Discover the story of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) over almost 5 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.