I have recently had cause to engage directly with the legacy of one of Edinburgh's local heroes, a man born in the Old Town, buried in the New Town, and standing as one of the great pioneers of his age. William Dick established Scotland's first veterinary school in Edinburgh, which continues to operate today as part of the University of Edinburgh.
Dick was born on White Horse Close, a picturesque alley just off the Royal Mile near Holyrood Palace. I often bring groups into this lane because of its instagram-friendly appeal, but in 1793 when young William was born it would have been less pretty and more a run-down slum area - but it was an area that had long held a connection with horses, with legends of Mary Queen of Scots' horse being stabled here, as well as being the site of a major inn serving visitors arriving into Edinburgh from the horse drawn coaches in the seventeenth century.
Dick's father was a farrier - horse shoe making - and so horses would have been a significant presence in the boy's life, and growing up in an environment where animals were such a feature was certainly an influence on William's later veterinary pursuits.
In 1815 the Dick family moved to accommodation in the New Town, just off St Andrew Square, and he was schooled in Shakespeare Square, which no longer survives but was near where the northern end of North Bridge is today. He began to take anatomy lessons, and would later fuse his interest in horses with his medical studies, travelling to London to study as a veterinary surgeon.
Returning to Edinburgh, Dick set up his own veterinary college, training others in treatment of disease in farm animals and livestock, horses and dogs. Having provided students with a certified qualification in "the veterinary art", Dick's reputation grew and his college gradually expanded, until Queen Victoria appointed him as her royal veterinarian in 1842.
Dick died in 1866, and was buried in Edinburgh's Old Calton Burial Ground, just a short distance away from White Horse Close where he was born, and overlooking the bottom end of the Old Town.
William Dick's veterinary college was officially renamed the Royal (Dick) Veterinary College in 1902, and moved into purpose-built buildings near the Meadows on the south side of the city in 1916. Those buildings today are the Summerhall complex of art studios, performance spaces, bars and brewery, and in recent years have become a haven for a variety of cultural interests in the city.
The door still has an original brass plate noting the buildings as the premises of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.
In 1951 the Dick Vet became part of the University of Edinburgh, who still operate their veterinary training and medical hospital for animals under the Royal Dick banner. Their main campus is a little distance from the city centre, where they have a variety of world-class and state of the art facilities for treating and caring for sick and injured animals.
It was here that I brought my co-guide Monty on Hogmanay 2019 for an emergency spinal operation after he lost the use of his back legs. At the time of writing, Monty is well on the way to making a full recovery, and that is in large part to the care, professionalism and dedication of the Royal Dick staff.
Explore more of Edinburgh's local heroes on my private city walking tours!
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