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The Three and Sixpenny Doctor


Paying For the Doctor

‘You couldnae afford to get in the doctor.’




‘We had a Dr Butler who was a very blunt man but he became our family doctor. We were very poor and many times he didnae take anything. My mother died in 1935 wi’ cancer, and the doctor’s fee, I recall, was 3 shillings and 6 pence (3/6) and we didnae always have it.’

Rose Minto, born 1920

Home and Hospital

Most sick people were looked after by their family or neighbours. Individuals developed a reputation for their knowledge of traditional ‘home’ remedies. Spae wives, bonesetters or wise-women would be consulted as a cheaper alternative to a doctor. Their treatments combined folklore and basic common sense and included patent, over-the-counter remedies, for example Cod Liver Oil, Friar’s Balsam or Thermogene, and culinary ingredients, such as onions, bread and cloves.

Doctor's Bag

(Photo, LMA archive)

Poster advertising the 1991 National Insurance Act

(City of Edinburgh Museums and Galleries Collection)

The National Health Insurance Act (1911) meant doctors had to provide basic medical services for workers. ‘Sixpenny doctors’ were paid by the state for each patient on their panel. Patients still paid for home visits, doctors charging different rates depending on the economic circumstances of families.


‘When my son was born in 1946, I had to pay £12 to Simpson’s and when the doctor came to the house, it was usually seven and six (7/6), I suppose the poor ones would get it for nothing, and the ones that could afford it would pay more. Before the Health Service, we had the Free Gardeners and the Rechabites, that you paid into each week. You paid maybe tuppence (2d), for each member o’ the family and you got the panel doctor.’

George Hackland, born 1920

‘The dispensary was in Grassmarket Row, all the Tron Square people went there. You just went in and sat on a chair and the doctor would come out and shout your name. Then you would go into a room and get your medicine. You didn’t have to pay. It was always busy.’

Marie Wren, born 1918

Cowgate Dispensary, Edinburgh Medical Mission, 1931 (Photo, City of Edinburgh Museums and Galleries Collection)

Care of the Sick after 1900

Domestic medicine

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Sixpenny doctor

Development of hospital

Municipal hospitals developed in the 1930s and treated the chronically sick, infirm and elderly. They were administered by town councils, and their origins lay in parish poor law hospitals and poorhouses, which provided care for the destitute and very poor. The Western General Hospital (St Cuthbert’s, later Craigleith) and Eastern General Hospital (Seafield) were originally
poorhouses.

Greenlea Workhouse, early 1900s
(Photo, City of Edinburgh Museum & Galleries Collection)

Provident and private hospitals, such as Bruntsfield Hospital and the Edinburgh Lunatic Asylum (later the Royal Edinburgh Hospital), offered medical care to people who made a small weekly payment through work or private insurance schemes or for patients who could pay.