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‘Rarityes of nature, books, instruments and other things’: RCP archive and museum catalogues

The RCP’s collections include physical and digital library resources, archival records and museum objects. Our library catalogue is already established online and now, spanning more than 800 years of medical and social history, you can also search the archive and museum catalogues online as well.

Highlights among our museum objects include:

English tin-glazed earthenware wet drug jar for Egyptian ointment. 1679

The archive catalogue is where you will find records of the RCP, as well as records of physicians and their patients. Gems from this collection include:

  • 13th-century hospital grants
  • fabulously illustrated Arabic textbooks
  • anatomical and medical drawings
  • the RCP’s founding charter and annals
  • diaries and casebooks of physicians
  • correspondence from figures such as:
Water colour drawing of varicella (chickenpox) made for Thomas Bateman. W T Strutt, 1797–1814.

Harvey himself was passionate about developing the RCP’s collections and personally funded a museum and library space at our then-home on Amen Corner near St Paul’s Cathedral. His central role in this project was kept secret at the time, as the RCP needed to ingratiate itself with the Commonwealth government and Harvey had been an active royalist during the English civil war. Fortunately, however, Harvey was able to attend the opening of the new Museum Harveianum in 1654, a space that RCP president George Ent (1604–1689) described in his speech as ‘an elegant abode of the muses’.

Harvey also established the post of Harveian librarian, a role that, to this day, entails responsibility for the RCP’s artefacts, archives and library resources. The first Harveian librarian was Christopher Merrett (1614–1695), who produced a catalogue of the newly expanded collection, which included not only books and medical instruments, but also a pelican, an armadillo and a crocodile.

Merrett’s custodianship was part catastrophic and part heroic. He left the College unguarded during the plague outbreak of 1665, allowing virtually our entire silver collection to be looted, leaving the College bankrupt. However, in September the next year, as the Great Fire of London raged and most Londoners scrabbled to save their own personal possessions, Merrett and the College bedell rescued from the flames several of the College’s most important archival records, 100 books, and several precious artefacts.

The College building and Harvey’s museum were burned to the ground and, as the ash settled, the College declared that since it had lost most of its collection, it no longer needed a librarian. They sacked Merrett, who retaliated by holding hostage the books and items he had rescued. College fellow Charles Goodall kept a list of these items. After a court tussle, Merrett was ordered to return the College’s possessions and was stripped of his fellowship.

A Note of such books etc. as were preserved from the fire and belonging to the College of Physicians, London. Charles Goodall, 1667.

The College’s library was not diminished for long, as in 1680 we were given the complete personal collection of Henry Pierrepont, the Marquis of Dorchester, who had been an honorary fellow and friend of the College. His library collection was one of the finest in Europe and Christopher Wren was commissioned to design an extension to house it at our splendid new post-Fire home in Warwick Lane.

Since then, the number of medical and ceremonial objects displayed in the RCP’s museum has grown, thanks in huge part to contributions from individuals, such as the fabulous Symons collection and Hoffbrand apothecary jars. Our archives have also expanded as the RCP itself has continued to generate records, and we have received generous donations of personal and professional papers from physicians, patients and their families. Recent additions to the archive catalogue include the personal papers of Alan Nabarro, one of the first insulin users in the UK, and the ship’s logs of Theodore Preston, a 19th-century Royal Navy surgeon.

Searching the archive

Archive material can be viewed in the reading room of our Regent’s Park building. Once you find items in the catalogue you would like to view, let us know the reference numbers and we can arrange a time for you to visit. For example, you would find Dr Goodall’s list of rescued books if you were searching specifically for ‘Goodall’, or if you were looking for records relating to ‘Merrett’ and ‘fire’.

Make sure you are searching within the collection you wish to search (archives or museum). Many of our museum objects are on display around our Regent’s Park building or form part of our varied programme of exhibitions. For more information, contact history@rcplondon.ac.uk.

Felix Lancashire, assistant archivist

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