The Plymouth Medical Society, founded in 1794, pre-dates the beginning of any systematic effort to collect the most up to date medical evidence of the day
Founded 1794, it is the 7th oldest medical society in the UK and still active. The oldest medical society was founded in Edinburgh in 1737, and Dr. Robert Butler Remmet, first President of the Plymouth Medical Society, had been a member of this. The Society’s members met “on the evening of the Friday nearest the full moon”, (as recorded in the PMS Rule Book). This was to ensure that the moon would provide enough light for the doctors to travel to their meetings at local inns or houses, safe from footpads.
The Society predated the British Medical Association and any medical journals, and provided a vital arena for debate and the development of medical expertise within the South West. The original members of the Society collected contemporary works related to medicine, and the books were passed between members so that topics could be discussed at their meetings. The PMS thus operated as a learned society, acting as a form of postgraduate education.
The Historic Collection includes archives and books dating back to the 17th century and provides an important historical, cultural and scholarly resource. Advice given by the Wellcome Trust is that the major strength of this collection is its context and that the books, photographs, biographies and minutes should be taken as a whole in order to appreciate its significance as a historic account of the development of medicine in the South West.
The bulk of the Historic Collection consists of the Society’s library of printed volumes. These are largely from the early C19th, although the Collection includes earlier volumes, several even predating the Society itself, having been printed at the end of the C17th. These works span a great range of themes and formats, and include a wealth of medical texts, technical diagrams, research findings and anatomical plates. Created in a time before today’s imaging technologies, many of these plates would have been originally drawn directly from observation, and are not only historically and medically valuable, but are often artistically fascinating.
There are also some early medical journals including the precursors of the British Medical Journal.
The Collection includes the minutes of local medical groups, biographies of local medical practitioners, the Society library’s administrative records, photographs and hand written notes relating to cases,
One of the most exciting items, the John Hunter lecture notes, has now been reunited with the rest of the Collection having been on loan to the Royal College of Surgeons library in London. This volume contains around 450 pages of copperplate notes taken from the lectures of John Hunter by his student John Clarke, a local midwife, and signed by Hunter. Hunter is considered as one of the founding fathers of modern day surgery, and this volume is of national significance as many of Hunters own notes were destroyed after his death.
Much of this archival material has been digitised to make it available through this site and to preserve the originals.
The Collection has been stored in various locations over the last two hundred years depending on the base of the Plymouth Medical Society at the time. During the blitz, it was held in Beaumont house where some losses were suffered. It then moved to a base in Plympton where further losses were sustained due to damp problems. In 1880, the Collection had become so vast that books of public interest were given to the public library. Plymouth City Library still holds a small number of public health records and reports from this time.
In the mid 1900’s the collection moved to North Friary House, Greenbank, where the postgraduate medical centre was at that time. When the new postgraduate centre at Derriford Hospital opened the Collection moved into its basement, and remained there until Autumn 2006, when the President Mr Denis Wilkins secured its movement to a safer environment in Derriford Hospital Staff Library.
In the early 1990s a small fraction of the Collection’s more valuable books were sold off in order to pay for conservation work to the remainder of the collection.
Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Collection is now kept in secure storage at the Discovery Library, Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust, Derriford Hospital, Plymouth, although there is also a permanent secure display area within the library itself.