Reformation Science and Medicine in Edinburgh

Today it would seem that many people believe that science and Christianity are incompatible and that the Christian faith should be kept away from science, otherwise we will be brought back to the ‘Dark Ages’ of ignorance and superstition. Nothing could be further from the truth. Modern science was actually born out of great Christian movements of the past. Peter Harrison, Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, has written:

‘Strange as it may seem, the Bible played a positive role in the development of science…. Had it not been for the rise of the literal interpretation of the Bible and subsequent appropriation of biblical narratives by early modern scientists, modern science may not have arisen at all. In sum, the Bible and its literal interpretation have played a vital role in the development of western science.’ (‘The Bible and the rise of science’, Australasian Science 23(3):14 – 15, 2002)

Many scholars who have studied the link between science and the Christian faith have acknowledged that the Reformation in the 16th century was foundational to the rise of modern science, and that it was this movement that prepared the West for its huge scientific advances in the 19th century. Europe had been ruled by the religious dogma of the Papal system, and by the ‘scientific’ dogma of Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen, and other pagan philosophers. When the reformers began to challenge the Papal system by a thorough investigation of the Bible, they developed critical thinking. Aristotle and other philosophers were so bound up with the church of the time, that to investigate and critique the science of the time was thought by many to challenge the Papacy itself. As the reformers examined the Papacy they found glaring errors, which they sought to rectify and bring the church back to a more biblical footing; when they evaluated the ancient philosophers they also realised that people had taken on board their ‘science’ without actually testing it empirically. It was said about the reformers that there were two popes they wished to dethrone: the religious Pope in Rome and the scientific Pope, Aristotle.

Edinburgh, faith and science

In Edinburgh it was the reformers who founded Edinburgh University and encouraged the study of science. A quaint custom is played out every year in the McEwan Hall at the university graduation ceremony: Not only do the successful students receive their degree certificates, but they are also tapped on the head with a board carrying a black hat taken from the trousers of John Knox, the leader of the Reformation. This custom is displayed on the outside of the McEwan Hall, etched in stone.

The empirical method, born out of the Reformation, and developed by Sir Francis Bacon, paved the way for many inventions in the centuries to come. In the 19th century at least seven of the Presidents of the Royal Society here in Edinburgh were dedicated Christians. Many leading scientists connected with Edinburgh would eventually come out of this foundational movement with strong Christian convictions, such as John Napier, and later, Thomas Young, David Brewster, James Clerk Maxwell, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), James Young Simpson, and Joseph Lister. A few of the key Christians who developed science and medicine during the Scottish Reformation are shown below.

John Napier (1550-1617)

John Napier was an extraordinary genius. The Encyclopaedia says about him: ‘There is no British author [scientist] of the time except Napier whose name can be placed in the same rank as those of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, or Stevinus.’  Even David Hume, Edinburgh’s famous atheist, said he was one of the greatest men that Scotland had ever produced. And yet he is largely forgotten today.

Napier was a mathematician and astronomer who was born in Merchiston, Edinburgh, and who invented the logarithm in 1614. He also created what he called ‘Napier’s Bones’ which were rods of ivory with integers on them that were laid down side by side. From these rods mathematicians could calculate sums, quotients, products and square and cube roots. Both the logarithm and Napier’s Bones were the forerunners of our calculator and were essential for astronomers like Kepler to calculate with huge numbers. Edinburgh Napier University has been named after him.

Napier was a dedicated Christian who wrote one of the first biblical commentaries in Scotland called ‘A Plaine Discourse on the Whole Revelation of St John’.  His remains are buried in St Cuthbert’s Church just below Edinburgh Castle.


Memorial to John Napier in St Cuthbert’s Church,
Lothian Rd, Edinburgh. He is buried in the churchyard.
Photo by Paul James-Griffiths

Healthcare and Edinburgh

Outside Edinburgh, just off the A 68 near Fala, is Soutra Aisle. Although there is only a tiny part left today, there used to be a hospital called ‘The House of the Holy Trinity’, measuring about 700 square metres, which was the largest hospital in Scotland in the Middle Ages. This was run by the Augustinian monks and nobody was turned away who needed treatment. It was also used as an almshouse for the poor and needy and as a place of hospitality for the weary traveller. Originally founded during the reign of Malcolm IV in 1164, it continued until the 1460s, when the work was transferred to Edinburgh to a spot just below Calton Hill, overlooking the Royal Mile. It became known as Trinity College Hospital. The church pioneered medical care in Scotland and although this hospital no longer exists today, Edinburgh eventually became a world-famous centre for medicine.

The Reformation, Medicine and the Royal College of Surgeons

King James IV was a great patron of the arts, science and medicine in Edinburgh and in 1505 the Royal College of Surgeons was founded here as the Incorporation of Surgeon Barbers of Edinburgh, which made it the oldest medical fellowship in the world.

During the Reformation John Knox and other leaders in the church met together in Magdalen Chapel on the Cowgate, just off the Royal Mile. It was here that they developed a blueprint for a new Scotland, built on biblical Christian values. They championed such ideas as a democratic church government, which would have an impact on parliamentary democracy, and education and healthcare for everyone, not just for the wealthy and privileged. The impact that Christians had on medicine is shown by a prayer for surgeons ascribed to John Knox and contained later within the first minutes of the Barber Surgeons in 1581:

‘O eternal God, our loving and merciful Father – Jesus Christ – seeing we are convened to treat of those things which concern our calling, we beseech thee, O Lord, to be merciful to us, and give us grace to proceed therein without malice, grudge, or partiality: so that the things we do may tend to the Glory of God, and weal of our vocation, and the comfort of every member of it, through Jesus Christ our only Lord and Saviour. Amen.’ (From the Surgeons’ Hall Museum)


John Knox (1514-1572) the Scottish
Reformer who was a staunch
supporter of medicine. Photo by
Paul James-Griffiths, at ETS

Gilbert Primrose (c.1535-1616)

Gilbert Primrose, a devout Christian who was a key person in the Scottish Reformation, became the Royal Surgeon for King James VI (the king behind the ‘King James Bible’). In 1583 he raised surgery to the prime position amongst the guilds in Edinburgh, thereby giving it a prominent place in society. Peter Lowe, another keen Christian (a friend and later a Covenanter), went to Glasgow from this city and founded the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow in 1599.

(This short article has been based on Famous Lives in Edinburgh: Christians who Changed Scotland and the World, which is a booklet available for sale in the Christian Heritage Edinburgh webshop)

John Napier (1550-1617)

John Napier (1550-1617)

John Napier was an extraordinary genius. The Encyclopaedia says about him: ‘There is no British author [scientist] of the time except Napier whose name can be placed in the same rank as those of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, or Stevinus.’ Even David Hume, Edinburgh’s famous atheist, said he was one of the greatest men that Scotland had ever produced. And yet he is largely forgotten today.

Napier was a mathematician and astronomer who was born in Merchiston, Edinburgh, and who invented the logarithm in 1614. He also created what he called ‘Napier’s Bones’ which were rods of ivory with integers on them that were laid down side by side. From these rods mathematicians could calculate sums, quotients, products and square and cube roots. Both the logarithm and Napier’s Bones were the forerunners of our calculator and were essential for astronomers like Kepler to calculate with huge numbers. Edinburgh Napier University has been named after him.

Napier was a dedicated Christian who wrote one of the first biblical commentaries in Scotland called ‘A Plaine Discourse on the Whole Revelation of St John’. His remains are buried in St Cuthbert’s Church just below Edinburgh Castle.

The Reformation, Medicine and the Royal College of Surgeons

The Reformation, Medicine and the Royal College of Surgeons

King James IV was a great patron of the arts, science and medicine in Edinburgh and in 1505 the Royal College of Surgeons was founded here as the Incorporation of Surgeon Barbers of Edinburgh, which made it the oldest medical fellowship in the world.

During the Reformation John Knox and other leaders in the church met together in Magdalen Chapel on the Cowgate, just off the Royal Mile. It was here that they developed a blueprint for a new Scotland, built on biblical Christian values. They championed such ideas as a democratic government and education and healthcare for everyone, not just for the wealthy and privileged. The impact that Christians had on medicine is shown by a prayer for surgeons ascribed to John Knox and contained later within the first minutes of the Barber Surgeons in 1581:

‘O eternal God, our loving and merciful Father – Jesus Christ – seeing we are convened to treat of those things which concern our calling, we beseech thee, O Lord, to be merciful to us, and give us grace to proceed therein without malice, grudge, or partiality: so that the things we do may tend to the Glory of God, and weal of our vocation, and the comfort of every member of it, through Jesus Christ our only Lord and Saviour. Amen.’

From the Surgeons’ Hall Museum)

John Knox (1514-1572) the Scottish Reformer who was a staunch supporter of medicine. Photo by Hollie McIntosh, Free Church College, © 2010

Gilbert Primrose, a devout Christian who was a key person in the Scottish Reformation, became the Royal Surgeon for King James VI (the king behind the ‘King James Bible’). In 1583 he raised surgery to the prime position amongst the guilds in Edinburgh, thereby giving it a prominent place in society. Peter Lowe, another keen Christian (and later a Covenanter) went to Glasgow from this city and founded the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow in 1599.