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A history: How the Cowgate trained hundreds of doctors for work overseas

Published 10 Nov 2016

Not just a backpacker’s haunt - How a dispensary in the Cowgate trained hundreds of doctors for work in over 49 countries.

In the 1800s, being poor in Edinburgh meant having little or no access to healthcare. That was until one of the founders of EMMS International, Dr Peter Handyside, set out to change that. Initially visiting deprived families in their homes, in 1853 he opened a free clinic and dispensary in the Cowgate, which at the time was a poor, overcrowded slum area.

The cowgate
The small, drab Dispensary premises were inadequate for the expanding work and by May 1874 it was decided to move. The new building at no. 39 Cowgate, adjacent to the Magdalen Chapel, required considerable renovation work. 

The appeal for the work attracted some high profile patrons, including HRH the Princess Louise. The archives include a wonderful account of the fundraising bazaar she helped organise, which attracted some unusual donations, including “a gorgeous Delhi coat”, and "exquisite ivory articles from the Maharajah of Travancore". The bazaar also showed off various innovations such as Mr Bell’s telephone, and for many this was their “first acquaintance with this remarkable instrument”.

On January 25th 1878 the Livingstone Medical Missionary Memorial Dispensary was officially opened. Designed by Edinburgh architect Mr R. P. Raeburn, the building cost around £10,000. A memorial stone dedicated to David Livingstone, a former corresponding member of EMMS, was laid at a ceremony by his father in law, the Reverend Robert Moffat, on 9th June 1877.

The Dispensary and Training Institution was the first medical mission dispensary of its kind in the UK and saw the start of the EMMS student training work. 

Work at the Livingstone Missionary Memorial Dispensary expanded rapidly. In 1878 the building could accommodate 150 patients, and by 1903 the numbers had doubled. This provided vital experience for young medical students preparing for missionary service overseas. Over 400 students passed through those doors, learning how to provide medical, spiritual and social help to their patients. 

As well as clinics, activities at the dispensary included outdoor services, prayer meetings, Saturday music nights, evening classes, dressmaking lessons, a library, a savings bank and regular lectures. A Young Men’s Association also met there for "boxing classes delivered by a sergeant", an intriguingly titled “hare and hounds” club, and a music band.

The Dispensary involved many leading medics of that time, including Dr Robert Liddell - brother to the famous Olympic athlete Eric; Dr Isabella Bird – who was renowned for her writings as a great explorer.; and Sir James Young Simpson - the first to demonstrate the anaesthetic properties of chloroform on humans.

The institution continued to train medics for overseas medical mission until 1952, when it was sold to the University of Edinburgh. The premises were later used as a GP Practice and by the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service. Sold again in 2000, it’s now a popular Backpackers’ Hostel. Next time you pass the hostel on the Cowgate, reflect on the inspirational work that took place there in the past. In its time, 400 doctors were trained and sent out to work in local mission hospitals in 49 countries including Syria, Israel, Ireland and China.

Part of the heritage of this work still continues today with the Student Elective Bursary scheme EMMS International now manages, which sponsors student doctors, nurses and other health professionals to do placements at mission hospitals all over the world.