A Distinctly Scottish Surgeon? Uncovering Police Surgery in 19th Century Scotland

Writing for our quarterly membership magazine “voice”, our College’s Deputy Head of Engagement – Heritage, Ross McGregor reveals our recent work with the University of Glasgow to uncover the city’s criminal past.

The College Heritage team has recently been collaborating with Dr Cheryl McGeachan of the University of Glasgow’s School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, on a Carnegie Trust-funded Research Incentive Grant project. The project completed in May 2019. Cheryl works in the field of historical geography, and was initially drawn to our collection of casebooks and other archives recording William Macewen’s time as Glasgow police surgeon in the 1870s.

‘A Distinctly Scottish Surgeon’ undertook the first scoping project of its kind on police surgery in nineteenth century Scotland. In doing so, the work identified a distinctive Scottish dimension to the under-examined figure of the police surgeon and its uncharted histories and geographies. The precursor to the forensic medical officer, the police surgeon played a significant role in fusing medical and legal worlds during the nineteenth century, yet very little was previously known about its practice. Through in-depth archival research, the project has uncovered the unknown practices of the 19th century police surgeon in three key cities across Scotland using three pioneering Scottish surgeons as case study examples – Francis Ogston (Aberdeen), Henry Littlejohn (Edinburgh) and William Macewen (Glasgow).

Working with archive material from nine institutions in addition to the College’s collections, this project has developed a ground-breaking understanding of the key practices of Scottish police surgery and has begun to uncover the geographies of the practice in Scotland.

A range of archival materials used included personal notes and diaries by the selected police surgeons, court records, lecture notes, newspaper articles, postmortem reports, police records, letters, photographs and museum objects. Many of the sources used had never been examined in relation to the police surgeon and therefore this project has developed a new use for such collections.

This project has uncovered a set of previously unknown practices relating to the police surgeon in the nineteenth century. These practices have highlighted the mobility of the police surgeon and the variety of work that they undertook. Important connections have been made in relation to the practices of the police surgeon in relation to crime and the development of medical knowledge in the period, culminating in new histories of science emerging. Attention to unearthing criminal-medical histories has resulted in showing the potential of the police surgeon for uncovering new geographies of violence in urban space. Overall, the results from this project demonstrate the importance of the police surgeon for developing new criminal-medical historical geographies.

A key aspect of the project was to use the topic of the police surgeon to bring together different disciplines interested in investigating criminal-medical histories. This was achieved through the running of a networking workshop at the University of Glasgow in January 2019. This workshop brought together key figures in the history of medicine, historical geography, legal studies and collections managers from across Glasgow and Edinburgh to share reflections on developing the key findings from the project.

The project had a great deal of interest from both academic and public audiences that we did not necessarily expect. Due to this interest we were invited to attend a number of events and conferences to showcase the work in different formats. These included events, talks and presentations across the UK and Europe.

Given this project was running concurrently with the College’s Visualising Medical Heritage project, it was inevitable that the work would cross-over! An unexpected outcome of the project was our ability to experiment with the findings and produce digital resources, for example, an interactive map of police surgeon cases in 1870s Glasgow and a digital visualisation of one of Macewen’s cases based on his notes.

From the strength of the results we are keen to develop this work further, for example developing the work around the geographies of violence and the histories of forensic science. The project is a fantastic example of the amazing potential for original research and public engagement using the College’s unique collections.

You can find out more about the College’s heritage work on our dedicated website.


John Fellows

Public Affairs Manager

+44 (0) 141 221 6072




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