500 years of the RCP: exhibitions and events to mark a historic milestone

The year 2018 marks a significant landmark for the Royal College of Physicians (RCP). The organisation was founded on 23 September 1518, and we’re taking the opportunity in our 500th birthday year to look back on the history of medicine as well as to the future of healthcare.

Our first exhibition of the year opens next week on Friday 19 January. In Ceaseless motion: William Harvey’s experiments in circulation, the RCP’s most famous fellow takes centre stage. William Harvey (1578–1657) discovered the circulation of blood around the body, pumped by the heart. He encouraged his fellow physicians ‘to search and study out the secrets of nature by way of experiment’. His legacy of curiosity, research and discovery has had a lasting impact on the practice and science of medicine. This exhibition places William Harvey at the heart of the RCP as it celebrates its 500th anniversary, and will run until 26 July 2018.

‘Ceaseless motion: William Harvey’s experiments in circulation’, 19 January – 26 July 2018.

Our second 2018 exhibition will be '"This vexed question": 500 years of women in medicine'. It will focus on 500 years of women in medicine through the RCP’s library, archive and museum collections. From early women healers and herbalists to the admittance of the first female LRCP in 1909, there is a long history of tension between formal, regulated medical practice and women healers. Drawing on the RCP collections, it is possible to explore the interaction of the RCP with women (as apothecaries, physicians, as patrons and artists) as it evolved over many centuries. The exhibition will run from 19 September 2018 to Friday 14 January 2019.

Our new ‘Curator’s curiosities’ heritage trail will highlight key objects displayed around the RCP building, as well as exhibiting an object of the month chosen by our library, archive and museum staff. Look out for the changing display in the Treasures Room.

‘Curator’s curiosities’: heritage trail and display throughout the year.

There are also new exhibits to see around the museum. On the lower ground floor outside the Treasures Room you can now view the Keiskamma Tapestry. This tapestry was commissioned by the RCP in honour of our birthday from the Keiskamma Trust. The trust is a community-based charity organisation in rural South Africa which aims to tackle poverty and disease through healthcare and creative programmes. The tapestry was made by women artists whose lives have been affected by HIV/AIDS and shows people and buildings from RCP history. In the Lasdun Hall, we’ve displayed a loan from a private lender, Jamie Borwick, 5th Baron Borwick, which will be displayed until Easter. This satirical painting by Johann Zoffany shows a scene from an 18th-century play mocking the medical profession, and the College of Physicians in particular.

Keiskamma Tapestry, now displayed at the RCP.

Museum lates

Throughout the year, the RCP museum will be open late on the first Thursday of every month (except for August). Come and see our exhibitions and permanent displays until 8pm on late opening evenings. For full visitor and accessibility information including any closure dates, please check our visiting page and our museum page.

A host of evening events are in the pipeline too. A series of lectures looks at the five centuries of the college, and we turn our thoughts to the garden with a series on medicinal plants. Our popular childrens’ ‘plague and potions’ workshop will return in May, and there’ll be something quite different with a life drawing class in late February.

Founding charter of the Royal College of Physicians, 1518.

Volunteer with us

The RCP museum is establishing a new team of volunteers to assist with delivering our RCP500 events throughout 2018. We are looking for friendly and enthusiastic people aged over 18 who have a passion for history, museums or medicine. Previous experience of volunteering in a ‘visitor experience’ role would be beneficial, but is not essential. Knowledge of medicine or the RCP is not required and full training will be offered.

For an application form, please contact history@rcplondon.ac.uk. The deadline for applications is Monday 28 January.

A list of all the RCP500 events and exhibitions can be downloaded now, and they’ll be listed on our new RCP500 website, which is due to launch on Thursday 18 January. Visit it to find out more about 500 years of RCP and medical history.  

Katie Birkwood, rare books and special collections librarian

  • The RCP is England’s oldest medical college, and is celebrating this year with a range of events leading up to the 500th anniversary of its founding charter on 23 September 2018. The RCP museum is usually open to the public Monday­–Friday, 9am–5pm. Check our opening information before you visit.

Read our weekly library, archive and museum blog to learn more about the RCP’s collections, and follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Join our 500th anniversary celebrations on Twitter: #RCP500.