Maister Peter Lowe - Our Founder and his Legacy

 

Click the images below to find out more about the life and legacy of Maister Peter Lowe, the founder of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.

Peter Lowe

Peter Lowe

16th Century Glasgow

16th Century Glasgow

Peter Lowe in Europe

Peter Lowe in Europe

Travels to England

Travels to England

Travels to England

Travels to England

Return to Glasgow

Return to Glasgow

The Charter of 1599

The Charter of 1599

Robert Hamilton

Robert Hamilton

William Spang

William Spang

First Meetings

First Meetings

New Buildings - The Trongate

New Buildings - The Trongate

New Buildings - St Enoch Square

New Buildings - St Enoch Square

New Buildings - St Vincent Street

New Buildings - St Vincent Street

New Names and the College Mace

New Names and the College Mace

In Memory of Peter Lowe

In Memory of Peter Lowe

The Tomb of Peter Lowe

The Tomb of Peter Lowe

  • Peter Lowe
  • 16th Century Glasgow
  • Peter Lowe in Europe
  • Travels to England
  • Travels to England
  • Return to Glasgow
  • The Charter of 1599
  • Robert Hamilton
  • William Spang
  • First Meetings
  • New Buildings - The Trongate
  • New Buildings - St Enoch Square
  • New Buildings - St Vincent Street
  • New Names and the College Mace
  • In Memory of Peter Lowe
  • The Tomb of Peter Lowe
  • Peter Lowe

    Portrait of Maister Peter Lowe (painted 1822, after an earlier work attributed to Daniel Mytens). (Acc. No. 2015/66)

    Peter Lowe’s year of birth is unknown. This was a time before Registrars of Birth, Death and Marriage. Records made in family bibles, churches or by councils are incomplete or lost. Such is the case with our founder. From his writings it seems he was born a year or two either side of 1550, almost certainly in Glasgow where his sister, Helen and brother, John lived in an era when few people travelled far.

  • 16th Century Glasgow

    The City of Glasgow in 1547, from 'Abstracts of protocols of the town clerks of Glasgow’ (Glasgow: Carson & Nicol, 1894-1900). (Reading Room DA 890.G5 GLA)

    In 1550 Glasgow was a small town of about 5,000 inhabitants, situated on the north bank of the Clyde, a shallow salmon river at that time. The Mercat Cross, at the heart of its busy commercial centre stood about three or four hundred yards north of the river. It was surrounded by tenements, many with shops or booths at ground level. They were mainly constructed of wood. Four main streets radiated from the cross. The longest of these led up a brae to the religious centre dominated by the Cathedral and Bishop’s Castle. 32 Prebendary Manses housed clergy who received their income from named Prebends such as Lanark but seldom visited them. Students of the University, founded in 1451 by Bishop Turnbull with the Pope’s authority, were there also. Initially taught in the Cathedral Chapter House, then in a building called “The Auld Pedagogy,” in Rotten Row across the High Street from the Cathedral before they moved down the brae to premises donated by the first Lord Hamilton.

  • Peter Lowe in Europe

    Conferie de St Come et St Damien. From L'Eglise Saint-Côme de Paris (1255-1836) et l'amphithéâtre d'anatomie de Saint-Cosme (1691)' by Henri Dauchez (Paris : A. Picard et fils, 1904). (Reproduced by permission of the Bibliothèque nationale de France)

    With no medical schools in Scotland, Peter Lowe went to France to become a doctor and surgeon. He wrote, “After full Deliberation I applied myself to the study of Chirurgerie…in the auncient citie of Paris, where the professors are learned, wise and grave men who are so useful to the weale publique.”

    In Paris he became a student at the ‘Confrerie de St Come et St Damien.’ Here in this church dedicated to twin Christian Martyrs, Cosmos and Damien, famed for the medical miracles attributed to them, surgery was taught formally with examinations. Lowe thus became a ‘Surgeon of the Long Robe’ as opposed to the ‘Surgeons of the Short Robe,’ or barber-surgeons, limited to minor surgery, venesection, bandaging of wounds and, oddly, acting as accoucheurs or male midwives.

    Lowe is next to be found during the siege of Paris in 1588-1589 as ‘Chirurgeon Maior’ to the Spanish Regiments defending the city on behalf of the catholic Guise faction associated with France’s King Henry III, against the protestant Huguenots led by Henry of Navarre. When the King was assassinated by a friar that August, it was discovered that he had chosen Navarre to be his successor.

    To become King Henry IV he had to adopt the catholic faith which he did readily, reputedly saying that ‘Paris was worth a mass.’

    Not one to waste an opportunity, Peter Lowe wrote that he had since that time followed “the King of France, my maister, in warrs, for six yeares.” In fact he became ‘Surgeon in Ordinary’ to Henry IV.

  • Travels to England

    Title page from 'An Easie, certaine, and perfect method, to cure and prevent the Spanish sicknes' by Peter Lowe (London: James Roberts, 1596). (Bookstore LOW)

    During his thirty years in France Lowe travelled to England on three occasions.

    In 1583 he met the secretary to the Earl of Lennox, Alexander Dickson, in London. Acting as spies they discovered the strength of England’s naval and military defences from Berwick to Dover, and even the names of the warships in harbour. This information, secreted in a casket, they then passed to the French Ambassador. Was it to prepare for an invasion? Who knows, for it was never acted on.

    1596 saw him publish in London his slim volume, An Easie, Certaine, and Perfect Method, to Cure and Prevent the Spanish Sicknes. i.e. syphilis. It was customary to blame another, preferably hostile, nation for the spread of the disease. The skin lesions vanished with his salves and medicines but, of course, the large vessels, brain and spinal cord were still slowly damaged.

  • Travels to England

    Title page from the first edition of 'The Whole Course of Chirurgerie' by Peter Lowe (London: Thomas Purfoot, 1597). (Bookstore LOW)

    His third visit to London was in 1597 for the publication of his major opus, The Whole Course of Chirurgerie. This was the first surgical textbook written in English. It is dedicated to “The MOST PUISSANT and mightie prince JAMES the sixte, by the grace of God, king of Scotland.” Further editions were published in 1612, 1634 and 1654. College owns one of the rare first editions known to survive.

  • Return to Glasgow

    Hand-coloured print of 'The Colledge of Glasgow', with the Blackfriars Church visible on the right. (Acc. No. 2015/229)

    Peter Lowe returned to a post reformation Glasgow in the spring of 1598. The Cathedral had been protected from damage by the mob’s religious fervour by the craftsmen, masons and carpenters who were proud of its architecture. In 1572 David Wemyss became the first protestant minister to preach there. The University was well established in Lord Hamilton’s premises on the east side of the High Street when Queen Mary granted it 13 acres of land behind that, which had belonged to the Dominican Friars, and included their chapel which became Blackfriars Kirk. Here were eventually built the substantial College Buildings with their impressive frontage onto the High Street where the University remained until moving to Gilmorehill in 1870.

    Peter Lowe soon became an active citizen of his native town whose population had increased to 7,000. He became the town’s paid surgeon. A Council Minute of 17th March 1598 records, “It is aggreit of new and contractit betwixt the town and Dr Low for 80 merkis money be year.”

    On 29th January 1599 he was admitted a Burgess and Freeman of the town, ‘without payment of a fee.’

    Although the date is unknown he must have married. On 26th May 1599 he bought a house. “James Lyonne, merchant, citizen, sold to Mr Peter Lowe, surgeon, and Grisill Pollart, spouses, a fore-tenement, heigh and laigh……on the west side of the street leading from the Metropolitan Church to the Mercat Cross.” It was a large property and is described in detail in the missive. Grisill bore him a son, John.

    Lowe appears to have become a member of the Trades House because his name is recorded as a representative witness in several transactions in the town’s minutes. He was acting as a well integrated and respected citizen.

  • The Charter of 1599

    Notarial copy (1804) of Faculty Charter given by James VI in 1599 to Peter Lowe. (RCPSG/1/8/10/1)

    The atrocious standard of medicine in Glasgow compared to the more civilised Paris must have concerned Peter Lowe from the outset, but he was not alone in a desire for improvement. A Kirk Session minute of 14th September 1598 reads, “The University, Ministers and Presbytery take cognition who are within the towne that pretend to have skill in medicine and hath not the same, that those who have skill be retained and others rejected.”

    A deputation went to the Town Council who met on 14th April 1599, and resolved that the Principal of the University, one of its Regents, the Master of the Grammar School, along with three Bailies and three Ministers should examine the town’s practitioners regarding their skills. There is no record of them acting or even convening.

    Lowe may have forestalled them by having already petitioned the king. In the second edition of his “Whole Course of Chirurgerie” he states, “It pleased the king to hear my complaints about certain abuses of our art.” He then recounts how this resulted in the Charter on which this College is founded.

    The Charter is dated, ‘The Penultimate Day of November 1599.’ Fortunately a Notarised Copy remains extant, because the original was lost in a welter of legal proceedings involving the University in the 19th Century.

  • Robert Hamilton

    Portrait of Robert Hamilton (Acc. No. 2015/65)

    The Charter is addressed, “To Maister Peter Lowe, our Chirurgiane, and Chief Chirurgiane to our dearest Son, the Prince, with the assistance of Mr Robert Hamiltone, professoure of medicine, and their successouris.” The prince referred to was James’ eldest son, Henry, who died aged 18 of ‘consumption.’

    After declaring its area of jurisdiction, which included most of the west of Scotland, the Charter details the powers granted, and the privileges bestowed. Studying the document the influence of Peter Lowe is obvious in its drafting.

    Essentially anyone professing any branch of the medical art in the town had to be examined and licensed. Physicians required “ane testimonial of ane famous university quhair medicine be taught,” and had to satisfy Robert Hamilton as to their professional ability. Incidentally physicians were expensive to consult, and only affordable by the well-to-do.

    “Every hurt, murdered, poisoned or anyone tane awa extraordinarily” had to be examined and the magistrates given a report.

  • William Spang

    Portrait of William Spang (Acc. No. 2015/67)

    William Spang who was a highly respected apothecary with a booth in the town was perhaps Lowe’s more important assistant. There were no general practitioners. People consulted the apothecary as they consult a dispensing chemist today. Adulteration and substitution of drugs was prevalent even then. Prescriptions often contained a mixture of mineral, animal, and herbal ingredients. Weights and measures were imprecise. A scruple equalled the weight of 20 grains of wheat. A ‘manipulus’ was as much as could be held in the hand. A ‘pugill’ was as much as one could take betwixt thumb and the two foremost fingers.

    No one could sell drugs unless inspected and approved by Spang, and only apothecaries could sell dangerous drugs such as poisons, arsenic or sublimate while being aware of the cost, possible harm and damage.

    The Charter was submitted to the Magistrates on 9th February 1600, and endorsed by them. Thereafter there was a hiatus in action because Peter Lowe was required to accompany the Earl of Lennox to the French Court on Ambassadorial Business.

    Lowe was still the town’s surgeon. At a meeting of the Bailies and Council on 18th June 1601, at the request of Lennox, they agreed to let Lowe accompany him “without loss of pay or prejudice to his contact until the next 11th November or whenever his lordship might return.”

  • First Meetings

    The first minute book of the Faculty, recording its meeting from 1602 to 1688 (RCPSG/1/1/1/1a)

    The first meeting of members took place in Blackfriar’s Kirk, before Sir George Elphinstoun of Blythswood, provost, and three Bailies on 3rd June 1602. This was mainly to obtain formal authority to enact the powers within the King’s Charter. The three founders were accompanied by Adam Fleming, Robert Allasone, Thomas Thomsone, John Lowe and John Hall as brethren who met again on the 17th and 23rd to discuss regulations for admission to membership, examinations candidates had to take, and fees to be paid on admission.

    For example, surgical apprentices were to be examined at the end of their 3rd year, their 5th, and finally their 7th year. At each exam the apprentice had to pay fees to the Faculty, the clerk, the officer, and the examiners, for whom he also had to provide a dinner.

    Initially there were 9 members. There should have been 10 because two more joined them but Thomas Thomsone had “most wrongously contemptosly disobeyed the rules” and was ejected. Members met in one another’s homes, coffee houses and churches. They had no specific title until the name ‘Faculty’ appeared about 1629, and about 30 years later ‘Faculty of Chirurgeons and Physitians,’ before the eventual transposition of those titles as used today.

  • New Buildings - The Trongate

    A mid-18th century view of the Trongate. The first Faculty Hall, opened in 1698, is believed to be the building next to the Tron Steeple (centre right).

    Increasing numbers required provision of a hall. In 1697 a building next to the Tron Steeple was purchased, demolished, and the first Faculty Hall built on the site and ready for entry within a year.

  • New Buildings - St Enoch Square

    The second Faculty Hall, in St Enoch's Square. It was demolished during the building of St Enoch's Station. (RCPSG/1/12/6/1-2)

    In 1791 a new, bigger Faculty Hall was built in St Enoch’s Square on the side where the St Enoch Centre now stands. Not only did this again become too small, members complained they were often delayed for meetings by dense carriage traffic and crowded pavements.

  • New Buildings - St Vincent Street

    The College today at 232-242 St Vincent Street

    In 1862, for our third move we purchased the house built in a developing St Vincent Street in 1820 for wealthy Glasgow merchant, Robert Blair. We are still here, but in the intervening years have bought the three houses nearest Blythswood Street in the terrace, and just recently 19 Blythswood Square.

  • New Names and the College Mace

    The College Mace, donated by James Walker Downie in 1910

    Over the years we have had two important changes to our name. In 1909 The use of the prefix ‘Royal’ was granted by King Edward VII. To commemorate this event a sterling silver gilt mace of similar proportion to that of the House of Commons was donated by James Walker Downie, a Nose and Throat Consultant.

    In 1962, to bring the institution into line with other similar bodies, it became, by Act of Parliament, ‘The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.’

    There are now over 13,000 Members and Fellows scattered throughout the globe. Our five Faculties are involved in postgraduate medical education and examination both here and abroad, giving practical help on occasion as required.

  • In Memory of Peter Lowe

    Laying a wreath at the tomb of Peter Lowe – President Colin MacKay on 5th December 1999 (RCPSG/12/4/812/3)

    Peter Lowe’s wife Grisill Pollart died on 22nd October 1603. He married for a second time on 9th August 1604. His wife was Helen Wemyss, the daughter of that first protestant minister to preach in the Cathedral. They had a daughter, Christian.

    Peter Lowe died on 15th August 1610. He is buried in the Cathedral’s grounds. There is an annual Founder’s Day Service in the Cathedral in December, after which the President and Council visit his grave, which is opposite the Cathedral’s west door, where we lay a wreath.

  • The Tomb of Peter Lowe

    The tomb of Peter Lowe

    His headstone is impressive and bears two short verses:

    Stay Passenger and Viow this stone
    For under it lyis such a one
    Who cuired many whill he lieved
    So gracious he noe man grieved
    Yea when his physicks force oft failed
    His pleasant purpose then prevailed
    For of his God he got the grace
    To live in mirth and die in peace
    Heavin his soul his corps this stone
    Sigh passinger and so begone

    Below this are another four lines:

    Ah me I gravell am and dust
    And to the grave descend I most
    O painted peice of living clay
    Man be not proud of thy short day

  • Peter Lowe
  • 16th Century Glasgow
  • Peter Lowe in Europe
  • Travels to England
  • Travels to England
  • Return to Glasgow
  • The Charter of 1599
  • Robert Hamilton
  • William Spang
  • First Meetings
  • New Buildings - The Trongate
  • New Buildings - St Enoch Square
  • New Buildings - St Vincent Street
  • New Names and the College Mace
  • In Memory of Peter Lowe
  • The Tomb of Peter Lowe

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