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J R Soc Med. 2002 January; 95(1): 53–54.
PMCID: PMC1279159

The Royal College of Physicians and its Collections: an Illustrated History

Reviewed by Michael Smith

Editors: G Davenport, I McDonald, C Moss-Gibbons
168 pp Price £38 ISBN 0-907-38383-1
London: James & James, 2001 .

Your reviewer found himself repeatedly turning to p. 127, which is robustly occupied by a three-quarter-length portrait of Theodore Turquet de Mayerne (1573-1655), Physician to James I and to Charles I. His hand wrote the dedication to James I in the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis when it was published in 1618. His pink and bearded face gazes out from the portrait with an expression of shrewdness tinged with apprehension, his right hand held in a gesture of ‘take me as I am’ and his left hand grasping a skull. In gold lettering across the top of the portrait are the words ‘Theodorus Mayerne Eques Auratus’. He seems to epitomize the gravitas, wisdom, authority and worldly success to which most Fellows of the College aspire.

It was not an easy road down which the College travelled. Founded in 1518 when Thomas Linacre (1460?-1524) gave over the front portion of his house in Knightrider Street just south of St Paul's Cathedral to accommodate the first Fellows, the College moved premises four more times, to occupy the present site in Regent's Park in 1964. This latter building was designed by Sir Denis Lasdun, combining the architectural features of the adjacent Nash terraces and those of Le Corbusier. The interior, with its stately staircase which lends itself both to formal ceremony and to the interchange of chance encounters, is a striking feature of the building.

Over the 480 years of the College's existence the Fellows were involved in several battles with institutions that they perceived to threaten their authority. The Apothecaries sought the right to treat patients as well as dispense for them, and when the College opened the first dispensary at the College in 1698 to provide medicines for the poor this was seen as a threat by the pharmacists. The Dispensary was so successful that others soon followed in St Martin's Lane and in Gracechurch Street.

It seems astonishing today that the numbers of Fellows at any one time in the 18th century was below 100, whereas it is now over 10 000, and that it was not until 1835 that non-Oxbridge graduates were admitted to the Fellowship. The Licentiates of the College were sufficiently outraged by the Oxbridge stipulation that they besieged the College in Warwick Lane in 1767 and fought a battle with the Fellows, each side brandishing a motley range of weapons (etching on p. 35). Another agreeable illustration shows a painting by Thomas Rowlandson and Auguste Pugin (1808) of the examination of a candidate for Fellowship in the College premises in Trafalgar Square, at a time when the College was going through a period of placid self-satisfaction (p. 51).

The College possesses many treasures of interest and beauty, among which are: a silver caduceus (not a rod of iron), the President's symbol of office; a silver-gilt mace; and a gold-headed cane. The cane was originally owned by Dr John Radcliffe (1652-1714) and was passed successively to five eminent Fellows before the widow of Dr Matthew Baillie presented it to the College in 1825. The cane was carried as an emblem of the status of a physician and possessed a solid handle, in distinction to the more customary canes carried by physicians which had perforated handles in which could be held aromatic herbs or Marseilles vinegar ‘of sovereign remedy against all pestilences’.

By the year 1660 the College library possessed 1278 titles as listed by Dr Christopher Merrett, the first Harveian Librarian. Unfortunately the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed most of these books, some 100 being rescued by Dr Merrett and the Beadle. This calamity led to a bizarre dispute between Dr Merrett, who maintained he had done all that he reasonably could to discharge his duties as custodian, and the College, who maintained that to lose most of the library came under the heading of ‘serious reasons’ for dismissal. The aggrieved Dr Merrett thereupon refused to give up those books which he had saved and the College riposted by sacking him. Since that time many generous donations of books have been made, in particular that of the First Marquis of Dorchester, who bequeathed his whole library to replace the disastrous losses from the Great Fire.

Geoffrey Davenport, who was Librarian to the College from 1970 until 1999, and his two co-authors are to be congratulated on producing such a splendid work, the product of intimate contact within the College supplemented by wide learning.

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press