Author Archives: Archivists

The University benefits from Christmas

Robert Irvine (1839-1902) FRSE

Robert Irvine (1839-1902) FRSE. Endowed the Chair of Bacteriology.

A recent enquiry about a benefactor has thrown up an interesting set of connections within and beyond the University.

The son of Robert Irvine, manager of The Scotsman newspaper, Robert Irvine was born in Edinburgh in 1839.  By 1871 he was married to Margaret Sclater and living in a large house in Baltic Street, Leith, the manager of a chemical works.  By 1891 he was the owner of Caroline Park at Granton.  This included, the marine station, laboratories and warehouse as well as his own home.  He was now a Chemical Manufacturer. He was a friend of oceanographer, Sir John Murray (1841-1915), assistant on the Challenger Expedition and founder of the Marine Station at Granton, either on or adjacent to Irvine’s property (accounts differ).

Murray was also involved in establishing the Christmas Island Phosphate Company.  One of the investors was Irvine and it was part of the fortune realised by this lucrative venture that was bequeathed to the University of Edinburgh.  This established the Chair in Bacteriology and the first Professor was James Ritchie (1864-1923), MA, BSc, MD, FRCPE.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1886, his proposers including Sir John Murray, and David Mather Masson, Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (English Literature).  The winner of the Neill Prize 1892-5, he also served as Councillor 1899-1902.

Irvine died in 1902 at his home at Granton, predeceased by his wife.  They had no children.

Irvine appears in our collections not only as a benefactor to the University but also in the records of the Granton Marine Station, which suggest his was role in it was quite hands-on.  The station closed shortly after Irvine’s death by which time most of the work had already moved to the west coast (for further information, see

Grant Buttars, Deputy University Archivist

New acquisition: Further papers of Alexander Craig Aitken

aitken1The mathematician, statistician, writer, composer and musician, Alexander Craig Aitken, was born in Dunedin, New Zealand on 1 April 1895. He was of Scottish descent. He attended Otago Boys’ High School from 1908 to 1912. On winning a university scholarship in 1912 he went on to study at the University of Otago in 1913, enrolling in Mathematics, French and Latin. Studies were cut short by the 1914-1918 War however and he enlisted in 1915 serving with the Otago Infantry. Aitken saw action in Gallipoli and Egypt, and he was wounded during the Battle of the Somme. After his hospitalisation, he returned to New Zealand in 1917.

On the completion of his studies in 1920, Aitken became a school-teacher at Otago Boys’ High School and the same year he married Winifred Betts the first lecturer in Botany at the University of Otago where he also did some tutoring. Then, encouraged by a professor of mathematics at the University, he gained a postgraduate scholarship which brought him to Edinburgh University in 1923. His thesis on statistics gained him the degree of D.Sc. in 1925 when he also joined the University staff as a lecturer in Statistics and Mathematical Economics. In 1937 he was promoted to Reader, and in 1946 was appointed to the Chair of Mathematics.

Aitken’s publications include: jointly with H. W. Turnbull, The theory of canonical matrices (1932); with D. E. Rutherford, a series of Mathematical Texts; wartime experiences in Gallipoli to the Somme: Recollections of a New Zealand infantryman (1963); and, posthumously To catch the spirit. The memoir of A.C. Aitken with a biographical introduction by P.C. Fenton (1995). He made many important contributions to the many fields of his subject, particularly in the theory of Matrix Algebra and its application to various branches of mathematics. In his time, Professor Aitken was one of the fastest mathematical calculators in the world.

While at school, Aitken had learned to play the violin, and later on in life he played both the violin and viola and composed pieces for performance by university groups.  He died in Edinburgh on 3 November 1967.

Shortly before Christmas we acquired a further tranche of Aitken’s papers.  These include a number of original mathematical manuscripts, correspondence, legal documents, offprints, publications and photographs.  Amongst these is a review by Aitken of Sara Turning’s “Alan Turing”.


At the moment we still have to look through the collection, box it up and create a basic handlist.  Once this is done it will be available for consultation.

Clerk Ranken

Clerk Ranken was born in 1880, Edinburgh.  Educated at George Heriot’s School, he then went to Edinburgh University, graduating BSc (Pure Science) in 1902, then DSc in 1907. He was recipient of both the Hope Prize and Mackay Smith Scholarships. At the age of only 21 he read a paper before the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

As a Carnegie Fellow, he worked with Georg Bredig at Heidelberg University.  On his return from Germany he became lecturer in Chemistry at the Heriot-Watt College, Edinburgh, and later Assistant Professor in Chemistry. In 1917 he left academia to take up as post with Messrs. T. & J. Bernard, Ltd., the Edinburgh brewers.

We recently became aware, thanks to Dr. Andrew Alexander (Chemistry) that two photographs we had labelled as “Dr. Rubens?” are actually of Ranken and taken (most likely) during his student days.

Chemistry students c1905

Chemistry students c1905

The first is a group photograph and we assume it is a group of Chemistry students.  The doorway has been identified as one of those leading into the Reid Concert Hall (adjacent to the Medical School, where Chemistry was based). Clerk Ranken is in the front row, furthest left.

Clerk Ranken in Chemistry laboratory

Clerk Ranken in Chemistry laboratory

The second shows Ranken in a laboratory.  In 1903 the number of Chemistry laboratories had been increased and, although we have yet to place this specifically, it is of a similar style to laboratories known to be known in the Medical School building.

Clerk Ranken died in May 1936.  An obituary can be found in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 42, Issue 4.

1906 female medical graduates

One of our earliest group photographs of female medical graduates depicts the MBChB class of 1906.  It shows 13 women and bears their signatures.

Female MBChB graduates 1906

Female MBChB graduates 1906

Alice Meredith BURN, New Zealand
Agnes Marshall COWAN, Scotland
Jessie Handyside GELLATLY, Scotland
M Deborah HANCOCK / Marjorie DUAKE-COHEN *
Meher Ardeshir Dadabhai NAHOROJI, India
Agnes Ellen PORTER, Scotland
Edith Gertrude PYCROFT, England
Mabel Lida RAMSAY, England
Elsie Blair SAUNDERS, England
Nettie Bell TURNBULL, Scotland
Annie Davidson URQUHART, England
Ethel WISEMAN, England

There was a further female MBChB graduate that year; Isabel HILL, Scotland, graduated in absentia.

* The signature for the student front row, furthest left, is given as M. Deborah Hancock (it may say Harcourt).  However no student of that name graduated.  The remaining student who whose name appears in the list of graduates is Marjorie Duake Cohen.  Her graduation record notes this as being her married name and has her also as Miss Averyl Harcourt.

Some online research has located a reference in the London Gazette, 31 Jan. 1930, to a Mrs Simha Duake Cohen, otherwise Marjorie Averyl Harcourt, who died in 1929.  It also refers to an Anthony Dowling, aka Vernon Harcourt.  The precise circumstances of name changes have not been determined but it does look likely that the remaining graduate in the photograph is Mrs. Duake Cohen.  Why her hood is a different colour to the others has not (yet) been determined.

UPDATE, 28 Nov.

The woman in the photograph is now thought to be Mary Deborah Hancock. Although not a MBChB graduate (which would account for her different hood), this is clearly a perfect match with the signature.

Further research into Marjorie Duake Cohen continues and, if sufficient information comes to light, she may feature in a future blog post.

A question of scale

We just answered an internal enquiry for colleagues in or Law School who asked us about numbers of students and staff in the Law Faculty in the early 1950s. The answer stands in contrast to today’s student numbers:

Matriculated students (Law) 1952/53

Men 275
Women 37

Men 8
Women 0

Total 320 (out of 5850 total for the whole university)


Examiners 11
Assistants/Demonstrators 6
Lecturers 6
Professors 6
Other members of Faculty 6

Total 35

Answering this also highlighted the usefulness of the University Calendar for questions such as this. Produced annually from the late 1850s to the early 2000s, these record multiple aspects of University life, from staff details, bursaries and scholarships, curriculum and much more. Many have been digitised and are available at [further details]

Geology Gems

Letter from Alfred Russel Wallace to Archibald Geikie, 1869

Letter from Alfred Russel Wallace to Archibald Geikie, 1869

We recently acquired a number of interesting geology-related items via the Cockburn Geology Museum.

The Murchison Chair of Geology was instituted with the Faculty of Arts (there was then no Faculty of Science) in 1871. Archibald Geikie held the Chair until 1882 and was succeeded by his brother James, Archibald having been appointed as Director of the British Geological Survey. James went on to become Dean of the Faculty of Science (instituted in 1893) and retired in 1914.

Poster advertising lecture given by Sir Charles Lyell

Poster advertising lecture given by Sir Charles Lyell at the Athaeum, 1856

Archibald’s papers in particular contain a large portion of correspondence with many well-known scientists of the period. Amongst this recent addition there are further letters from individuals including Alfred Russel Wallace (shown), Thomas Henry Huxley and Joseph Dalton Hooker.

Photograph of two Victorian/Edwardian ladies in landscape

Photograph of two Victorian/Edwardian ladies in landscape

We also have further Sir Charles Lyell papers, including the poster shown here and numerous lecture texts from the 1840s.  We speculate that both the Geikie and Lyell material strayed from the main collections of their papers prior to these coming into our custody.  As such these recent additions are especially welcome.

Photographs of staff and students of the department also feature, some with names, others without.  This intriguing photo shows two ladies somewhat overshadowed by the landscape.  Given the period, we have speculated whether they may have been the wives of academics rather than students, although women were already making inroads into the University.

Understanding Student Records

We area about to begin a series of blog posts aimed at helping our users become aware of what information exists in different types of student records, how this changed over time and how the different records series relate to each other.

Understanding the records makes it easier to find all the relevant information and how to make best use of time when conducting research. The first post will relate to matriculation records and the three related records series which have recorded this over time.

Welcome to the new Blog

We are in the process of moving our blog in-house.  Although we’ve imported all the post titles, we still need to copy over the detail. Once we have finished the migration tasks, we will start blogging again.  In the meantime you can find the old blog at

Update, 4th July – blog content successfully migrated. New blog posts will appear here soon.

Edinburgh’s first women graduates honoured 50 year later

On 13 April 1893, eight women graduated MA, the first women students having been admitted the previous year following a lengthy battle to allow women admittance to the University.  The eight women had already completed most of their exams externally and were awarded their degree within a year of admittance.  The same year they graduated, a further 72 matriculated to study, with an additional 78 attending as non-matriculated students.
In July 1943, three of the eight joined Principal Sir Thomas Holland on the platform for the graduation ceremony in the McEwan Hall: Flora Stewart, nee Philip, Maude Elizabeth Newbigin and Amelia Hutchison Stirling. We blog this to mark 120 years since their graduation.

Henry Duncan Littlejohn notebook found

What connects Edinburgh, forensic medicine, public health and Sherlock Holmes? Many people would be tempted to say ‘Joseph Bell’, although they would probably wonder where public health fitted in. The answer is in fact ‘Henry Duncan Littlejohn’.

Born in 1826, the son of a prosperous merchant, Littlejohn was also credited by Conan Doyle as having been an influence. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1847 and became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1854.  The same year saw him take up the position with Edinburgh Town Council as Police Surgeon. In 1862 he was appointed Edinburgh’s first Medical Officer of Health. The work he undertook had a significant impact on reducing the frequency of outbreaks of smallpox and typhus.

He was President of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (1875-6), of the Medico-Chirurgical Society of Edinburgh (1883-5), and of the Institute of Public Health (1893). Awarded an honorary degree by the University of Edinburgh in 1893, he was knighted two years later.

Littlejohn was appointed to the Chair of Medical Jurisprudence at the University of Edinburgh in 1897. In the context of that post, a series of his notebooks were kept by his successors within the departmental records of the Forensic Medicine department. However when these arrived in the University Archives volume “Wounds II” was noted as being absent. Thanks to the vigilance of a member of academic staff, this missing volume has now been found and transferred to us.

We are thrilled to be able to reunite this volume with the others. the series now runs to 6 volumes in total:

  1. Infanticide I
  2. Infanticide II
  3. Poisons III
  4. Poisons IV
  5. Wounds I
  6. Wounds II

Enclosed in the third volume are (1) Examination script and (2) Letter about ‘meat pies’ from a student of Henry Duncan Littlejohn. Enclosed in the fourth volume is booklet A Case of Strychnia Poisoning by J. Allan Gray, Medical Officer of Health, Leith.

The ‘new’ volume is of a similar format to the others with notes, news cuttings and loose enclosures.