History of the Plymouth Medical Society
The Plymouth Medical Society was founded in 1794 and is the 7th oldest medical society in the UK. It predates the British Medical Association, which was not founded until 1832. Doctors recognized a need for education and professional development amongst themselves in a rapidly changing world of medicine before the existence of medical journals and formal postgraduate education. The first President of the Society, Dr. Robert Butler Remmet, had been a member of the oldest medical society founded in Edinburgh in 1737. The first meeting was held at the Globe Hotel in Plymouth where the initial Rules and Regulations were agreed. The first of these stated:
‘This Society shall consist of no more than fifteen Members, who are to meet on the Friday nearest to every full moon, at seven o’clock in the evening, at the house of one of the Members in rotation, where all business relative to the Society shall be transacted.’
The purpose of the Society was to debate and diffuse useful information by collecting and circulating books on medicine and science. A few years later, in 1802, the meetings were held every 3 months and the Members began to dine together. Initially these dinners were rather extravagant, requiring reform in 1843 to simpler fare. In 1836 it was decided that numbers should no longer be limited but only medical men were invited to join; Associates could be present as visitors. Admission fees were two guineas but Medical Officers of the Army and Navy; and House Surgeons were exempt. After 1869 the dinners were generally held in hotels and on April 11th 1894, for the Society’s Centenary, a celebration dinner was held at Matthew’s Restaurant in Bedford Street for forty-one Members and visitors.
The first Council was established in January 1904, consisting of a President, Treasurer, Secretary and Librarian, with six ordinary elected Members. The books and journals were regularly circulated and fines imposed on defaulters. The Library was inspected annually and in 1841 contained as many as fourteen hundred volumes. It was held initially in the Plymouth Public Dispensary in Catherine Street, then moved to the South Devon and East Cornwall Hospital in Notte Street, and from there in November 1884 the more modern works were placed in the new hospital buildings at Greenbank. Meetings began to be held in the Library where papers were read and presented and as more space was required it was taken by the Society in Athenaeum Lane Chambers, which was then the headquarters of the Western Morning News newspaper. In 1922 the Society moved again, to Beaumont House in Beaumont Park; it was expanding in numbers with many medical practitioners coming to Plymouth and the surrounding districts. Lady doctors had already started to practice in the town and the Society decided as early as 1910 to admit them as members; the first to be admitted was Dr. Mabel Ramsay.
The Society continued to grow with activities interrupted only during the wartime years when many Members joined the Services. Bomb damage to the Society’s rooms in 1943 resulted in a relocation to the Greenbank section of the then Prince of Wales Hospital. During this time meetings were held in the Library on the first floor of North Friary House, between Greenbank and Freedom Fields Hospitals, with dinners and social functions held at local hotels, often the Duke of Cornwall Hotel.
The Library was often increased by valuable presents of books and the Society also acquired several notable portraits (for example an oil painting of Dr. Edward Jenner) and medical articles.
The year 1948 saw the introduction of the National Health Service, and during the 1960s a growing awareness of the need for formal postgraduate education and teaching of junior doctors led to the establishment of a purpose built Medical Centre at Greenbank in the grounds of North Friary House. This was driven by local consultants and was set up as an independent charity with donations from local doctors. It opened in 1969. The new Centre took over many of the educational functions of the Society and from this time the Society became more socially based with meetings on wide ranging (not just medical) topics; and Members were encouraged to bring spouses and guests to the dinners. With the move to Derriford Hospital a new Postgraduate Medical Centre was opened in 1989. This, unusually, was over half funded by local doctors themselves; partly from the sale of the old Medical Centre and partly from individual donations of £1000 per doctor as monthly covenants. It is a well-used educational Centre for all medical and related professions in Plymouth and the South West. The Medical Society continues to be based here and meetings, with dinner, are held regularly from September through to May, with additional social activities and events. New members and guests are always encouraged and, mindful of our 224 years of history, the Society continues to flourish.
The Plymouth Medical Society Historic Collection is held in the Discovery Library at Derriford Hospital and can be accessed for reference by appointment. Their archive includes catalogued printed volumes, minutes of meetings, early medical journals, historical photographs and biographies of local medical practitioners. One of the most notable items is the John Hunter Lecture Notes volume; 450 pages of copperplate notes taken by a student of one of the founding fathers of modern day surgery. Minutes of the Society’s meetings from 1794 are housed in the Plymouth and West Devon Public Record Office.