Conference: "Race, Empire and the Edinburgh Medical School"

 ‘Dissecting Room’, c. early 20th century, EUA GD63 © University of Edinburgh Library

Race, Empire and the Edinburgh Medical School conference, University of Edinburgh, 18-19 April 2024

Venue: Research Suite, Centre for Research Collections, 6th Floor, Main Library, University of Edinburgh, 30 George Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9LJ. Non-UoE staff/students must ask at the Library’s front desk to be let into the building.


This two-day international conference (online and in-person) brings together historians, heritage professionals and other researchers whose research investigates the Edinburgh Medical School’s history from the perspectives of race and empire, or examines histories of race, empire, and medicine through case studies involving historic Edinburgh professors, students, and alumni. The conference aims to draw the Edinburgh Medical School under the analytic lens of racial, imperial, and global history, and into conversation with the wider field of decolonial studies that has done much to critique the racist and anti-Black epistemologies, practices, and climates of ‘Western’ medicine. A draft programme is available here (opens as PDF).

In 1976, the Royal Scottish Museum and the Scottish Society of the History of Medicine held a symposium and exhibition to commemorate the Edinburgh Medical School’s 250th anniversary. The published symposium proceedings, if an important contribution to Edinburgh Medical School historiography, were nonetheless celebratory in tone and narrowly focused; contributors, for example, said very little about the Medical School’s historical connections to enslavement, colonialism, or racial science, while its ‘global’ connections were limited to its ‘positive’ influence on North American medical schools.

In 2026, the Edinburgh Medical School will celebrate its tercentenary. Inevitably, the University of Edinburgh will take the opportunity of the anniversary to celebrate an undoubtedly significant three-hundred years of medical education and research. It can be expected that the tercentenary will involve a packed programme highlighting and venerating the careers of historic Edinburgh staff and alumni—its great doctors and medical ‘worthies’—which, in all likelihood, will reproduce the same ‘heroic’ narratives of medicine adopted fifty years earlier.

With only two years left to plan and set the tone for such events, now is an important moment for historians of medicine, medical humanities scholars, and heritage sector workers to begin to take a leading role in shaping how the Edinburgh Medical School’s history is re-told more critically, honestly, and inclusively.

The Edinburgh Medical School’s tercentenary provides a helpful frame to think about and reflect upon the institution’s complex history and its many legacies today. Now is an important moment for critical and reparative histories of medicine. Recent years have seen numerous organisations in the UK, Europe, and North America commission research into their historical links to slavery and colonialism, including medical institutions such as NHS LothianNHS GrampianGuy’s and St Thomas’ Foundation, the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburghthe London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the medical schools of the University of Pennsylvania and Yale UniversityThe Lancet Commission on Medical Reparations and Redistributive Justice and the University of California’s REPAIR Project, meanwhile, have engaged in conversations around health or medical reparations. The University of Edinburgh has similarly committed to confronting its legacies of slavery and colonialism through its own Decolonised Transformations Project.

 All in-person and online delegates are required to register (free) via Eventbrite. Delegates can register for one or both days, but must register separately for the Thursday and Friday should they wish to attend both days. A free lunch and refreshments will be provided on both days.

The conference is co-organised by Drs Simon Buck and Ian Stewart (IASH) and kindly supported by the Susan Manning Workshop Fund from the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (UoE); the Research and Engagement Working Group (Decolonised Transformations, UoE); the History of Science, Medicine and Technology Research Group (UoE); and the Society for the Social History of Medicine. It is co-hosted by the Edinburgh Centre for Global History and the Edinburgh Health and Medical Humanities Network. 


IMAGE: ‘Dissecting Room’, c. early 20th century, EUA GD63 © University of Edinburgh Library

1. R. G. W. Anderson and Allen David Cumming Simpson, eds., The Early Years of the Edinburgh Medical School: a Symposium Jointly Organised by the Royal Scottish Museum and the Scottish Society of the History of Medicine in Connection with the Special Exhibition ‘Edinburgh and Medicine’ and the 250th Anniversary of the Foundation of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Edinburgh (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Royal Scottish Museum, 1976).