Examining 700 years of trusted, historic medical research
The Royal College of Physicians was founded in 1518 by King Henry VIII, in response to a critical need for more stringent guidelines around the medical practice. It is the oldest medical college in England, and a leading professional membership body for physicians, with 37,000 members and fellows worldwide.
The organization works to improve health by influencing the way that healthcare is designed and delivered, promoting good health, preventing disease and enabling physicians to fulfill their potential.
Centuries after its founding charter, the Royal College of Physicians continues to play a pivotal role in setting and raising medical standards, and improving the health of the global population.
The history of medicine—from folklore to modern public health policy
The Royal College of Physicians archive, which ranges from the year 1205 through 1980, reflects the history and development of modern Western medicine, while documenting the interactions of the medical community with monarchs, politicians, and the general public.
Collections within this two-million-image archive cover a broad range of topics, from astronomy and anatomical studies to neurology and botanical research.
There is also a good deal of information related to the establishment of medical practice standards and medical education, as well as the formation of specialized fields of practice as we know them today.
- Development of Mental Health
- History of Medicine
- History of the Royal College of Physicians
- Regulation, Law, Policy & Control
- Medical Humanities
- Medieval & Early Modern Texts
- Non-Western Medicine
- Anatomical Studies
- World Health
- Vaccinations & the History of Pharmacology
- Evolution & Nomenclature of Diseases & Medical Treatment
- Public Health & Health Culture
- Military Medicine & Practice
- Early Medical Textbooks & Education
Primary Source Materials
- Committee Records
- Domestic Recipe & Medical Manuals
- Grants, Charters & Statutes
- Illustrations, Sketches & Drawings
- Personal Papers
- Medical Textbooks
- Treatment Records
- Surveys & Questionnaires
The Origin of the Smallpox Vaccine
Smallpox was rampant for thousands of years, killing one in every three people infected. While many physicians attempted to treat the disease with everything from bloodletting to hanging red curtains around the bed, English physician and scientist Edward Jenner spent his time thinking about how to prevent the disease from occurring at all.
There had long been tales of milkmaids who, after contracting cowpox, built up an immunity to smallpox. Jenner extracted the pus from a cowpox pustule and developed a smallpox vaccine—a term he derived from vacca, which is Latin for “cow.” He tested in on an eight-year-old boy in 1796 with great success.
By 1853, the vaccination became compulsory. By 1979, smallpox was officially eradicated. This archive contains Jenner’s diaries and letters, related reports, and information on public resistance that marked the beginning of anti-vaccination movement that’s still alive today.
Healers or quacks? Domestic medicine over 4 centuries
Until recently, access to professional medical care remained the privilege of the very rich. There were very few formally educated medical doctors. Everyone else had to develop local systems for treating disease and sickness.
Healers tended to belong to local families with treatments and ‘recipes’ for cures passed down from generation to generation.
These healers were often literate and kept books recording their cures and ingredients. They would also include cures from other sources including published manuals, designed for families and communities to use to treat their sick.
This digital archive contains many examples of such books.
“Shell Shock” and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
The origins of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder date back to World War I. As the magnitude of wartime munitions and incidences of shelling attacks increased, soldiers began returning from battle with a multitude of conditions with no apparent cause, ranging from paralysis and panic attacks to nervous disorders and the inability to eat or sleep. Physicians of the time categorized the condition as an unexplained heart disorder.
Scottish cardiologist and RCP fellow Sir James Mackenzie, a pioneer in the study of arrythmias, was called to treat soldiers as a consultant to the Military Heart Hospital. He began treating soldiers for PTSD, without fully understanding what it really was. He believed that “shell shock” or “Soldiers’ Heart” occurred because the physical burden and extreme exhaustion of war enabled toxic bacteria to form in the central nervous system.
His recommendation of outdoor games, exercise and leisurely activities to promote healing was a departure from other therapies, as was his belief that the condition was not cardiac in nature. This archive contains McKenzie’s World War I case notes as well as letters and reports related to mental illness and treatments—including physician letters discussing King George III’s own mental illness.
Andreas Vesalius—Revolutionizing the Study of Biology
For centuries, the human anatomy was a bit of a mystery. Because human dissection was forbidden in medieval times, most theories around how the human body worked came from animal dissection and a healthy dose of supposition.
For centuries, the anatomy books written by 2nd century Greek physician Galen were the guideposts of medical education, although his theories were based upon studying apes and pigs. Then, in the 16 century, a Renaissance physician named Andreas Vesalius took a different stance. Based on observations of human dissections on cadavers, he wrote and illustrated the first comprehensive textbook of anatomy. His detailed descriptions and use of illustrations—a practice not common at the time—revolutionized biology and the practice of medicine.
This archive features Vesalius’ masterwork, De humani corporis fabrica, as well as notes, lectures and correspondence documenting the evolution of the study of human anatomy.
Women in Medicine
Although women have long played a role in providing medical care, becoming a physician was only a pipedream until well into the 1800s.
This resistance didn’t deter Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.
She enrolled as a nursing student at Middlesex Hospital, and was eventually barred from attending classes with male colleagues after they launched complaints. She took and passed the Society of Apothecaries examination in 1865, scoring higher than her male counterparts. In response, the Society changed its rules to ban female entrants from obtaining a license.
She eventually earned her medical degree, becoming the first female to qualify as a physician in England—and continued to advocate for women in the medical profession—and beyond.
Several collections in this archive contain the papers of pioneering Women in Medicine, including letters and materials from Garrett Anderson and other female practitioners.
Astrology and Early Medical Practice
Early physicians believed the human body was part of the universe, so patient treatment was directly influenced by other scientific disciplines.
For example, in Renaissance Europe, astrology played a significant role in everyday medical practice. Physicians combined their medical knowledge with careful study of the stars, and often carried almanacs with star charts, which were thought to rule each part of the body.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that emergent scientific disciplines led to the breakdown of astrology as part of the medical realm.
Tilli Tansey, OBE
Emeritus Professor of the History of Modern Medical Sciences, Honorary Archivist at The Physiological Society, Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, and Honorary Fellow at the Royal College of Physicians
Queen Mary University of London
Assoc. Professor, Department of History, Director, Public Health B.A., and Book Reviews Editor, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
College of Charleston
Royal College of Physicians
Rare Books and Special Collections Librarian
Royal College of Physicians