Archive and historical library collections

Over 5 centuries the RCP library and archives have collected material to support physicians' learning and, more recently, to interpret older materials. Both published and unpublished materials provide a fascinating record of the RCP’s activities and an insight into the world of medicine.


From the founding charter to 20th-century reports on the effects of smoking, there is a wealth of material on the RCP's role in relation to contemporary medical advances. The RCP was founded so that physicians could be formally licensed to practise and those who were not qualified could be exposed and punished. There are many archive records defining the RCP’s changing role in setting standards in medical practice. This is also reflected in the publications the RCP has produced, which form part of the library college collection.

Manuscripts and personal papers

RCP members have always collected manuscripts and papers on a wide range of medical and non-medical topics. As a result the archives contain an eclectic range of 14th- to 19th-century manuscripts, including works on:

  • astrology
  • alchemy
  • religion
  • travel
  • medical theory
  • medical practice.

Personal papers of past fellows from the 16th century to the 20th century provide glimpses into the personal lives and social concerns of many distinguished physicians.

The catalogue for the archives, manuscripts and personal papers is also available via Discovery, hosted by the National Archives website, where you can search the collections of many other organisations.

Rare books 

The RCP has had a library since its foundation in 1518. It was set up by William Harvey and we still have a few precious items which survived the Great Fire of London in 1666. Since then the library has grown continually, and incorporates a wide range of subjects not restricted to medical works. This reflects the collecting habits of earlier RCP fellows and the need to provide the broad educational base considered suitable for physicians:

  • 126 books published before 1501 (incunables) including some of the earliest printings of classical medical texts by Greek, Roman and Arabic doctors
  • over 100 books from the lost library of John Dee, the Elizabethan astrologer and occultist
  • the former library of the Marquis of Dorchester, given to the college in 1680, encompassing over 3,000 books on architecture, science, medicine, law and travel
  • more than 4,500 pamphlets and articles from the 17th to the 19th century covering medicine, science and medical law
  • historical journals including the Medical transactions published by the RCP from 1768.


Special collections

The library holds a number of closed collections illustrating the development of specific specalities:

  • The Evan Bedford collection has almost every significant text in the history of cardiology up to 1970.
  • The Heberden Collection consists of pre-1983 books, pamphlets and journals from the library of the British Society for Rheumatology.

Digitised books 1780–1914

The RCP has a large collection of rare books and pamphlets dating from the 19th century. Many of these books have been digitised and made available online as part of the UK Medical Heritage Library (UK-MHL).

As well as medicine, the digitised books, dating from 1780 to 1914, cover:

  • science
  • sociology
  • history
  • library science
  • antiquities
  • religion
  • magic
  • languages
  • reference material.

Included are works by fellows of the RCP, RCP lectures and highlights from collections such as the Evan Bedford cardiology collection.

All of these books can be read, downloaded and used free of charge. The UK-MHL can be accessed through the Internet Archive, the Wellcome Library and Jisc Historical Texts.

1914 to the present

More recent materials reflect the changing nature of medicine and the role of the RCP. They illustrate socio-medical milestones such as:

  • introduction of antibiotics
  • formation of the NHS
  • increasing participation of women in the medical profession
  • legacy of two world wars
  • science of genetics
  • impact of AIDS and obesity.

Throughout, the development of both new and established specialties is reflected in the collection. The relationship of medicine with other disciplines such as philosophy, art and literature is also well represented. Public health and health policy are both major areas of interest. Our collections continue to reflect the evolving history of medicine in the 21st century.

Medical biography

We have an outstanding book collection of individual and collective biographies from the recently published to the long out of print. Our serials include the Journal of Medical Biography and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Biographies can also be found in our complete runs of The Lancet and The BMJ.

Unique obituaries of all physicians linked to the RCP from 1518 to the 1820s, and all RCP fellows to this day, are publically available in Munk's Roll: the lives of the fellows.

Using the collections

Materials are viewed in our Library Reading Room, which is open to the public for browsing and research appointments.


Please contact us for more details about making archive donations.