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Sculptures by Phyllis Bone

The First and Second Collections (1697-1876)

The Sibbald/Balfour Collection

Robert Sibbald The origin of the University's first Natural History Collection stems from 1697 when Robert Sibbald (Edinburgh's first Professor of Medicine) presented to the College a collection of natural history specimens gathered by himself and his recently deceased colleague and close friend, Andrew Balfour. The collection was considered too valuable and appealing in its extensive range of specimens to be hidden away and it was housed, therefore, in cases for permanent display in the original University buildings on the site of the present Old College. This display was one of the first museums in Britain having been created sixty years before the British Museum was established with the Sloane collection. The collection's reputation spread throughout Europe. Daniel Defoe wrote,

"It is a curious and noble museum ... containing some rarities that are not to be found either in those of the Royal Society at London or the Ashmolean at Oxford".

In 1767, Natural History became a subject separate from Medicine and Robert Ramsey was appointed to the newly created Professorship of Natural History. The title of Professor included taking on responsibility for the Balfour/Sibbald Collection. At this time the interests of the Professor of Natural History covered plants, animals and minerals. It was only later that the subjects relating to this chair became narrowed down to Zoology.

Ramsey's successor in 1779 was John Walker, who recorded that the Balfour/Sibbald collection had remained useless for many years, neglected and decaying. He related that,

"The greater part of it is mere rubbish... No animal preparations can be placed with safety in the room until they (specimens over run with moths and other insects) are thrown out".

Popular myth maintains that the cast out remains of the specimens helped to form the foundation grounding for Princes Street. This would not be the only time that the collection underwent severe re-assessment. Indeed, when Walker himself died the collection was again split up and much thrown away.

Old Princes Street c.1800