College to launch a new exhibition Wild and Tame: Animals in History

The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (“the College”) is launching a new public exhibition next week: Wild & Tame: Animals in History. The exhibition will explore the history of animals, real and imagined, and their impact on human lives and culture. From unicorns and the first Renaissance animal encyclopaedia to Charles Darwin, it will show how humans exploited animals and how they cared for them, creating our shared history.

As well as providing us with food and labour necessary for our survival, animals were essential in the development of medicine. They were our test subjects, as well as a source of medical ingredients – from the fat of whales to treat haemorrhoids in the past to modern use of venoms to treat heart disease.  The exhibition will show the instruments used to treat animals in the past and explore the modern idea of One Medicine – a call for closer cooperation between physicians and veterinarians for the benefit of all species on Earth.

Using the remarkable collection of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh natural history books, the exhibition will show the changing ways we depicted animals and studied them, finally unlocking the mysteries of evolution and our place in the natural world.

The exhibition will also explore the vital role animals played in our cultural history, from myths and monsters to modern pets and companions.

As well as books and objects, the exhibition has an interactive digital display which further explores the place of animals in popular culture as symbols and mascots.

Estela Dukan, co-curator of the Wild and Tame: Animals in History said:

Close links between animal and human health call for closer communication and cooperation between human medicine and veterinary medicine. Animals have been essential to human survival for thousands of years, but increasing number of humans living today and modern international travel mean we are coming into closer contact with different animals and environments across the planet. The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh recognises the importance of globally connected health research and education to improve wellbeing of humans and animals. Our exhibition explores the history of these links and the role animals played in development of modern medicine.

Kate Aitkenhead, co-curator of the Wild and Tame: Animals in History, said:

Animals are an integral part of our daily lives. Our relationship with them has often been fraught and overbearing, whilst still maintaining a core of respect and companionship. We have included them in our heraldry, such as the rampant lion on the Scottish coat of arms, or the unicorn as the national animal of Scotland, seen as a creature of courage, purity and healing. Through artworks, objects, encyclopaedias and viewpoints both historical and modern, we explore the impact this ubiquitous relationship has had on medicine and science as a whole. Animals aren’t going anywhere. Our exhibition aims to provide an understanding of our shared history in order to help ensure the continued health and safety of humans and animals alike.

The exhibition will also include contributions and quotes from people and organisations dedicated to conservation and animal health around the UK, such as Prof Neil Fitzpatrick, veterinary surgeon, and Sheila Voas, Chief veterinary Officer for Scotland.


Some of the interesting items to feature in the exhibition include:

  • 16th century animal encyclopaedia with over 1,500 illustrations of animals by Conrad Gesner.
  • 17th century drawing of a whale stranded in the Firth of Forth by Robert Sibbald, the founder of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.
  • The first edition of one of the most important books in the history of science, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of species by means of natural selection.
  • Medicines made from animals parts such as cetaceum or spermaceti, vax made from oil in the head of sperm whales, which was used to treat skin irritations.
  • Licence to perform experiments on animals at the RCPE Laboratory issued by the Home Office in 1930s.
  • Replica of a Fiji mermaid, the grotesque version of the mermaid made by sawing the top half of a monkey onto the bottom half of the fish.
  • Illustrations and descriptions of different types of unicorns in Pierre Pomet’s A compleat history of drugs.

The launch will take place on the 18 July, with short talks and a wine reception. Guests are invited to hear short talks from Prof Erica Fudge who will discuss the links between human and animal medicine in history, and Miss Anna Radford who will explore how human and animal healthcare can work together in the 21st century.

The exhibition is free and will run from 19 July 2024 to 9 May 2025 at 11 Queen Street, Edinburgh, EH2 1JQ.

For further information on the exhibition, please go to: