Discover the story of the RCP over almost five centuries.
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. It continues to play a pivotal role in raising standards and shaping public health today.
Founding the RCP
In the 1500s medical practice in England was poorly regulated. Many ‘physicians’ were working with no formal training or knowledge, and almost certainly killed as many patients as they cured. The leading physicians of the early 16th century wanted the power to grant licenses to those with actual qualifications 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 on 23 September 1518. An Act of Parliament extended its powers from London to the whole of England in 1523.
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. It was only with the restoration of the monarchy, that the RCP started referring to itself consistently as ‘royal’. But from the very beginning its members found their patients from the highest levels of society.
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 took an oral examination to demonstrate that they were ‘groundedly learned’ (classically educated) in addition to their medical knowledge. In addition, fellowship (full voting membership) required a degree from Oxford or Cambridge.
Struggle and conflict
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.
But the RCP suffered from internal disputes as well. In 1767 a bitter dispute with its own licentiates was caused by the RCP’s refusal to admit candidates for fellows 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.
Equal rights – women at the RCP
Women in the medical profession struggled to find strong representation until the societal changes of the late 19th and 20th centuries. During the first four centuries of the RCP’s history, women were excluded from membership – 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 a further bylaw change in 1928, the first female fellow – Helen Mackay – was elected in 1934. During her fellowship, she changed the face of global medical attitudes towards infant feeding, and became an authority on anemia of dietetic origin in childhood.
Dame Margaret Turner-Warwick was the first female president, elected in 1989. She was one of the world’s leading thoracic physicians, and contributed greatly to discussions around professionalism and integrated care.
- Public health - The RCP concern with public health and preventive medicine has always been evident. 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.
- Medical literature - The RCP also made important contributions to medical literature. It issued advice on threats such as plague and cholera. The publication of the London Phamacopoeia 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 lasted until the 20th century.
- Medical reforms - 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.
Members have always given generously, not just of their time, but also their own collections and wealth. Over the centuries the RCP has accumulated a large number of trusts, given and bequeathed by past fellows, members and their families. Some to them founded research programmes or supported RCP activities and services. Many of these endowed lectures which are still active today.
All physicians linked to the RCP from 1518 to the 1820s are celebrated in our obituary series, known as Munk's Roll after its first compiler. Since the 1820s, this fascinating series has included only past fellows (voting members). Modern entries are usually written by colleagues, peers and family members.
Get involved: If you are a fellow and would like to update your biographical details, please download, complete and return the biographical details update form (below) with an up-to-date CV.
Medical biography collections
The RCP library collects a wide range of biographical material on important figures in medicine. Our serials include The Journal of Medical Biography and Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Biographies can also be found in our complete runs of The Lancet and The British Medical Journal.