John Monro was the progenitor of a celebrated dynasty of anatomists which occupied the Edinburgh University Chair of Anatomy for 126 years, but his greatest monument is that University’s Faculty of Medicine established in 1726 largely through his foresight, energy and single-minded determination.
He was the younger son of Sir Alexander Monro of Bearcroft, the Commissary of Supply for Stirling and was born in 1670. When he was aged 13, his father was arrested on suspicion of complicity in the Rye House Plot and accused of treason but no prosecution took place and he was pardoned one year later. Little is known about John Monro’s education or of the factors which influenced his decision to become a surgeon but in 1687 he was apprenticed to William Borthwick a well known Edinburgh surgeon who had served two terms as Deacon (President) of the Incorporation of Barber Surgeons. Borthwick already had an apprentice under his tutelage and in taking on another he was contravening the rules of the Incorporation, but this difficulty was resolved by the nominal transfer of Monro’s apprenticeship from Borthwick to Dr Christopher Irvine (qv), who has the distinction of being the very first member of the Incorporation to hold a University degree in Medicine. In fact, Munro continued to receive most of his surgical training from William Borthwick but this was interrupted in 1690 by a period of military service as surgeon’s mate in Viscount Kenmure’s Regiment. Nevertheless, he completed his apprenticeship in 1692 and in that same year he matriculated as a student at the University of Leyden, then the most renowned medical school in Europe. One of his teachers there was Archibald Pitcairne of Edinburgh the Professor of Medicine and among his fellow students was Herman Boerhaave, later to occupy the Leyden Chair of Medicine and to become the most famous European physician of the first half of the 18th century. Leyden made a profound impression on John Monro and the quality of the teaching he experienced there inspired in him the ambition to establish in Scotland a medical school of comparable excellence.
He returned to Edinburgh in 1694 and, in the following year, he joined the army as Surgeon to the 22nd Regiment of Foot (later to become the Cheshire Regiment). Almost immediately, the regiment proceeded to Flanders as part of the Allied army under the personal command of King William III and Monro saw action at the siege and capture of Namur.
From 1696 to 1700 Monro was stationed in England and in Ireland but he appears to have been given lengthy periods of leave which enabled him to set up house with his wife in London and it was there that his son, Alexander was born in 1697. He left the army in 1700 and returned to Edinburgh where he opened an apothecary’s shop but did not immediately engage in surgical practice. Three years later, having become a Burgess of the City, an essential preliminary qualification, he presented for examination as a result of which he was admitted a Freeman of the Incorporation of Barber Surgeons. From then, John Monro gradually built up a large surgical practice and in 1708 he was appointed Boxmaster (Treasurer) of the Incorporation. Four years later he was elected Deacon and ex officio had a seat upon the Town Council of Edinburgh. Soon afterwards he was elected Deacon Convener of the Trades of Edinburgh and in the following year was re-elected to these offices, in addition to which he was appointed one of the City’s representatives on the Convention of the Royal Burghs of Scotland.
Towards the end of John Monro’s second term of office as Deacon of the Incorporation, Queen Anne died and, having declared his support for the Hanoverian succession, he was present in his official robes along with other civic dignitaries at the proclamation of George I as King of Great Britain, France and Ireland at the Mercat Cross on 5 August 1714. During the Jacobite rising of 1715 his previous military experience stood him in good stead when he attended casualties from both sides after the Battle of Sheriffmuir.
Having established himself in Edinburgh as a man of influence and authority in professional and civic affairs, John Monro set about the fulfilment of his long cherished ambition of founding in the City a “Seminary of Medical Education” modelled on the medical school of the University of Leyden. In 1720 he produced a plan which was favourably received by the Town Council, the University and the two medical corporations of the City. The key to its success was the appointment to the University Chair of Anatomy of John Monro’s brilliant son, Alexander, whose education and training had been planned with this specific objective.
Over the next six years, it was the influence of the Monros, father and son, which brought about the appointment of Professors Rutherford, St Clair, Plummer, Innes and Gibson who, together with Alexander Monro, formed the original medical faculty of Edinburgh University.
The realisation of his dream, largely through the agency of his son entitles John Monro to be saluted by posterity as the Father of the Edinburgh Medical School and he could not have had a more gratifying reward than the international reputation which it and his son acquired during his lifetime.