Sir Robert Philip was born in Govan in 1857, a son of the manse. After moving to Edinburgh, Philip was educated at the Royal High School and went on to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh.
Like many of his generation, he went abroad to study at Leipzig and Vienna, where he first came across the tubercle bacillus, which had just been discovered by the German bacteriologist Robert Koch. Tuberculosis, also known as consumption, or phthisis, was the biggest killer in the UK at this time and regarded as impossible to manage. Returning to Edinburgh, Philip was fired with enthusiasm by this new discovery that tuberculosis was an infectious disease. If it is infectious, then isolation could prevent its spread, he reasoned.
Philip developed what became known as the Edinburgh System. Advanced cases were sent to the City Hospital for Infectious Diseases. Through the Dispensary for Consumption, Philip traced those who had been in contact with infected patients and screened them for the disease, hoping to catch it early. This proved so successful that Philip had to find larger premises in 1891 and again in 1913.
Those in whom the disease had not got such a hold were sent to the new Victoria Hospital for Consumption in the former Craigleith House. This hospital, unlike the sanatoria of the time, was in the city, making it possible for patients to keep in touch with friends and family.
Treatment consisted mainly of bedrest and being kept cold but even when it appeared that someone had recovered, relapses were common, so in 1909, Philip founded a farm colony at Polton where those who could take on manual work, could do so. They produced good food and also earned wages, while being monitored for potential re-occurrence of the lesions.
The first Chair of Tuberculosis was established at the University of Edinburgh, and Philip was the obvious encumbent. He established Southfield Sanatorium in Liberton which later became Southfield Hospital. On discovering that tuberculosis could be transmitted through milk, he set about producing tuberculosis-free milk and leased another farm at Gracemount. Thanks to Philip TB became a notifiable disease and he championed the use of the drug BCG.
His work was internationally recognised and he was knighted in 1913. He continued to work towards the eradication of tuberculosis and was still active when he died in 1939 at the age of 82.
Honoured by Belgium on a postage stamp on the 100th anniversary of his birth, Philip’s contribution to medicine is recognised in Edinburgh by a blue plaque near the Mound that states, “Near this place in 1887, Dr Robert Philip founded a tuberculosis dispensary, the first clinic in the world dedicated to fighting a disease of which he foretold Man’s eventual mastery. That vision has brought hope to many lands.”