New Roads & Medicines in Scotland

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The Age of New Roads and Medicines in Scotland

By the middle of the 18th century, Scotland was still one of the most remote and backward countries in Europe.

Its people were poor, its medical treatments primitive, and its road system so dreadful that most journeys of any length continued to be made by sea.

However, in the space of a new decades - and thanks to the genius of Scottish scientists, engineers and inventors - things dramatically changed and Scotland became one of the most medically and scientifically advanced nations on Earth.

One of the main reasons for the country's sudden advancement was that the country had an obsession with education. Schools had boomed, the traditional Scottish universities had become centres of excellence in learning, and the Enlightenment had encouraged Scots to develop creatively and intellectually.

One of the main disciplines to benefit from this sense of curiosity was medicine. At Edinburgh's medical school in particular, students were encouraged to think for themselves and to take a scientific approach to their work.

Soon men of genius started to emerge. Robert Sibbald, who came from Fife, encouraged the study of botany and in 1681 founded the College of Physicians in Edinburgh.

Anatomy was also a subject which was very carefully studied. One of the leading lights in the subject was the brilliant Alexander Monro, who was appointed Professor at Edinburgh University in 1719 when he was just 22.

He enthused his students, published works on subjects such as the brain, eye, ear and nervous system which became world famous and helped to establish Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Monro's family, from his father to his grandson, all studied medicine and were important figures in the field of anatomy for more than a century.

On the other side of the country, the Hunter brothers of East Kilbride were also massively influential. William Hunter was an obstetrician; his brother John was an anatomist. John served in the army, where he became an expert in dealing with gunshot wounds.

He was also an inveterate collector, and during the course of his life amassed more than 13,000 anatomical samples and revolutionised military surgery. His brother William founded a school of anatomy, improved teaching techniques and contributed massively to the study of gynaecology.

Scots turned out to be particular geniuses in the field of surgery. James Syme of Edinburgh was a pioneer who was never afraid to take risks in using new techniques, and advanced his profession enormously as a result.

On one occasion, he removed a 15 inch long tumour from the mouth of a patient. Other surgeons had decided that the condition was inoperable, but Syme was prepared to have a go. The operation was a complete success and the man went on to make a full recovery.

However, there remained two major problems with carrying out surgery at the time: the lack of anaesthetics and the risk of infection. Here, too, however, Scots excelled. In 1846, the surgeon Robert Liston from West Lothian was the first person in Britain to use ether as an anaesthetic.

His contemporary James Young Simpson - once again, a graduate of Edinburgh Medical School - carried experiments with anaesthesia further, and in 1847 began the experimental work which was to lead to the discovery of chloroform.

One of the most brilliant medical men of all, however, was Joseph Lister, an Englishman who spent most of his professional life working north of the border.

Lister came to Edinburgh in 1853, and became Professor of Surgery at Glasgow University in 1860. He was fascinated by the prevention of infection, and carried out experiments in which he showed that carbolic acid helped to solve problems of infection in wounds.

Lister later developed a special spray for disinfecting operating theatres during operations. It worked well and helped to further cement his reputation as one of the fathers of modern antiseptic medicine.

The Building of Roads in Scotland 

However, 18th and 19th century Scots exhibited their brilliance in more fields than medicine. They changed the country forever in another way - by opening up new transport routes which finally made journeys from one part of Scotland to another relatively easy.

The problem was acute. General Wade's 18th century roads had played an important role in making the Highlands more accessible, but they were not suitable for the heavy traffic of the new industrial age. Scotland's main highways were still little more than dirt tracks which turned to mud at the first sign of rain.

It was the Ayr-born inventor John Loudon McAdam who changed this. McAdam launched a number of experiments to find a better and more practical road surface, and eventually settled on the idea of laying down stone chips which were then compacted by traffic to form a hard and weather resistant surface.

McAdam's roads were quickly adopted not just in Scotland, but throughout Europe and the USA. They were so resilient that they survived into the era of the motor car, and can still be regarded as the forerunner of modern metalled surfaces.

Another Scot who revolutionised Scotland's transport system was the Dumfriesshire engineer Thomas Telford. Telford had no formal education, but proved himself to be a genius at big transport projects.

One of his greatest triumphs was the building of the Caledonian Canal which linked Inverness, via Loch ness and the Great Glen, to the West Coast and saved shipping from having to undertake the perilous journey around the northern tip of Scotland.

He is still best remembered, however, for his roads and bridges. Telford built nearly 1000 miles of roads in Scotland in just 20 years, including the main route from Glasgow to Carlisle.

Telford was also an expert at building structures to support and complement the country's road network. Many of the best examples of these are in the rest of Britain - his Menai Bridge, for example, still links Anglesey to the Welsh mainland - but he also built well over 100 bridges in Scotland, including the Dean Bridge in Edinburgh which made travel to the coast far easier, and the bridge over the River Tay at Dunkeld.

Most of Scotland's engineers, inventors and men of medicine took full advantage of the opportunities the union offered them for advancement in England. Many of them, like Telford, saw their work as helping to cement the relationship between the two countries.

Some of the most brilliant Scots went south to seek fame and fortune and for the most part did not return. John Rennie from East Lothian, for instance, worked with fellow Scot James Watt in Birmingham and became Britain's leading consulting engineer.

Rennie's contribution to English life was almost incalculable. He massively improved traffic flow in London by building the Southwark and Waterloo bridges across the Thames, built the docks in London belonging to the East India Company, improved naval dockyards and drained the Fens of East Anglia.

To this day, Rennie is not a particularly well known historical figure in his native Scotland, but he was so revered by the English that he was buried amid the splendour of St Paul's Cathedral.

Today, parts of Scotland are still relatively remote, but most motorists can cover the length of the country in a few hours - certainly in a day, at most.

They can only do so, however, because of the far sightedness of men such as John Loudon McAdam and Thomas Telford - geniuses who, long before the advent of the aeroplane, the telephone and the Internet, found their own brilliant way of shrinking the world.

Meanwhile...

  • 1803 The USA buys land from the French - including New Orleans and Louisiana
  • 1815 The Americans defeat the British at the Battle of New Orleans
  • 1815 The first steam waraship, USS Fulton, is built in America
  • 1846 The sewing machine is patented by Elias Howe
  • 1846 BrighamYoung leads the Mormons from Illinois to Salt Lake City in Utah
  • 1847 The first gold rush begins in California
  • 1719 Daneil Defoe writes Robinson Crusoe
  • 1860 Scotland hosts the first Open Golf Championship

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