Founded in 1518, by a royal charter from king Henry VIII, the Royal College of Physicians of London is the oldest medical college in England.

Founding the RCP

The leading physicians of the time wanted the power to grant licenses to those qualified to practice medicine and to punish unqualified practitioners and those engaging in malpractice. A small group of physicians led by the scholar Thomas Linacre petitioned king Henry VIII to establish a college of physicians in 1518.

As the founding charter decreed, this college would ‘curb the audacity of those wicked men who shall profess medicine more for the sake of their avarice than from the assurance of any good conscience, whereby many inconveniences may ensue to the rude and credulous populace.’

In 1523 an Act of Parliament extended the licensing powers from London to the whole of England.

The Royal College

Originally called the College of Physicians or the King’s College of Physicians, it only gradually became known as the ‘Royal College of Physicians of London’ during the 17th century. Although it received its royal charter in 1518, it was not until over a century later, just after the restoration of the monarchy, that the RCP started referring to itself consistently as ‘royal’.

Examinations

The first president, Linacre, wanted to found an academic body for physicians rather than a trade guild of the kind which regulated surgeons and apothecaries. Physicians were seen as the educated elite of the medical world: a degree was usually required to gain a licence. Candidates for fellowship underwent an oral examination to demonstrate that they were ‘groundedly learned’ (classically educated) in addition to their medical knowledge.

Examinations for licences and membership remain rigorous and academically based, including the creation of the MRCP(UK) from the royal colleges of physicians of Edinburgh, Glasgow and London, in the late 20th century.

A turbulent history

From the start the RCP was involved in battles with other medical bodies in the struggle to control medical licensing in London. It did actively engage in licensing practitioners and punishing those involved in ‘malapraxa’, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries. But until the 19th century there were usually fewer than 60 fellows at any one time and under 100 licentiates.

It is not surprising that the more numerous surgeons and apothecaries increasingly felt they had a strong mandate to treat the rapidly expanding population of London without restrictions from physicians. The RCP did not always grasp opportunities to lead the broader medical profession and critics saw it as a conservative and protectionist body.

In 1767 a bitter dispute with its own licentiates was caused by the RCP’s refusal to admit candidates for fellowship from non-Oxbridge universities. The affair famously resulted in angry licentiates storming the building during a committee meeting, but it was not until 1835 that candidates from other universities were finally admitted as fellows (full voting members).

Women were completely excluded from entry to the RCP until 1909, when a bylaw was passed allowing them to take examinations. The first female member was admitted the same year, and the first female licentiate in 1910. After further delays, Dr Helen Mackay became the first female fellow to be elected, in 1934.

Achievements

The RCP’s concern for public health and preventive medicine has been in evidence since its earliest days. A report on the hazards of industrial work was published in 1627 and another on the dangers of excessive gin-drinking in 1726. The RCP opened the first public dispensary in England in 1698, providing medicine free of charge to the poor (although this move was controversial among its own members).

The RCP also made important contributions to medical literature. It issued advice on threats such as plague and cholera. The publication of the London Pharmacopoeia in 1618 created the first standard list of medicines and their ingredients published in England. This publication regulated the composition of medicines until 1864. The 1869 publication Nomenclature of Diseases created an international standard for the classification of diseases which was to last until the 20th Century.

In the 19th century RCP expertise was drawn upon by successive governments as long-overdue medical reforms were introduced, most importantly the Medical Act of 1858. In recent times RCP support was crucial to the establishment of the National Health Service in 1945. The landmark report Smoking and health of 1962 was a turning point in post-war health policy and heralded a new era of public engagement for the RCP.

Leading figures

From the very beginning the president and other officers have had a profound effect on the role of the institution and how active, engaged, forward-thinking, or otherwise, it was perceived to be.

To find out more about the individuals who shaped the RCP, see below:

Benefactors

Over the centuries the RCP has accumulated a large number of trusts, given and bequeathed by past fellows, members and their families. Many of these endowed lectureships which are still active today.