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The History of Glasgow
Volume 2 - Chapter XIII - Maister Peter Lowe and the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons


FROM a very early period Glasgow appears to have made public provision for the sick and infirm. From at least the year 1350 it had a hospital for lepers, St. Ninian's Hospital, near the bridge end, on the south side of the river—an institution commemorated to the present day in the names of St. Ninian Street and Hospital Street. There were also other hostels or spitals, mostly almshouses for the poor, as at Polmadie, St. Nicholas' Hospital in Castle Street, founded by Bishop Muirhead in 1471, and the hospital near the Stable-green founded by Dean Blacader in 1524. From the earliest times also, there can be little doubt, the city had the advantage of the presence of practitioners of the arts of medicine and surgery. As in other affairs of learning, the monks carried on the best traditions of these healing arts. So far, indeed, did they progress that at one time there appeared a danger of the cure of the body usurping the place of the cure of the soul, and in 1215 Pope Innocent III. found it desirable to limit their activities by forbidding churchmen to undertake any operation that involved the letting of blood. Unwilling to forego the emoluments of their surgical practice, the monks hit upon the plan of deputing one of their lay brethren or servants to perform operations. Accordingly, the barber came to be the surgeon, and barber-surgeons continued to be the orthodox blood-letters till the early years of the eighteenth century.These barber-surgeons acquired their skill, not by study at a college or university, but by apprenticeship to a member of the craft. It was in this way that Tobias George Smollett qualified for his profession in the city of Glasgow.

The sister art of medicine in similar fashion came to be practised by more or less unlearned individuals, many of them the merest quacks and charlatans. Many of the cures which they used, down even to the days of the celebrated Cullen, were quite surprising abominations. As late as 1737 the official pharmacopoeia contained such remedies as the excrement of horse, pig, goat, and peacock, mummy, snails, and the juice of wood-lice. [Burgh Records, i. 58.]

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, however, steps were taken in Glasgow to put the practice of medicine and surgery upon a more satisfactory footing. The new movement appears to have been due, like most other developments and improvements in human society, not to any wisdom of the community as a whole, but to the character, ability, and genius of a single person. There were already recognized practitioners of surgery and medicine in Glasgow. On 17th May, 1577, Alexander Hay, "chirurgiane," applied to the town council, declaring his desire to remain in the city and serve the people in his art and craft, and for support he was granted ten merks yearly. At the same time he was made a burgess and exempted from taxation, as his former master, James Abernethy, had been.' And in 158o the admission fees of a burgess were given to "Thomas Mylne, chirurgiane, for his curing of Thomas Muir, hurt in the townes besynes." [Burgh Records, i. 83. Milne was the purchaser, for eleven hundred merks, on 2nd January, 1588-9, of the Milndamhead, Peatbog, and Dassiegreea, when the town's necessities compelled it to dispose of some of its common lands.—(Ibid. 126.) On 3rd June of the same year he was charged before the Council with calling some of the bailies deceivers and traitors, and was ordered to make confession at the cross, and forfeit his pension for a year. (Ibid. 138.)]

But the man who first set the practice of medicine and surgery in Glasgow on the path of real progress and reliability was "Maister Peter Lowe." A Scotsman, probably a native of Glasgow or its neighbourhood, and born about the year 1550, [Life and Works, p. 17.] he declares, in the preface to the second edition of his Chyrurgerie, published in 1612, " that he was Doctor in the Faculty of Chirurgerie at Paris, and ordinary surgeon to the French king and queen, that he had practised in France, Flaunders, and elsewhere the space of 22 yeers, thereafter being Chirurgian major to the Spanish regiments at Paris 2 yeeres, next following the French king, my Master, in the warres 6 yeeres, where I took commoditie to practise all points and operations of Chirurgerie." He appears, in fact, to have been one of the class of wandering Scottish scholars, soldiers, and adventurers, like Michael Scot in the thirteenth century, John Major in the fifteenth, and George Buchanan in his own time, who, finding little opportunity of learning and advancement in their own country, betook themselves to the continent and achieved distinction there. In 1596 he published his work on the "Spanish Sickness" in London, and the preface to his great work, the Chirurgerie, is dated "From London the 20th day of April, 1597." He would appear to have come to Glasgow in the spring of 1598, for on 17th March in the following year it was "aggreit of new and contractit betuix the towne and Doctor Low for iiija" merkis money be yeir," that he should attend the poor of the town.

In the meantime he had come under the censure of the clergy in the city for some trespass on the strict lines of conduct then insisted upon by these inquisitors, and was ordered to do penance " at the pillar" of the kirk. A man familiar with a wider world than these inquisitors had known, he appears not only to have treated the sentence of the spiritual fathers with "unbecoming levity, but actually to have forgotten to satisfy their "thesaurer" as regards the pecuniary part of his sentence, and accordingly the worthy presbytery had him again before them, and ordered him both to "satisfy the thesaurer" and stand another couple of Sundays "on ye Piller." [Tron Session Records, iii. 274.]

Already, however, Lowe appears to have been taking action to have the practice of medicine and surgery in Glasgow placed upon a footing of greater reliability. It can scarcely be doubted that an entry in the kirk session records of 14th September, 1598, was due to his initiative. According to that record "the Session think it good that the University, Ministers, and Presbitry take cognition who are within the Toun that pretend to skill in medicine; that those who have skill may be reteaned and others rejected." [Wodrow's Collections, ii, pt. ii. p. 76.] The session approached the town council on the subject, and the town council deputed a committee consisting of three bailies, the three ministers of the city, and the principal of the college, with Mr. Blais Lowery and Mr. John Blakburne, master of the Grammar School, to consider as to the examination and trial " of all sic persounes as vsit or sal happin to vse the said arte within the towne in tyme cumyng." [Burgh Records, i. 192, 193.]

An examining board thus constituted was not very likely to prove the most satisfactory means of attaining the desired purpose. Lowe appears to have felt very strongly on the subject. In the Latin preface to the first edition of his Chirurgerie, in 1597, he had told his late colleagues of the College of Surgeons at Paris that in his own country he had not found any such accomplished practitioners as themselves. In the second edition of his work, in 1612, he inserted a dedication to his "very Worshipfull, learned, and well-experimented good friends, Gilbert Primrose, Sergeant Chirurgian to the King's Maiestie; James Harvie, Cheife Chirurgiane to the Queenes Maiestie; those of the Worshippull Companie of Chirurgians in London and Edenborough, and all such well-experimented men in the Kingdome who are licensed to professe the Divine art of Chirurgerie." At the same time and in the same dedication, he inveighed warmly against all Quack Doctors and such "as do their worke vnskilfully. ... like as cosoners, quack-salvers, charlitans, witches, charmers, and divers other sorts of abusers," ... who " are permitted to vse charmes, lyes, execrable oaths, mortiferous poyson, fallacious and vncertaine experiments, whereby they destroy both friend and foe, euer detracting the true professors of the Art."

His idea was to eliminate all such charlatans and empirics, and to establish in Glasgow some such college as that of Paris, for the benefit of the West of Scotland. He appealed to King James, and as a result procured a "gift," "privilege," or charter under the Privy Seal dated "Penult November, 1599." By this charter the king " makis, constitutis, and ordinis Maister Peter Low, our Chirurgiane and chief chirurgiane to oure dearest son the Prince, with the assistance of Mr. Robert Hamiltone, professoure of medicine, and their successouris, indwelleris of our Citie of Glasgow," giving them full power to summon before them all persons professing surgery in Glasgow and the West of Scotland, to examine them as to their learning, and, if found worthy, to admit them to the exercise of the art. At the same time severe penalties were imposed on any who should practise without the necessary licence. [ Life and Works, by Maister Peter Lowe, p. 66. Burgh Records, i. 202.]

This deed, granted at Holyrood, was in fact the charter of foundation of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons, under which that Faculty exercises authority at the present hour. Under its provisions, the Visitors, as Lowe and Hamilton were termed, were required to attend every injured, murdered, or poisoned person, and report the cases to the magistrates on the first Monday of every month; they were to prescribe gratis for the sick poor, and they were empowered to make statutes governing the profession, and to pursue and interdict unlicensed practitioners. The charter further regulated the sale of drugs and poisons ; it exempted licentiates from weaponschawings, watching, warding, attending at justice courts, etc., and it obliged all law officers and magistrates to enforce the decisions of the Faculty. [Notarial copy in possession of the Faculty.]

This charter, of whose provisions there can be little doubt Lowe himself was the author, was a piece of legislation as enlightened as any Act of Parliament or by-law of the present day, and in its provision for an inquest and for medical relief of the poor was far in advance of its time. Under this charter the Faculty took rank, as the Incorporation of Physicians and Surgeons, among the incorporations of the Trades House, when that body was constituted under Sir George Elphinstone's Letter of Guildry six years later, and it is the governing charter of the Faculty to the present day.

Curiously enough, Peter Lowe was never himself president of the Faculty, though he appears repeatedly as one of the four "quartermasters." That he was a citizen held in great respect is shown by the fact that he and Hamilton were among the eight representatives of the crafts named in the Letter of Guildry, and the veneration in which his memory was held in shown by the care with which the copy of his work in the library of the Faculty was bound and forbidden to be lent out of the building. His portrait also and his gloves remain among the chief treasures of the Faculty.

Not a great deal is known of the subsequent life of this notable surgeon. In 1601 he accompanied the Duke of Lennox in his embassy to France, the town council, at the special request and desire of the Duke, excusing his absence and continuing the payment of his "pension" or retaining fee. [Burgh Records, i. 223.] The amount of this fee was £53 6s. 8d. [Memorabilia, p. 55.] Another fee paid him by the town was one of £40 in 1610, for "bowelling" or embalming the Laird of Houston, who had been provost of the burgh. [Burgh Records, i. 314.] Some time before 1604 he married Helena, daughter of David Wemyss, the first Presbyterian minister of Glasgow, by whom he had a son John, admitted a member of the Faculty in 1636, though it is doubtful whether he was ever a surgeon at all. [Life, p. 27.] John Lowe was admitted out of respect for his father, and " for the benefit of his children," much as the son of a member of one of the trades' incorporations would be admitted, to give him status as a burgess. John Lowe's son, James, again was admitted in 1677, for the same reason, though he was a lawyer in Edinburgh.

Peter Lowe died either in 1612, the date on his tombstone in the cathedral churchyard, or between that date and 30th June, 1617, when the death is recorded in the index of Paris surgeons. His widow afterwards married Walter Stirling, and one of her descendants founded Stirling's Library in the city. [Life, p. 30.] In 1834 the Faculty purchased Peter Lowe's tomb, and it remains in their possession.

The first hall of the Faculty stood in Trongate, immediately to the west of the Tron Kirk, till 1791, when it was removed to St. Enoch Square. It now occupies a stately mansion in the higher part of St. Vincent Street.

Though Lowe's collaborator in establishing the Faculty is named "Professor" Robert Hamilton, there does not appear to have been any occupant of such a post in the University of Glasgow till 1637, when Dr. Robert Mayne was transferred from Arts to Medicine there, with a salary of 400 merks Scots (£22). Five years later a Commission of the General Assembly, visiting the city, declared "that a professor of medicine was not necessar in all tyme cumming, but Dr. Mayne may continue during his tyme." In 1646 he died, and no further appointment was made till 1714, when the Chair was revived by the University and endowed by Queen Anne. In the meantime surgery was taught in Glasgow by the apprenticeship system, the apprentice paying a fee of £50, being indentured for five, years, and finally submitting himself to an examination by the Faculty. Physicians had to produce a certificate from a famous University where medicine was taught. The nearest was London, but most Scottish students went to the continent, to Leyden, Utrecht, Rheims, or Paris.

In 1602 it was "statute and ordained" that barbers, being "a pendicle of Chirurgerie," should be admitted at certain fees; but they were strictly enjoined not to meddle with anything beyond their own province, namely, the dressing of simple wounds, bleeding, tooth-drawing, and the like, these operations being performed under the supervision of a physician or surgeon. [Weir's Origin and Early History of the Faculty, pp. 22, 23.]

By the charter of 1599 the Faculty had also the supervision of the dispensing of drugs, and along with Lowe and Hamilton appears the name of "William Spang, Apothecary." Spang was again and again paid by the city for medicines supplied to the poor, and his portrait hangs with those of Lowe and Hamilton in the Faculty Hall. In 1614 Gabriel Sydserf, "pothecar," was admitted a member of the Faculty, and for two centuries afterwards the Faculty alone granted licences for the practice of pharmacy. [Origin and Early History, p. 23.]


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