The First Two Hundred Years
In 1692, Robert Sibbald, Edinburgh's first Professor of
Medicine, presented to the College a collection of Natural
History specimens gathered by himself and his close friend,
Andrew Balfour. The collection was considered too valuable
in its extensive range of specimens to be hidden away and so
was given a permanent display area in what is now known as
the 'Old College'.
Successive Professors, whilst acting as curators of the
collection, set about changing the specimens in a fashion
that suited their own requirements. Each Professor claiming
that the specimens left to him were useless and moth eaten
and that the collection would have to be newly begun to be
of any value. This process of discarding specimens happened
in 1779, when John Walker took over the Chair of Natural
History from Robert Ramsey and again in 1804 when Robert
Jameson succeeded Walker.
In 1812, the collection that Jameson had begun to amass
was given the title, 'Royal Museum of the University', and
moved to rooms in the then newly built University
Quadrangle. These rooms are currently occupied by the Talbot
Rice Art Centre.
Jameson died in 1854, but not before having arranged that
the collection, then numbering some 74,000 specimens, was to be
housed in a new National Museum. This was built next
door to the University and governed by a separate 'museum'
authority to which the Professor of Natural History would be
responsible. This museum was first known as the Museum of
Science and Art, then later as the Royal Scottish Museum.
It became apparent after Jameson's death that the Museum
and the University authorities were not to be the best of
friends. The reasons for this were twofold. First, although
the collection was housed in the museum it had been agreed
that specimens could be borrowed for teaching. With
specimens constantly on loan the museum became a nightmare
to co-ordinate. Second, the museum authorities felt that the
Professors were neglecting their keepership duties in favour
of pursuing their own scientific research.
Sir Charles Wyville Thomson had only been Professor for
two years (1870-72) before he left Edinburgh to sail with
the famous 'Challenger' expedition. This last straw broke
the back of the museum authorities who went on to appoint
their own Keeper to the collection and denied the University
access to the specimens. Once again, the University had to
set about acquiring a new collection for itself.