500 years ago, the Protestant Reformation was just beginning in Western Europe, explorers like Juan de Grijalva and Martin Fernandez de Encisco were publishing discoveries on the New World, the earliest printed use of the plus and minus signs for arithmetic was published and a small group of physicians were granted a royal charter that would change the medical world forever…
Happy 500th birthday, RCP!
That’s right; this month marks the 500th birthday of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), the oldest medical college in London, delivering five centuries worth of progress, innovation and breakthroughs in the medical field.
So how did this small group of 16th-century physicians ultimately become a leading, global force in health and medicine? How does an institution not only survive but thrive after hundreds of years filled with epidemics, natural disasters, legal battles, world wars and continued industrial and technological disruption?
In honor and celebration of this monumental occasion, we’ve taken a look back at the RCP through the centuries to see just what it takes to make it to the big 5-0-0.
The Royal College of Physicians was founded on September 23, 1518 in response to a lack of regulation in the medical field. To combat “the quacks” and impose consequences on malpractice, the small group of leading physicians secured a royal charter from King Henry VIII to grant licenses to those with actual credentials and to punish unqualified practitioners.
In 1523, an Act of Parliament expanded their reach to all of England and the premises of the college were settled. The first official committee was created in 1555 and meeting recordings began. Just 10 years later, the RCP received the right to collect four bodies of hanged criminals every year for anatomy lessons and studies. The College was officially on the medical map, and began conducting research as a growing institution.
The first few decades of the 17th century showed promise for the young RCP.
Esteemed RCP fellow William Harvey started delivering the College’s famous anatomy lectures and in 1628 published his groundbreaking theory on the circulation of blood. Through a series of experiments, Harvey demonstrated that the heart is a pump, pushing the blood through the body with every beat. The findings were a radical departure from the prevailing belief that the lungs were responsible for blood circulation.
But, in 1665, the RCP’s fate took a turn. After fleeing London due to a devastating outbreak of the plague, RCP members returned to the College’s premises to find the office robbed, with all its valuables gone. Not even a year later, the Great Fire of London destroyed the College’s premises completely, along with most of its library’s content and official records. Despite these sizable setbacks, the RCP persevered and built a new home in 1674 to continue its research.
This century brought another set of distinct challenges to the College in addition to groundbreaking advances. First, in 1704 the College lost its monopoly on medical advice due to the expense of the fees and the rise of general practitioners and pharmacists. The general feeling of unrest continued as non-voting members of the College disrupted meetings and rioted against their lack of power.
However, these obstacles did not stop the College from advancing. In 1768, it published its first journal, Medical Transactions, with the aim of disseminating authoritative information on diseases and treatments to further the knowledge of the profession. This would mark the beginning of a long, successful future in publishing world-class medical content.
In the 19th century, RCP expertise was drawn upon by successive governments as long-overdue medical reforms were introduced, including the Medical Act of 1858. The Medical Act created the General Medical Council (GMC), which is now the regulator for the medical profession, taking over regulatory roles from many of the traditional medical institutions and directly impacting the RCP, which lost its regulatory role. The GMC also took over the pharmacopoeia, a list of medicinal drugs and their effects, previously published by the College, and published the list of approved drugs for use in medicines across England from then on.
In 1869, the College published the Nomenclature, a definitive classification of diseases, which remained the standard until the 1960 publication by the World Health Organization.
During the first four centuries of the RCP’s history, women were excluded from membership and struggled to gain a foothold in the medical profession. However, the 20th century marked a critical turning point; in 1909, the College began to include women, allowing them to sit for exams and become licensed practitioners.
Over the next several decades, opportunities continued to arise as women were officially invited to become fellows (voting members) in 1925. As the first female fellow, Helen Mackay was elected in 1934 and proceeded to change the global attitude towards infant feeding, and became an authority on anemia of dietetic origin in childhood. Many years later, Dame Margaret Turner-Warwick, one of the world’s leading thoracic physicians, was appointed as the first female president of the Royal College of Physicians in 1989.
The 20th century also marked a pivotal shift for the College as it started to assume an “active voice” in the community; this was a notable retreat from its historic impartiality that declined to offer any public advice on matters of health. This was exemplified in the RCP’s 1962 publication Smoking and health, a groundbreaking study that detailed the dangers of smoking. While this would hardly appear earth shattering to us in 2018, smoking was a hugely popular habit at the time and the claim that cigarettes were linked to cancer was received with skepticism. As the tobacco industry was also a major source of employment and revenue for the government, it is hardly surprising that the report was met with varying degrees of acceptance.
In spite of this backlash, the evidence-based report proved to be highly influential, selling over 33,000 copies and ultimately leading to a decrease in cigarette sales over time. Today, the RCP’s Tobacco Advisory Group continues to investigate and disseminate the harmful impact of smoking.
The RCP continues to exert its influence in the medical field, with the first two decades of the 21st century marked by the publication of several critical studies and reports. Published in 2010, the Passive smoking and children report led to a ban on smoking in enclosed spaces. In 2013, the Future hospital: caring for medical patients report, together with the Future Hospital Commission, addressed growing concerns about the standards of care currently seen in hospitals and made recommendations for providing patients with the safe, high-quality, sustainable care that they deserve.
In addition to other notable publications, these reports have led to a number of proposals and responses in the medical community, demonstrating the RCP’s continued influence and authority on public health.
With 500 years under its belt, the RCP has created a new charter this year “to reaffirm the commitment made by physicians to provide the highest standards of patient care; train, develop and support doctors; act as leaders; and promote good health and prevention of ill health.” The RCP now has 34,000 members in 33 specialties.
So how does a society that has persevered through five centuries of both challenges and innovation celebrate its 500th anniversary? Over the next several months, the RCP will be hosting special events to highlight its fascinating past, thriving present and exciting future. Celebrations include open houses, exhibitions of collections, informative lectures, study tours and extended museum hours.
Happy anniversary to the Royal College of Physicians! We can’t wait to see what the next 500 years will bring.
To learn more about the RCP’s incredible history and explore its extraordinary collections, visit The Royal College of Physicians: a Wiley Digital Archives Collection.
Image Credit: Claire O'Neill
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