First Minute Book 1602-1688, Key to Scottish Medical Advancement (RCPSG 1/1/1/1b)

Our seventh blog of the 2016-17 class comes from Edward Cheseldine, who has examined the first extant collection of minutes belonging to the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, which begin just shortly after the college’s foundation in 1599. 

This object analysis focuses on the first minute book of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. It posits this book as a material documentation of the wider development of ethics and humanism within the frame of Scottish medical history. By identifying the educational and personal background of Peter Lowe and reading his influence through this book, his transmutation of Western European medical approaches and values into the Scottish medical system becomes apparent. The analysis then takes this textual record as evidence of Lowe’s impressions and, after his early death, as a physical artefact in formulating his legacy and assessing his success in solidifying humanist methods and viewpoints into the Renaissance infra-structure. In the final instance, this places humanism as an essentially modern composite part of this historic period of rapid change.


The Scottish renaissance was a period of heightened connectivity with Western Europe. It was common for medical students to complete their training on the continent. This allowed for the idea of medical humanism to penetrate into Scotland. The foundation of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow owes itself to this relationship. The educational advances of the continent were thus compounded by Peter Lowe’s impact on education. Peter Lowe was a Scotsman, probably from Glasgow, who had his humanist education on the continent.[1] He learnt the art of Chirurgerie, during his thirty years abroad between 1566 and 1596.[2] During this time period, Lowe spent twenty-two years in France and Flanders learning within the French medical field. He then practised military surgery in Spain.[3] Lowe’s medical qualifications are testament to the fact that during his career, he also spent time under as Henry IV of France’s surgeon.[4] After his long outstanding career, Lowe returned to Glasgow. Devastated at the level of surgery and the infiltration of barber-surgery in Glasgow Peter Lowe, with the accompaniment of Robert Hamilton, petitioned James Stewart VI to found an institution similar to that of Paris.[5]    It was through his knowledge and understanding of continental practices that we see a development of medical practises in Glasgow. This new medical framework is exemplified in the pages of the first minute book. Due to Peter Lowes death in 1610, the minute book outlines continuity of his ethical framework as well as the development of a modern medical institution that departs from the medieval world.[6]


The first minute book provides a detailed analysis of how the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow was created once a college was granted. It holds writings between 1602-1688. Its contents consist of how the institution was raised in its preliminary years. It is fundamental to the institution’s creation, containing the principles in which the royal college was founded. The college, was appointed three years prior to the first minute books use in 1599, by James Stewart VI. The royal college was the first medical institution set up in the West of Scotland. In this way, the book has a strong historic link to a time when medical teachings and practices became regulated within Scotland.


In physical terms the book is of a small size. It does however, hold 710 pages of handwritten notes.[7] Within the glass case which the original book is kept in for preservation purposes, the most striking feature is the wearing of the leather-bound cover. Its tarnish is both physical and symbolic evidence of its use as a minute book for over 86 years. The pages are of a similar state, being warped due to exposure to the air when tied down with its original metal clasps. Within the book, the pages are as faded as the binding and tainted a dull sand colour. The original minutes are clearly written in old Scots and in a cursive style. They can all be read, yet with difficulty as the writing is in a small font, apart from a few words which are covered by black ink blotches. The damage and wearing is negligible, considering the lengthy history of the book.  The care shown towards this text begins to show the growing understanding of objects and records in the Renaissance medical sphere. The physical state of this book tells of its status and placement in a wider system of values that sought to improve the care of the corporeal and psychological dispositions. It is therefore appropriate that material things be treated with the same evolving respect.


The general sense of the book is one of importance. There are several levels of security in place, in order to secure the longevity of this object. The book is placed in a locked vault during its return to the archives, ensuring the fate of the second minute book – that of being burned in a fire – is not repeated. The glass case used when viewings are requested, gives the sense of the significance to the relic. This is against other books and objects which are viewed on plinths and touched by other library participants. For viewing purposes, and due to the delicate nature of the original, there was a copy made in 1860 by William H. Hill. This ensures that access to the text is available for viewing purposes to everybody. As well as this there is an online scanned copy of the 19th century edition, which can be accessed from the colleges website.[8] The copy is still handwritten, however the text has been enlarged and written in a clearer style. This gives it increased opportunity for viewing, as the spacing and font size has been increased. The preservation of the minute book is testament to its importance, as a document to a period when written records were scarce. It creates a gateway in identifying a time period within Scotland when there was an increasing value in the establishment of public works and institutions.


Within the first pages of the minute book is a summation of the royal charter. The charter includes the appointed ideals and laws the institution was founded upon. In 1599, this was given by James VI to Peter Lowe and ratified by the town council.[9] It sets out the founding principles of the college that are linked to the ideas Peter Lowe brought back from continental Europe during his education. These ideals are summarised at the beginning of the first minute book, in order to reflect upon the foundation of the institution within its preliminary years. They include nine points of rule, seeking to improve the medical health of the West of Scotland.[10] These involve Maister Peter Lowe, Mr Robert Hamilton and their successors, having the power and ability of examination towards other medical persons carrying out services of surgery. This control was also extended over the exercise of medicine, giving the institution similar powers as the Medical council that existed in this time period. The charter gave further rights to the supervision of the sale of drugs, as well as to the sale of poisons. The foundation of a medical-legal board, that which those found to be disobeying the regulations were to attend, was also formulated. Finally, a public health service ‘sall convene every first Monday of ilk month’ in order to give council to the general population who visited. All this was to encompass a large geographical area in the West of Scotland. This charter created the emphasis of what Peter Lowe was bringing back from the continent. That of raising the medical standards in order to protect the population from misconduct. Through control of the medical profession within a large geographical area.


During the time period there were changes within the structure of the college. At the first meeting of the Faculty there were seven members. These included Robert Hamilton and Daniel Spang. Robert Hamilton was appointed as the first Visitor of the college in 1602.[11] Spang was later appointed Visitor in 1606.[12] In 1612 there was a more rigorous infrastructure emplaced upon the college. This granted the need of a Visitor under which were quarter masters that assessed and taught apprentices. Apprentices were to pay an entrance fee, as well as an end of qualification fee of £10. Examinations of the students occurred in the third, fifth and seventh year of the course. On top of this, if the qualified surgeon or physician wanted to practise as a burgess of the town, there was a further quarterly fee they had to pay to the faculty.[13] By creating a hierarchy and formulating fees, the institution was establishing itself as a powerful regulatory body. Finance and structure was also key to improving the growth of the Royal College, this in time would have a positive effect on the boundaries it could regulate increasing the number of examination that could take place and increase the number of qualified medical professionals. These factors are testament to safeguarding the medical improvement of the West of Scotland.


Unlike Edinburgh and other areas in which surgeons were considered guildsmen, Glasgow distinctly defined them as part of the Royal College. Placing them alongside physicians, their status was upgraded into the medical profession. Such a lexical and actual shift was, at least partly, due to Lowe’s vision of hierarchy and skill as he created this institution which breached the professional divide between that of physicians and surgeons.[14] This was due to the elevated position of physicians within the medical profession, whereas surgery was still seen as a guild trade.  Lowe wanted to do this by implementing of proper education and regulation, and by containing quackery.[15] However, the minute book shows that progress for raising standards was mixed. The minutes include descriptions of barbers who were only qualified to partake in menial barber-surgery. There was also regulation of those who were already qualified as barbers. The Faculty could summon barber-surgeons for examination who practised within the bounds of the charter. George Berrell was the first of the barber-surgeons wo was restricted in the practise of his trade in May 1605 and had to ‘profess the art of Barbery with simple wounds in the flesh’. He could therefore no longer perform his profession without special consent.[16] There were also strict levels of barber-surgery that could be performed under the licence the Faculty appointed after examination. This matches the standards that Peter Lowe wanted to properly regulate the practise of surgery to a level where there was no interference by under-qualified medical practitioners. There was also a formal process of re-examination in order to improve upon the licence granted to the barber-surgeon after their examination.[17] This slowly elevated the levels of surgery that could be performed by already qualified barber-surgeons. Therefore, there is evidence that Peter Lowe’s key principles that he brought back from the continent were being acted upon within the minute book. Regulation and examination were vital in developing medical standards within the time period, thus raising the standards of medical care for all.


Due to the lowly status of the barber, and the impact they had upon the profession of surgery, the history of incorporation within the royal college was volatile. Unlike that of Edinburgh, there was not a joint seal of protection amongst the two professions in 1602.[18] Barbers however, were admitted to the royal college at the time, but in an inferior position to surgeons.[19] This was due to Peter Lowe’s inclination to include the barbers in order to assert that they do not meddle with the practices of surgery.[20] However, in 1656 a joint seal of barbers and surgeons was produced by the council, giving civil protection to barbers and elevating their status within the college. [21] The joint seal, fundamentally questions the work of Peter Lowe, and the progress the minute book exemplifies in distinctly addressing the differences between surgeons and barbers. However, within the minute book, 1656 marks the beginning of the separation of the barbers and surgeons, as the Faculty did not always grant autonomy to the council, leaving the status of barbers vulnerable. This eventually leads to the fallout of the barbers from the college cementing the dominant status of the surgeons.[22]


The first minute book truly represents a microcosm of the objectives and motives the institution was founded upon. Through the analysis of Lowe’s humanist thought and the minute books record of events we can conclude that the ideals of improving medical care within the West of Scotland were conceived and supported. The period marks a rapid change in the fundamental ideas of regulating surgery and medical care by developing the Royal College. It produces modern systems of regulation and examination within its geographical boundaries to enhance society as a whole. The importance of this document has been celebrated and acted upon within the college. Appropriate measures have been taken to ensure that this archival yoke remains a sentiment to the past foundation of the Royal College.



Beaton, J.J., Miller, R., Boyle, I. T., Treasures of the College (Glasgow, Carnyx Group: 1998)

Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, RCPSG 1/1/1/1b (Glasgow: 1602-1688)

Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, Minute Book 1602-1688, [Accessed 10.11.2016]

Finlayson, James, Account Of The Life And Works Of Maister Peter Lowe, 1st edn (Glasgow: Maclehose, 1889)

Geyer-Kordesch, Johanna, Fiona A Macdonald, and Andrew Hull, Physicians And Surgeons In Glasgow, 1st edn (London: Hambledon Press, 1999)

Goodall, A. L., “The Royal Faculty Of Physicians And Surgeons”, J Hist Med Allied Sci, X (1955), 207-225

[1]  A. L. Goodlall, “The Royal Faculty Of Physicians And Surgeons”, J Hist Med Allied Sci, X.2 (1955), p208

[2] Johanna Geyer-Kordesch, Fiona A Macdonald and Andrew Hull, Physicians And Surgeons In Glasgow, 1st edn (London: Hambledon Press, 1999) p41

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] James Finlayson, Account Of The Life And Works Of Maister Peter Lowe, (Glasgow: Maclehose, 1889) p20

[6] Johanna Geyer-Kordesch, Fiona A Macdonald and Andrew Hull, Physicians And Surgeons In Glasgow, p50

[7] “Minute Book 1602-1688”, Rcpsg.Ac.Uk, 2016 <; [accessed 10 November 2016].

[8] The first minute book can be found on the Royal Colleges’ website through the following link,

[9] A. L. Goodall, “The Royal Faculty Of Physicians And Surgeons”, p212

[10] James Finlayson, Account Of The Life And Works Of Maister Peter Lowe,  pp22-  23

[11] A. L. Goodall, “The Royal Faculty Of Physicians And Surgeons”, p213

[12] Ibid p40

[13] J.J. Beaton, R.Miller and I.T. Boyle, Treasures of the college (Glasgow, Carnyx Group: 1998) p47

[14] Ibid p48

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid p118

[17] Ibid pp120-122

[18] J.J. Beaton, R.Miller and I.T. Boyle, Treasures of the college p47

[19] Johanna Geyer-Kordesch, Fiona A Macdonald and Andrew Hull, Physicians And Surgeons In Glasgow, p80

[20] James Finlayson, Account Of The Life And Works Of Maister Peter Low, p21

[21] Johanna Geyer-Kordesch, Fiona A Macdonald and Andrew Hull, Physicians And Surgeons In Glasgow, p103

[22] Ibid p81


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