Royal Public Dispensary of Edinburgh

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Coordinates: 55°56′56″N 3°11′24″W / 55.949°N 3.190°W / 55.949; -3.190The Public Dispensary of Edinburgh (1776-1964) is regarded as the first free-of-charge hospital in Scotland, although there is an unsubstantiated reference to one in Dundee in 1735.[1] It gave rise to both the first Department of General Practice and, in 1963, the first Chair of General Practice in the world, both at the University of Edinburgh.[2]


Edinburgh has a history of providing free medical care to the poor. In first meeting of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, in 1681, the Fellows drew up a scheme to provide free medical care for the poor of Edinburgh. At the end of the seventeenth century, Scotland was one of the poorest nations in Europe although Edinburgh was its richest town.[citation needed] The RCPE designated two Fellows per year to provide medical care to the city’s poor, fore running the Dispensary.

By the eighteenth century, Edinburgh remained overcrowded, disease-ridden, and an overflowing with the poor. In 1705, the Fellows at the RCPE unanimously agreed to continue providing medical aid for the poor by two Fellows per year at their new premises in Fountain Close. This "Dispensary" service continued at Fountain Close until 1729 when it transferred to the new "Physicians’ Hospital or Infirmary for the Sick and Poor."[3]

1776 foundation[edit]

A Dispensary for the Infant Poor had already been established in London in 1769, although it did not survive, and the idea expanded. By 1776, Dispensaries had been established across England. Edinburgh's public dispensary was founded in 1776 by Andrew Duncan and provided the impoverished in the city with free medical advice. The Dispensary was established and financed as a public charity from the beginning and was an extension of Duncan’s teaching program. Patients attending the Dispensary received free medicines and advice and in return agreed to be demonstrations in Duncan’s classes.[3]

In June 1815, William Pulteney Alison and other Fellows of the RCPE founded another public dispensary in Edinburgh’s New Town. This was met with opposition by the Royal Public Dispensary, but Alison felt a second dispensary was justified to meet the demands of the city’s poor. The Royal Dispensary was only open two days a week and had no established system for home visiting.[3]

The Royal Dispensary received a royal charter on 13 January 1818, becoming the Royal Public Dispensary of Edinburgh.[2]


  1. ^ "Records of the Royal Public Dispensary of Edinburgh". Edinburgh University Library Special Collections. Retrieved 14 February 2017. 
  2. ^ a b Thomson, Donald M (1983). "General practice and the Edinburgh Medical School: 200 years of teaching, care and research". Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners. 34 (701): 9–12. PMC 1959640Freely accessible. PMID 6363687. 
  3. ^ a b c McCrae, Morrice (2007). Physicians and Society: A History of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Birlinn Ltd.