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Race, Empire and the Edinburgh Medical School

In 1976, the Royal Scottish Museum and the Scottish Society of the History of Medicine held a symposium and exhibition to commemorate the Edinburgh Medical School’s 250th anniversary. The published symposium proceedings, if an important contribution to Edinburgh Medical School historiography, were nonetheless celebratory in tone and narrowly focused; contributors, for example, said very little about the Medical School’s historical connections to enslavement, colonialism, or racial science, while its ‘global’ connections were limited to its ‘positive’ influence on North American medical schools.1

In 2026, the Edinburgh Medical School will celebrate its tercentenary. Inevitably, the University of Edinburgh will take the opportunity of the anniversary to celebrate an undoubtedly significant three-hundred years of medical education and research. It can be expected that the tercentenary will involve a packed programme highlighting and venerating the careers of historic Edinburgh staff and alumni—its great doctors and medical ‘worthies’—which, in all likelihood, will reproduce the same ‘heroic’ narratives of medicine adopted fifty years earlier.

With only two years left to plan and set the tone for such events, now is an important moment for historians of medicine, medical humanities scholars, and heritage sector workers to begin to take a leading role in shaping how the Edinburgh Medical School’s history is re-told more critically, honestly, and inclusively.

This day and a half conference (online and in-person) invites participants to share research that investigates the Edinburgh Medical School’s history from the perspectives of race and empire, or that examines histories of race, empire, and medicine through case studies involving historic Edinburgh professors, students, and alumni. The conference aims to draw the Edinburgh Medical School under the analytic lens of racial, imperial, and global history, and into conversation with the wider field of decolonial studies that has done much to critique the racist and anti-Black epistemologies, practices, and climates of ‘Western’ medicine.

Conference participants are invited to present 20-min papers on any topic relating to race, empire and Edinburgh Medical School professors, students, or alumni. Some possible topics include:

  • Colonial and tropical medicine
  • Medical ‘care’ of enslaved people on slaving vessels, plantations, or other sites of enslavement
  • Scientific observations of and medical experimentations on enslaved, racialised, and/or colonised people
  • Extraction of medical/healing knowledge from enslaved, racialised, and/or colonised people
  • Botany and colonial bioprospecting
  • The Anatomical Collections
  • Phrenology
  • Medical missions
  • Military surgery
  • Racial science
  • Resistance to racism and anti-Blackness in ‘Western’ medicine
  • Edinburgh medical students or educators of African, Caribbean, or Asian heritage

While this conference focuses on the Edinburgh Medical School, papers on race, empire, and other medical schools or healthcare institutions in the UK or abroad, or other related topics, will also be considered. Especially welcome are proposals from Black, Asian, and ethnic minority scholars. To submit a proposal, send your name, institutional affiliation, a short bio, and a 200-word abstract to sbuck@ed.ac.uk before 12pm on 26 February 2024. Most panels will be in-person, though hybrid and/or all-online sessions will be possible. Please indicate in your proposal whether you would prefer to attend in-person or online. The conference will be free to attend. A limited number of bursaries to contribute to travel expenses within the UK will be available, with preference given to PGRs, ECRs, the precariously employed, and those with care responsibilities.

To find out more about the conference, please visit this page.

 ‘Dissecting Room’, c. early 20th century, EUA GD63 © University of Edinburgh Library