The Polish School of Medicine at the University of Edinburgh (1941-1949)
When you enter the quadrangle of the Old Medical School in Teviot Place, Edinburgh, turn around and look at the big bronze plaque on the right side of the portal, and you’ll see the following inscription:
In the dark days of 1941 when Polish universities were destroyed and Polish professors died in concentration camps the University of Edinburgh established the Polish School of Medicine. This memorial was set up by the students, lecturers and professors of the Polish School of Medicine in gratitude to the University of Edinburgh for the part it played in the preservation of Polish science and learning.
This memorial tablet evokes an extraordinary episode in the history of Scottish-Polish relations. It all began in September 1939 when Poland was invaded, conquered and partitioned by Germany and the Soviet Union. The invaders proceeded to destroy intellectual life in occupied Poland by closing down all universities and executing Polish professors. Hans Frank, Governor-General of German-occupied Poland, openly admitted that his aim was to turn Poland into ‘an intellectual desert’. Little could he know that Polish scientific life would soon be resurrected within the walls of the famous University of Edinburgh.
Meanwhile, the Polish Armed Forces were reorganised in the West, and after the capitulation of France in the summer of 1940 thousands of Polish soldiers were evacuated to Britain to continue their fight alongside the Allies. Incidentally, the 1st Polish Corps which was deployed to protect the east coast of Scotland from an expected German invasion had a surplus number of medical officers, among them many university professors, specialists and students from pre-war Polish medical faculties. This unusual occurrence was noticed by Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Crew, Commanding Officer of the Military Hospital at Edinburgh Castle and a peace-time Professor of Animal Genetics at the University of Edinburgh. Professor Crew, who was fully aware of the plight of universities in occupied Poland, put forward the idea of opening a Polish-language medical faculty within the University of Edinburgh in order to allow the Polish refugees to resume medical studies and research interrupted by the invasion of their homeland. The university authorities in Edinburgh enthusiastically endorsed Crew’s proposal, even though Sir Sidney Smith, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, retrospectively noted that:
with the country facing the possibility of invasion and the University the probability of destruction by bombing, the time would not seem propitious for a unique adventure in academic policy.
It shouldn’t come as a great surprise then, that Edinburgh’s ‘magnanimous gesture in wartime’3 was accepted by the Poles with heartfelt joy and gratitude. Dr Wiktor Tomaszewski recounted how:
one day in November  someone brought the news that a Polish medical faculty was to be organised in Scotland. It seemed so incredible, so fantastic, so utterly unreal, that we simply dismissed it as one of the wild rumours that from time to time swept through the military camps. But soon it was confirmed that negotiations were underway between the University of Edinburgh and Lieutenant-Colonel Professor Jurasz from Poznań, representing the Polish Government in London. The medical students in our unit were overwhelmed with joy and hope, and so were we, the few senior lecturers from the pre-war Polish medical faculties, who in these circumstances were destined to be members of the teaching staff.
The Polish School of Medicine was officially established on 24 February 1941 by an agreement between the University of Edinburgh and the Polish Government-in-Exile in London. Not many Scots and Poles are aware of the fact that ‘in the dark days of 1941’5 the Polish School of Medicine in Edinburgh was the only officially existing Polish institution of higher education in the world!
The opening of an entirely autonomous Polish faculty within the organisational structure of a Scottish university was an unprecedented experiment in transnational academic cooperation. From 1941 to 1949, Polish professors were teaching Polish students in their native language, using the accommodation and facilities provided by their Scottish colleagues. 12 Scottish professors held those chairs in the Polish faculty which couldn’t be filled by appropriate Polish specialists. Some of them even gave lectures to Polish students and conducted examinations, usually with the help of interpreters. Scottish research assistants, lab technicians and servitors worked for Polish departments, while Polish medical scientists contributed to research conducted in Scottish laboratories, including top secret projects on chemical warfare and aviation medicine.
It was a personal tragedy for the majority of Polish medical refugees that they weren’t able to return home after the end of the Second World War. Poland was liberated from German occupation, only to fall under Soviet domination for the next 45 years. Instead of going back to Communist-controlled Poland, some of the students and members of the staff decided to permanently settle down in Scotland. For instance, the above mentioned Dr Wiktor Tomaszewski became a much respected General Practitioner in Edinburgh. As of 2013, the last surviving graduate of the Polish School of Medicine still resident in Edinburgh was Dr Kazimierz Durkacz, a retired dentist. Other students and members of the staff moved south to England and Wales or migrated even further to North America, Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. The knowledge, skills and qualifications gained during their wartime studies in Edinburgh allowed them to pursue successful professional careers, regardless of where they eventually settled down.
Although they have dispersed all around the globe, the Polish graduates and former members of the staff have been gathering in Edinburgh every five years since 1966 to demonstrate their loyalty and affection for the University and the town where they found hospitality and friendship at the darkest hour of modern Polish history. Lord Swann, former Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, observed in 1983 that:
No one of who knows Edinburgh can fail to be struck by the gratitude that the members of the Polish School of Medicine have always shown to the University. But I believe that a greater debt of gratitude is owed by the University to them. For it was they who came here to continue the struggle alongside us. And in all its 400 years the University cannot, I think, have acquired a group of alumni more splendidly loyal to their Alma Mater.
In May 2011, the last surviving graduates gathered once again to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Polish School of Medicine. This occasion was marked by the opening of a special exhibition in the Edinburgh University Library Gallery. A permanent exhibition of the Polish School of Medicine Historical Collection can now be viewed in the Chancellor’s Building at Little France.
The existence of the Polish School of Medicine in Edinburgh was rather short but the legacy of Scottish-Polish wartime cooperation still continues to inspire scientific and cultural contacts between the two nations. The Polish School of Medicine Memorial Fund was set up by the graduates and friends of the School in 1986. The Fund supports academic exchange and collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and medical schools in Poland. The historical significance of the Polish School of Medicine was probably best summed up by Professor Jakub Rostowski in a commemorative article written for the British Medical Journal in 1966:
The creation of the Polish School of Medicine within the University of Edinburgh was a fine example of cooperation between nations in the academic sphere. It is to be hoped that such cooperation will not remain unique in the history of medicine, even though one must also hope that the need which gave rise to it will never be experienced again.
Jakub Rostowski, History of the Polish School of Medicine, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh , 1955
John Harvey, A Magnanimous Gesture in Wartime: A Personal Tribute to Medical Colleagues of a Gallant Nation, Brisbane: Royal Children’s Hospital, 1987.
Wiktor Tomaszewski, ‘Personal View’, British Medical Journal, 283.6292 (1981)
Wiktor Tomaszewski, In the Dark Days of 1941: Fifty Years of the Polish School of Medicine 1941-1949 The University of Edinburgh Jubilee Publication, Edinburgh