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A Journey Through Pharmaceutical Edinburgh

This tour explores the history of pharmacy and medicines in Edinburgh. The route takes between 60 to 90 minutes to complete, or you can read along wherever you are in the world. If you are walking the route, please note that step free routes have been included where possible.

The Beginning: 44 Melville Street

This tour begins at 44 Melville Street, the home of the RPS in Scotland. The RPS moved here in 2019, and it serves as offices for RPS staff as well as a hub for RPS members in Scotland.

Today the RPS in Scotland supports, promotes, and leads the pharmacy profession across all sectors of pharmacy in Scotland. Key initiatives include the Pharmacy Vision 2030, championing environmental sustainability in medicines management, and promoting a drugs use policy for reducing death in people who use drugs.

But the history of pharmacy in Edinburgh dates back long before the inception of the Pharmaceutical Society. This tour will explore this rich history in further detail, taking you through the historic parts of the city of Edinburgh.

Scottish medicine and pharmacy are intertwined, and no more is that apparent than in the medical city of Edinburgh. The role of the surgeon-apothecary was created in 1657 to incorporate the dispensing of medicines into the role of the barber surgeon, in part so they could have more opportunity to earn a living. By 1682 it was determined that the two roles required such detailed knowledge, that they were better split, but by 1721 the apothecaries were back under the control of the surgeons.

In 1786 the Society of Druggist Apothecaries was created, as a precursor to the RPS. This shows that there was a desire to protect the interests of the profession long before the creation of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. Similarly, an Aberdeen Society of Pharmacists was set up in 1839. It wasn’t until 1851, ten years after the creation of the Pharmaceutical Society, that it had a strong presence in Edinburgh.

We’ll find out more about the history of the society at our next stop, 36 York Place:

To get to York Place from 44 Melville Street walk northeast to Randolph Place then turn left. Then turn right towards Charlotte Square and go around the square to North Charlotte Street and head north. Turn Right onto Queen Street and continue onto York Place. Number 36 is on the left-hand side of the road. This is the longest stretch between stops and could take around 25 minutes.


The RPS in Scotland: 36 York Place

Here at 36 York Place, we can see the building that served as the Edinburgh headquarters of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society for much of its history. The Society was established in London in 1841 with nine founding members from Scotland, eight from Edinburgh and one from Dunfermline.

After a Scottish Board of Examiners was established in 1851, the need for a headquarters in Scotland soon became apparent. By 1852 it was agreed that a North British Branch would be established. Rooms were rented from founding member of the Society H. C. Baildon, at 73 Princes Street but it would be some time before the Society had a more permanent home. Between 1852 and 1884 the North British Branch moved between George Street, Princes Street and St Giles Street.

By the early 1880s it was recognised that there was a need to expand the facilities in Edinburgh for pharmacy students and members. Although the North British Branch arranged for students to attend classes at the Surgeon’s Hall, there were only 120 members registered as Pharmaceutical Chemists.

At this time the New Town had been well established as a location of the Enlightenment movement. Bright, airy, and clean, it was starkly different to the overcrowded Old Town. Much of Edinburgh society moved to this new fashionable neighbourhood through the early 19th century including the Attorney General Sir Samuel Shepard as well as the Painter Henry Raeburn.

36 York Place was purchased on the 15 May 1884, for £1900. It had space for a 200-seat lecture hall, and the Society added dispensing laboratories in the garden at an expense of £1600. The expansion of facilities in Edinburgh saw a rise in new students and members of the society and a fall in exam failure rates.

The next stage of this tour moves away from the Pharmaceutical Society to explore a key organisation that helped shape Pharmaceutical Edinburgh for much of the 20th Century: Duncan Flockhart.

To get to the former site of Duncan Flockhart at the Balmoral Hotel, head south via Elder Street and join Leith Street. Turn right onto Princes Street and cross the road at the traffic lights staying on the corner of Princes Street and North Bridge. This walk will take around 10 minutes.


Pharmaceutical Industry: The Balmoral Hotel

While the Balmoral Hotel is an Edinburgh landmark in its own right, you can find a plaque commemorating the pharmaceutical history of the site on the North Bridge side of the building. Before the Balmoral was built in 1902 a parade of shops stood on the site and in 1820 a pair of chemists and druggists set up at number 52 North Bridge, under the name of Duncan and Ogilvie.

John Duncan had served his apothecary apprenticeship in Edinburgh, then practiced for a small time in London, before returning to Perth. There he joined with Ogilvie, became Duncan and Ogilvie, and expanded to Edinburgh. It was not long before the two men decided to split the business and take control of the different entities. Ogilvie continued in Perth while Duncan stayed in Edinburgh and joined with one of his apprentices, William Flockhart.

Duncan and Flockhart made a name for themselves through the production of Chloroform, after James Young Simpson discovered its application as an anaesthetic. They helped contribute to the popularity of the chemical, promoting it in 1851 at the Great Exhibition. Their production also increased due to the Crimean War (1853 to 1856), supplying the front-line and counting Florence Nightingale among their customers.

In 1862 the company became Chemists and Druggists Ordinary to Queen Victoria, who was prescribed Chloroform to ease her pain during childbirth.

As the company continued to expand, they opened a factory on Holyrood Road in 1876. Sometime later, during the First World War, the company opened up a drug farm in Warriston to supply the active ingredients for many of the medicines needed at the time. The farm continued until the Second World War.

In 1962 Duncan Flockhart and Co joined with Macfarlan Smith to become Edinburgh Pharmaceutical Industries, but then quickly became part of the Glaxo Group in 1963. There is still a range of drug manufacture and life science development in and around Edinburgh. In 2021 Valneva began manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines at its site in Livingston.

The next stop of the tour will explore more of the herbal history of Edinburgh and its physic gardens, in an unlikely location: Platform 11 at Edinburgh Waverley Station.

To continue the tour, head west around the Balmoral Hotel to Edinburgh Waverley Station, go down to platform 11. There is a step free route to the platform via a lift. This walk will take five minutes.

A Lost Physic Garden: Waverley Station

Medicinal plants have a long history, with some like opium poppies, having been in use for millennia. Many medieval monasteries would grow use useful plants, but physic gardens were designed to specifically grow plants to be used in medicines. In the 16th and 17th centuries, these physic gardens began to spring up in Edinburgh, and they helped shape the medical landscape of the city.

The first physic garden in Edinburgh was developed by the Surgeons of Edinburgh at the Surgeons Hall in 1656. In 1670 the College of Physicians developed a rival garden at Holyrood Palace, which was then extended to the grounds of Trinity Hospital. The grounds of Trinity Church, Hospital and Gardens would have been located on the banks of the Nor’ Loch, which would have filled this valley where the Princes Street Gardens are now.

James Sutherland (c.1639-1719) started as a gardener at the Surgeons Hall physic garden and oversaw the garden at Trinity Hospital. Despite being self-taught, Sutherland became the first Professor of Botany at the University of Edinburgh in 1676. His work, the Hortus Medicus Edinburgensis, serves as a catalogue of the plants grown in the garden. In its introduction, Sutherland takes great pains to express how hard it was to come by some of the specimens, either sourcing plants from across the world, or ‘by many painful journeys in all the seasons of the year, to recover whatever this Kingdom produceth of Variety, and to cultivate and preserve all of them with all possible Diligence’. He was later made the Kings Botanist in 1699.

The physic gardens at Holyrood Palace, and here at Trinity Hospital were disbanded in 1763 and moved to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. In 1848 this area was bought by the North British Railway Company, and the church was demolished brick by brick with the intention of moving it to a new location. Part of the original church can be found on Chalmer’s close. Now there is a plaque on platform 11 to commemorate the former physic garden.

Our next step will further explore the link between pharmacy and Edinburgh’s wider medical community at the site of a lost dispensary.

To reach the next stage of the tour, Fountain Close, come out of Edinburgh Waverley at the Market Street exit, via a lift for step free access. Cross the road at the traffic lights and continue onto Jeffrey Street. Turn right onto High Street continuing to Fountain Close. Fountain Close is located on the left-hand side of the road and is recognisable from the ‘Saltire Society’ sign above the entrance.

Dispensing to the Poor: Fountain Close

What is a dispensary? In the 18th century, hospitals, or infirmaries, would not welcome everyone in the way that they do now. If you were too sick or too poor, you would not be admitted. Hospitals were for the wealthy, and the fear of infectious diseases prevented many from accessing medical help. Dispensaries like the one established here in Fountain Close by the Royal College of Physician’s in 1704, were set up in order to treat the sick poor, essentially as outpatients.

The apothecary’s role in these dispensaries was fundamental. While a rotation of doctors would attend for different shifts, it was a full-time job for the apothecary, and they had to be on site at all times to make and dispense medicines. While the doctors’ attendance was provided for free, they would have had time to meet their private patients outside of their shift, giving them an alternative way of raising an income. The Dispensary apothecary was paid a salary, in recognition of this time commitment and the nature of the role.

In 1729 the Edinburgh Infirmary was established in Robertson’s Close after the Royal College of Physicians set up a fundraising campaign.  At this point it was decided that the Dispensary should be moved to the Edinburgh Infirmary.

There were other public dispensaries in Edinburgh. In 1776 Andrew Duncan (Not to be confused with John Duncan) set up the Edinburgh Royal Dispensary, and it continued to serve the sick poor of Edinburgh. The importance of the apothecary continued and in 1880 a pharmacy school was set up at the Dispensary for students looking to become a Chemist and Druggist or Pharmaceutical Chemist.

By the middle of the 20th century the pharmacy landscape was changing. In the early 20th century, the RPS was pushing for pharmacy to become a degree subject, and the creation of the NHS saw a change in the ways medical organisations were run. The pharmacy school at the dispensary was closed in 1930 and the Dispensary itself was closed in 1963. It is now the Mackenzie Medical Centre in West Richmond Street.

The next part of the tour explores the history of pharmacy in a community setting at Fisher’s Close, Lawnmarket.

To get to the next point in the tour continue west on High Street, crossing over South Bridge and George IV Bridge at the traffic lights, until you reach the entrance to Fisher’s Close. This should take around 10 minutes.

A Pharmaceutical Discovery: Fisher’s Close

In the 1950s renovations were being carried out on a building in Fisher’s Close in the Lawnmarket, when an amazing discovery was made. Stored in the attic of the property were a collection of prescriptions dating to between 1733 and 1739. These unassuming documents had survived nearly 200 years and provide valuable insights into the medicines prescribed at that time.

Would you be tempted to try the uncovered remedies? One, ‘tincture of rhubarb’, is rhubarb syrup dissolved in alcohol. While it sounds delicious, it was given as a laxative. A slightly less appealing option was ‘preparation of millipede’. We know of a number of different millipede preparations. One would involve drying millipedes or wood lice, then grinding them into a powder. Another would be to soak millipedes in white wine, later pressing out the wine. Neither of these options sound particularly appealing!

In the days before medicines were mass produced in factories, these kinds of medicinal preparations were made on site, often in a laboratory at the back of the shop. In the 18th century a man named William Wilson, also known as Mortar Willie, assisted a number of different apothecaries in Edinburgh, particularly at the shop where these prescriptions were found. He would move from apothecary to apothecary assisting them with the pounding of drugs. We have a print etched in 1815 depicting Mortar Willie, at the supposed age of 107.

The prescriptions found were addressed to a Mr Drummond, the druggist who likely ran the shop and responsible for making the prescriptions. We also know that there was a pharmacy on Lawnmarket in the 1690s initially owned by a Mr Mowtray. By the 20th century the pharmacy had moved to across the road on Lawnmarket and was taken over by CG Drummond, pharmacist, and notable historian on the history of Scottish pharmacy. This leads us to our next stop at 38-40 Grassmarket.

To get to the next part of the tour on Grassmarket head back on Lawnmarket towards Brodies Close. Turn right onto George IV Bridge then right again onto Victoria Street and continue onto W Bow. At the end of the road turn right onto Grassmarket and continue on to number 38-44, now a French restaurant. This route should take 5 minutes.

Customers and Chemists: 38 – 40 Grassmarket

Here is the site of another famous pharmacy, that of H.B. Wyllie which closed in 1960. This was owned by C.G. Drummond as well. The pharmacy featured a distinctive pestle and mortar sign, which hung above the shop, overhanging the street.

The site had been a pharmacy since the 1800s, and in its 160-year history the business had been run by only 5 men. In the early days in the 19th century, it was said to have been frequented by the notorious Burke and Hare.

William Burke and William Hare were Irish migrants living in Edinburgh in 1828. Over the course of a year, it is believed that they murdered 16 people, selling their bodies to the Edinburgh Medical school. Bodies were in high demand due to the success of the school, and they were paid seven pounds and ten shillings per body, a huge sum at that time. The pair were caught on Halloween 1828, William Hare was given a pardon for giving evidence against Burke, who was executed and then dissected himself, as a poetic punishment for his crime.

It was Harry Boak Wyllie, registered as a chemist and druggist in 1891, who gave the shop its 20th century name. He took over in 1911 but sadly died ten years later at the age of 51.

Not long after Wyllie’s death, Charles Grey Drummond took over the shop. Drummond was particularly interested in the history of pharmacy, and the RPS has a number of his manuscripts. The beautiful drug run on display in 44 Melville St was donated by C. G. Drummond from the shop after it closed in 1960.

Drummond was a key figure in contemporary Scottish pharmacy. He was the chairman of the Scottish Department from 1947-1949. He served 25 years on the Scottish Statutory Committee and was a member of the Scottish NHS Negotiating Committee. When Drummond died in 1985, a room in the Scottish headquarters at 36 York Place was named in his memory.

The final stop of the tour will introduce us to another key figure in pharmacy history: Sir James Young Simpson.

To reach the James Young Simpson Statue, the final part of the tour, head southwest on Grassmarket and then turn right onto Kings Stable Road. At the end of the road turn right onto Lothian Road. At the corner turn right again onto Princes Street continuing past the church and the statue is on your right. This route should take around 15 minutes.

A New Medicine: James Young Simpson Statue

The subject of this statue was a key figure in the history of medicines in Edinburgh: Sir James Young Simpson (1811-1870).  Born in Bathgate he attended Edinburgh University at the age of 14. He began studying medicine two years later before passing his exams at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1830 at the age of 19.

He was particularly interested in obstetrics and gained experience working at Edinburgh’s Royal Dispensary as well as his own private practice. Based at 52 Queen Street in the fashionable New Town, he looked for ways to relieve pain during childbirth.

Over the summer of 1847 he carried out experiments with alternatives to ether, for use on patients. At one dinner party with his colleagues George Keith and James Matthews Duncan, he tried a range of solutions to find the perfect ‘drowsy syrup’. After inhaling chloroform, the men grew more talkative then fell unconscious. They all agreed on its potential as an anaesthetic.

On 4 November 1847 Simpson announced chloroform as a new drug, creating a demand that grew so fast it nearly outpaced production. As we saw earlier in the tour, Edinburgh company Duncan Flockhart became famous wholesalers of the drug, advertising it at the 1851 Great Exhibition.

On the 7 April 1853 chloroform was administered to Queen Victoria during the birth of her eighth child Leopold. This helped promote the anaesthetic further. Although the drug was safer than ether, there were still dangers to its use, and today there are much safer options for anaesthetics.

James Young Simpson had a large impact on medicines, healthcare, and Edinburgh. He was made a baronet in 1866 in recognition of his achievements. He worked on a range of other issues such as searching for a cure for puerperal fever, a deadly infection that impacted women in the first three days after childbirth. He was a champion of women’s right to enter the medical field, and he was a loving and affectionate father. He died on the 6 May 1870 and this statue was erected in 1877.

This concludes our tour exploring the different facets of Pharmaceutical Edinburgh. You can head back to the RPS at 44 Melville Street or continue exploring the city!

To head back to the RPS office at 44 Melville Street, head west along Princes Street. Cross the road and turn right onto Queensferry Street and then turn left onto Melville Street. Continue along Melville Street crossing at the junction and number 44 is on your left.