispensary in the city.

Edinburgh's Royal Public Dispensary (and Vaccine Institution), proposed by Duncan and founded in 1776, was probably the first dispensary in Scotland, though there is an unsubstantiated reference to one in Dundee in 1735. The Royal Public Dispensary was said to be 'conservative but highly respected' and operated in the city without rival until 1815 when the Edinburgh New Town Dispensary was established. Both were free. The Kelso Dispensary started by the Earl of Haddington in 1777 was free by letter. Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century other general dispensaries were set up in Edinburgh - in the Fountainbridge area in 1830 and 1870, in Richmond Street and Rose Street in 1875, and in Marshall Street in 1878. Glasgow had a Public Dispensary by 1874.

Access Information

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Acquisition Information

Notes of medical lectures by Duncan and Gregory, presented by Dr. D. Guthrie, December 1961, Accession no. E61.40. Records acquired from Edinburgh University, Department of General Practice, October 1991, Accession no. E92.58.


The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Checkland, Olive. Philanthropy in Victorian Scotland: social welfare and the voluntary principle. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd., 1980. (2) Rosner, Lisa M. Scottish men of medicine. Andrew Duncan., F.R.S.E. (1744-1828). Edinburgh: History of Medicine and Science Unit, 1981.

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division.

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987. Refer in particular to the volume containing the heading 'Edinburgh. Royal Public Dispensary'.


Check the local Indexes for details of any additions.

Related Material

The local Indexes show various references to Royal Public Dispensary related material (check the Indexes for more details): letter from J. Lee to D. Laing, about the feu of the Royal Public Dispensary, 1871, at La.IV.17.

Also, the Edinburgh University Library Catalogue will reveal material too, namely Annual Reports, letters, lists of subscribers, Royal Warrants and regulations, and testimonials.