‘A Discourse of the Whole Art of Chyrurgerie’


Our ninth blog of the 2016-17 class comes from Christina Altland, who assesses one of the copies of Peter Lowe’s major text on medical practice, A Discourse of the Whole Art of Chyrurgerie, held by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.

The second edition of Peter Lowe’s ‘A Discourse of the Whole Art of Chyrurgerie’ represents a vital piece of Scottish medical history. The book was first published in 1597, soon after Lowe returned from abroad and began to spark change in the medical world in Scotland. The book was one of the first on general surgery to be printed in English and includes the first English translation of Hippocratic writings.[1] With so much to offer, the book was a success and ran in four editions, including others in 1634 and 1654, for over a half century.[2] The significance of these editions is evident in the writing and the history that surrounds them. When examining this, we will be looking at a specific copy of the second edition that is held by the Royal College. To fully understand this copy and the overall importance of the book however, the work will be discussed in three different ways: the specific copy, the second edition, and the book in general.

Within the Royal College, there are three copies of the second edition, entitled ‘A Discourse of the Whole Art of Chyrurgerie’, in the general College collection. The second copy is of special interest as it has unique features that are not found in the other books. The provenance of this copy is quite unclear, though there are a few clues. In th e printed catalogues of the library from the 19th century, it appears the college acquired the second edition sometime after 1885 as that is when the second edition is first named.[3] Whether this is the specific copy is uncertain but that could be when the book came to the College. Before that, not much is known about the ownership of this copy except for an inscription that reads: “Daniel McCollom. His book in this [year] 1705, surgeon & apothecary”.[4] Little is known about Daniel McCollom outside this description but it does at least provide a little more insight into the history of the copy.

img_20161026_142641862                                     img_20161026_142738596

Figure 1.1                                                                                               Figure 1.2

This copy is both similar and different to other second editions held by the college. Like the others, the book measures roughly 14 by 18 centimeters and has leather binding (Figure 1.1). The pages are yellowed and slightly ripped as many are worn from use (Figure 1.2). There is also what appears to be an older version of footnotes printed in the margins beside the text that are there for clarification. In the book, there are fourteen chapters with treatments and images throughout to assist the reader.[5] The main contents of the book appear to be the same throughout all the copies.

img_20161026_143250120                                                         img_20161026_143819122

Figure 1.3                                                                                                Figure 1.4

The variation of this copy can first be seen in that pages 1-13 of the beginning and 7-31 of the end are missing. These pages include several important parts of the preface and Lowe’s translation of ‘The Presages of Divine Hippocrates’. This copy is also unique in that it is heavily annotated. In the beginning of the book, there are full pages filled with notes. The handwriting in these entries varies greatly indicating that there were several authors contributing. In figures 1.3-4 these entries can be seen along with the signature of Alexandres McCollombius M.D.. He and John Morris are assumed to be two of the writers as indicated by their signatures under the entries. The fact that Collumbius was a doctor makes it likely this copy was used for practice at some point. There are also handwritten annotations along the margins of the book. These annotations appear to be sayings with references to God, death, and learning or have indiscernible meanings. The theme of religion throughout them, however, is noteworthy. A prominence of religion is shown in the text itself as well. Throughout the book, Lowe repeatedly mentions God. This evidence of religion in the book and the annotations provides historical insight into Scotland. Glasgow is steeped in religious history, having served as a religious site from the sixth century and eventually become a bishopric.[6] With the officially accepted Protestantism in the mid-sixteenth century, this copy shows the prominence of religion in Glasgow and Scotland in general.

The second edition of the book also provides vital context into Peter Lowe’s life. In the preface, Lowe writes about practicing on continental Europe for 22 years, specifically France and Flanders, in Paris for the Spanish Regiments for two years, and for the French king for 5-6 years.[7] It is clear that Lowe had a significant amount of experience before his work in Glasgow. This is attested to by Sir D’Arcy Power when he describes some of Lowe’s treatments as “greatly in advance of his time” and “equally good and practical”.[8] Lowe’s other major work on the Spanish sickness was published in London in 1596 so it is assumed that Lowe was in England by 1595-1596. After subtracting 30 years on continental Europe, it is logical to surmise he left Scotland around 1565.[9] This preface is incredibly significant in that it provides these valuable insights into Lowe’s life that allow one to understand the views he would have gained abroad and applied to Glasgow. The value of this work is even further increased as many of these records were kept in churches and destroyed during the Reformation.[10]

Through the preface and the body of the book, one can see what Lowe was influenced by when establishing the Royal College. When he addresses the ‘Doctors of the Royal College of Surgeons of Paris’, Lowe speaks highly of their knowledge and teaching. He even goes on to state that he mimicked their methods to the best of his ability. In his article, Donaldson confirms this as he states that Lowe’s book displays the “major influence of contemporary, particularly Parisian, medical style”.[11] This is significant in that it shows his work abroad greatly influenced his practice in a new contemporary way that he implemented in the Royal College and medical practice in western Scotland. This is also shown in the treatments and images in the later editions of the book. Many of the illustrations are believed to be very similar to those of Ambroise Paré.[12] Donaldson argues that even the structure and content of the book is so similar to that of Paré’s  Oeuvres of 1575 that it could be regarded as a synopsis of the surgical sections of Paré’s work.[13]  Thus, from the book it is obvious he looked to his experience abroad and brought modern medical practice into this work and likely the establishment of the College.

In the ‘Account of the Life and Works of Maister Peter Lowe’, Finlayson argues that Lowe’s work was not based on authority as some have suggested but rather ‘personal experience and observation’.[14] In the section of his introduction ‘To the Friendly Reader’ he writes, ‘I impart to you my labours, hidded secrets, and experiments by me practised, and daily put in use, to the great comfort, ease, and delight of you’.[15] This would imply that Lowe wrote directly from his own work in the field. Nevertheless, whether this hands-on approach came from Lowe’s experience or others’, the practice-based teaching shown in the book is indicative of a humanist approach. This is noteworthy in that it once again shows how Lowe is using modern ideas in medical practice.  Although humanism did not arrive until later in Scotland, Lowe is clearly affected by the movement.[16]  This is even shown in the layout of the book. As previously mentioned, it includes several entries before it begins that serve as a preface. Jamie Reid-Baxter states that the idea of providing an introduction to influence a reader is strongly related to Renaissance humanism.[17] Hence, his decision to include a foreword is indicative of the influence of humanism in his writing. It is also seen through his inclusion of the “Presages of Divine Hipocrates”. Lowe provided an English translation of this text in all editions of the book.[18] The fact that he included it in English shows the significance of humanism to Lowe and his desire to make this important work available to more people.

img_20161102_141237700              img_20161102_135722379                      img_20161102_134156294

Figure 1.5                                               Figure 1.6                                                Figure 1.7

All editions of “The Whole Course of Chirurgerie” were practical and accessible to a wider audience. The book is regarded as the ‘first systematic treatise on the whole course of chirurgerie published in the English language’.[19] From his experience and education, it is likely that Lowe knew several languages including Latin, French, and possibly German and Spanish.[20]  Lowe’s choice to write in English was a deliberate one and clearly had reasoning behind it. He makes it clear in the preface that he wants ‘all men in general’, specifically young surgeons, to have access to this learning.[21] In his book on Peter Lowe, Finlayson states that translating Hippocratic writing into English for the first time and including it shows Lowe’s desire for young surgeons to gain knowledge of the practice that would have been inaccessible. Additionally, beginning with the second edition, images such as those shown in figures 1.5-1.7 are provided that help illustrate the conditions and treatments discussed in the book. These along with enlarged text and the English translations made the book quite useful.[22]

The significance of the ‘Whole Course of Chirurgerie’ is immense. Whether looking at the specific copy, second edition, or book in general, Lowe’s work clearly held much importance. On a smaller scale, it was groundbreaking in Scotland for its practicality through the use of English and experience-based approach. More abstractly, from it Lowe’s influences in his work and the methods he used to implement large medical change with this book and likely throughout western Scotland can be seen. These influences and methods touch on broader themes of modern practice and humanism that affected Lowe’s work greatly and make the work incredibly important. Thus, this book is valuable on several different levels and should be appreciated greatly.

Helping the public to understand the significance of this work is an important aspect of preserving its history. One way to accomplish this could be through an interactive exhibit at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. This only seems appropriate as the Royal College is directly linked to Lowe’s work in Glasgow and likely this book. To begin with, someone could act as Lowe and give a brief synopsis of his experience abroad, the charter, the creation of the Royal College, and the effect these had on the book and/or the book had on them. Next, there could be displays with treatments from the book and some of the illustrations. These could have little activities to show the practicality of them. Also on the display would be another section that teaches about humanism and relates each specific entry back to it and what made it then modern practice. This will allow the audience to gain an understanding of what humanism is and the role it played in Lowe’s writing and how Lowe was modern in his writing and practice. Finally, at the end of the exhibit a digitized version of the specific copy or at least the second edition should be available to scroll through. This way the viewer can try to answer posed questions about the text. These questions could start out simpler about the treatments and then become increasingly complex in trying to see the greater themes in the text they learned about. Through this exhibit, the public could gain an understanding of the significance of Lowe’s book on varying levels from basic ideas to major themes. Then, hopefully, they will begin to understand why the ‘Whole Course of Chirurgerie’ is a vital piece of Scottish history.





Primary Sources

Lowe, Peter. A Discourse of the Whole Art of ChirurgerIe. London: Thomas Purfoot, 1612. Print.

Secondary Sources

Donaldson, IML. ‘Peter Lowe’s Whole Course of Chirurgerie…1597’. Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. No. 4 (2013): 374-376. Web.

Duncan, Alexander (ed). (1885-1901) Alphabetical Catalogue of the Library of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. Preceded by an Index of Subjects. Glasgow: Robert Maclehose. Print.

Finlayson, James. Account of the Life and Works of Maister Peter Lowe. Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons, 1889. Print.

Geyer-Kordesch, Johanna and Fiona Macdonald. Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow, 1599-1858. London: Hambledon Continuum, 1999. Print.

Gibson, Tom. The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. Edinburgh: Macdonald Publishers, 1983. Print.

Harrison, Clare. ‘Peter Lowe and ‘The whole course of chirurgerie’’. Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow: The College Library. [accessed 14 November 2016]. https://libraryblog.rcpsg.ac.uk/2013/09/20/peter-lowe-and-the-whole-course-of-chirurgerie/. Web.

Hull, Andrew, Johanna Geyer-Kordesch and Fiona Macdonald. The Shaping of the Medical Profession: The History of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow 1858-1999. London: Hambledon Press, 1999. Print.

Jillings, Karen. ‘Humanism and Medicine in Sixteenth-Century Aberdeen’. Intellectual History Review. 18:1 (2008): 31-40. Print.

Miller, Roy, James Beaton, Carol Parry and others. Treasures of the College. Glasgow: Carnyx Group, 1998. Print.

Power, D’Arcy. ‘The Whole Course of Chirurgerie Compiled by Peter Lowe, Scotchman’. The British Journal Of Surgery. Vol. XV, No. 60 (1928): 534-537. Web.

Reid-Baxter, Jamie. ‘Liminary Verse: the Paratextual Poetry of Renaissance Scotland’. Journal of the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society. No. 3 (2008): 70-94. Print.

Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. Library catalogue. Record 00229377. [accessed 14 November 2016]. http://shelcat.org/prcp. Web.



[1] Clare Harrison, ‘Peter Lowe and ‘The whole course of chirurgerie’’, Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow: The College Library, http://libraryblog.rcpsg.ac.uk/2013/09/20/peter-lowe-and-the-whole-course-of-chirurgerie/.

[2] Donaldson, ‘Peter Lowe’s Whole Course of Chirurgerie…1597’, Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, no. 4 (2013), pp. 374-376.

[3] Alexander Duncan (ed), (1885-1901) Alphabetical Catalogue of the Library of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. Preceded by an Index of Subjects, Glasgow: Robert Maclehose.

[4] Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, Library catalogue, Record 00229377, [accessed 14 November 2016], http://shelcat.org/prcp.

[5] Peter Lowe, A Discourse of the Whole Art of Chirurgerie, London: Thomas Purfoot (1612), 13.

[6] Andrew Hull, Johanna Geyer-Kordesch and Fiona Macdonald, The Shaping of the Medical Profession: the History of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow 1858-1999, London: Hambledon Press (1999), XXII.

[7] James Finlayson, Account of the Life and Works of Maister Peter Lowe, Glasgow: James Maclehose and Sons (1889), 16-17.

[8]  D’Arcy Power, ‘The Whole Course of Chirurgerie Compiled by Peter Lowe, Scotchman’, The British Journal of Surgery, vol. XV: no. 60 (1928, 536-37.

[9] Finlayson, Account of the Life and Works, 16-17.

[10] Tom Gibson, The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, Edinburgh: Macdonald Publishers (1983), 21.

[11] Donaldson, ‘Peter Lowe’s Whole Course of Chirurgerie’, 375-76.

[12] Roy Miller, James Beaton, Carol Parry and others, Treasures of the College, Glasgow: Carnyx Group (1998), 19.

[13] Donaldson, 375-76.

[14] Finlayson, 12-13.

[15] Lowe, A Discourse, 4.

[16] Karen Jillings, ‘Humanism and Medicine in Sixteenth-Century Aberdeen’, Intellectual History Review, 18:1 (2008), 31.

[17] Jamie Reid-Baxter, ‘Liminary Verse: the Paratextual Poetry of Renaissance Scotland’, Journal of the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society, no. 3 (2008), 72.

[18] Finlayson, 13-14.

[19] Finlayson, 3.

[20] Gibson, The Royal College, 22.

[21] Lowe, A Discourse, 6.

[22] Power, ‘The Whole Course’, 533.


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