Body Snatchers to Lifesavers

Thursday, 06 October 2016

Suttie Conference Room

Tara Womersley, Journalist and Medical Student

"Body Snatchers to Lifesavers:  Three Centuries of Medicine in Edinburgh"

Tara Womersley has worked as a journalist for The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Times and is a former health correspondent for The Scotsman.  Her time as a journalist has seen her cover events as diverse as Madonna’s wedding to Guy Ritchie, the first foot and mouth cull, and reaction to the Lockerbie bombing verdict.  While working as a health correspondent, she interviewed numerous politicians including the then Shadow Health Minister, now SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon.  Tara also spent nearly two years in Australia working for an overseas aid agency, during which time she handled the media response to the Asia Tsunami and was involved in coordinating the media launch for Australia's Make Poverty History Campaign.  She is co-author of ‘Body snatchers to Lifesavers’, which details 300 years of medical history in Edinburgh.  The idea for the book came about while working in press and public relations for the University of Edinburgh’s College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine.  The book has featured in the Scottish bestseller lists and Tara has spoken at numerous events including the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Scottish History Festival and at the National Library of Scotland.  Now, no longer content with purely writing about health, she has embarked on a career change to join the medical profession. She is currently a fourth-year MBChB student at the University of Aberdeen.


Note of meeting held on 6th October 2016

The President opened the new session before a good-sized audience in the Suttie Conference Room, the Society Hall still being in the midst of renovations. She began by acknowledging the efforts of her predecessor in post.

She announced the names of 4 new members over the summer. She stressed the importance of ongoing efforts by all to recruit further members to the Society. The acceptance of Honorary membership by Mr Malcolm Wright, Chief Executive Officer, NHS Grampian, was noted and the forthcoming Electives Evening (20thOct), Founders’ Dinner (29thOct), Burns Supper (20thJan) and James Petrie Memorial lecture which is to be given by Professor Stuart Ralston (29thMarch).

She then presented a cheque for £800 to each of the two charities chosen to receive the proceeds of the 2016 Famous for Five Minutes Cabaret Concert. Katie Watters accepted the donation on behalf of the local Befriend a Child charity describing its role in one to one support by a volunteer befriender of children aged 4 – 18 who are living in difficult home circumstances. Roberta Eunson then accepted the second cheque on behalf of Home Start Aberdeen, a UK affiliated group with around 100 volunteers who visit and work to support families having a wide variety of problem s over periods of 6 - 80 weeks. Both recipients expressed their gratitude for having been considered as beneficiaries by the Society. The President advised the company of the intention to hold a similar event on 2017 and so to consider participating as performers or supporters.

The main speaker for the evening, Ms Tara Womersley, Journalist, Author and 4thYear Medical Student in the University of Aberdeen then talked on ‘Bodysnatchers to Lifesavers: Three Centuries of Medicine in Edinburgh’. She explained that the talk was based on a book she had written with Professor Dorothy Crawford, Vice Principal at Edinburgh University with responsibility for Public Engagement. The book is a collection of the many tales of medical events, discoveries and developments which have occurred in and around Edinburgh since the early 18thcentury.

Ms Womersley graciously began by reminding us that the University of Aberdeen was first in the United Kingdom to have a Mediciner (Professor of Medicine) – appointed in 1497 – and mentioned some North-East ‘medical heroes’ well known to our Society including Ogston, Manson, Macleod, Mallard. She then began her Edinburgh narrative by describing the ‘Monro’ dynasty whereby three generations of Professors of Anatomy were a father, son and grandson, Alexander Monro I, II and III. This covered the period 1720-1848, with Monro III incidentally being credited with having been so boring a teacher as to put his student Charles Darwin off of the pursuit of a career in medicine. The notorious Edinburgh duo of Burke and Hare featured around the same time. They did not, however, deal with Monro but rather with Knox to whom they supplied the bodies for anatomical dissection of their 15 murder victims in 1827/28 for sums of £7-£17. Hare turned King’s evidence and hence was spared the gallows, unlike Burke who was hanged in 1829 – and whose skeleton still hangs today in Edinburgh University. (Reference was made also to the Aberdeen riots in 1831 after Andrew Moir, Professor of Anatomy, was accused of involvement of bodysnatching prior to the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832 to regulate the supply of cadavers for dissection).

The talk then moved on to the subject of women at medical school beginning with the extraordinary tale of James Bray who studied Medicine in Edinburgh  graduating in 1812, had a successful career as a military doctor and was apparently found to be female when laid out after death. An additional clue to this protracted masquerade was given by the additional story that Barry had killed an opponent in a duel, occasioned in response to the accusation that Barry had a squeaky voice!

It was not until she studied at Edinburgh 1869-72, that Sophia Jex-Blake was the first female medical student accepted as such. Even then there was, during her studies, great debate about whether she would actually be allowed to graduate. As late as 1871, the University Senate passed a resolution that medical education was for men only. Ms Womersley reminded the audience that Aberdeen’s first female medical student, Myra McKenzie, graduated in 1896.

James Young Simpson, Edinburgh obstetrician and pioneer of the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic agent in the late 1840s, was said to have been a great supporter of women in medicine. The advent of general anaesthesia greatly altered the scope and potential for operative surgery as did another Edinburgh development – Joseph Lister’s use of the antiseptic carbolic acid spray in the operating theatre. This was introduced to Aberdeen by Alexander Ogston (shortly after his appointment as Junior Surgeon in 1870).

Moving ahead to World War II, the audience were told how a Polish medical school was established within Edinburgh University to allow Polish medical students, displaced by the war, to continue and complete their medical studies. The school operated until the late 1940s and recently celebrated the 75thanniversary of its inception.

The catalogue of Edinburgh advances proceeded over Michael Woodruff’s first UK Kidney Transplant, John Crofton’s use of combination drug therapy for tuberculosis and Ken Murray’s development of the first vaccine against Hepatitis B.

It concluded with the work at the Roslin Institute and Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal, allegedly named in reference to a well-known (and well-endowed!) country and western singer, having been created, after all, from udder cells. Dolly’s existence, while the only success in 300 attempts at cloning in that series of experiments, established the principle that differentiated cells can be reprogrammed. Dolly was announced to the world in 1997; she subsequently died at the age of 6 years and her remains have been preserved at the National Museum of Scotland.

There then followed a question and answer session during which members of the audience contributed that the erstwhile women’s dissection room is still discernible in Edinburgh University, that Matthews-Duncan who was one of Simpson’s obstetrician allies who experimented with chloroform was an Aberdeen medical graduate and pioneering worker on gestational diabetes, and that Ogston’s carbolic spray is on display under the spiral staircase in the foyer of the Suttie Building.

The President thanked the speaker and closed the meeting with a reminder that the next presentation on her programme will be given by Dr Martin Pucci on Thursday 3rd November.

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