One of the most unusual and lesser known museums in London is the Royal College of Physicians Museum located near Regent’s Park. The collections at the Royal College of Physicians relate to the history of the college, and the history of the Physician’s profession.
The Royal College of Physicians is a professional body dedicated to improving the practice of medicine, chiefly through the accreditation of physicians by examination. It was founded in 1518 and has based in three locations throughout its history, the City of London near St Paul’s Cathedral, Pall Mall (overlooking Trafalgar Square), and Regent’s Park. The present Royal College of Physicians building was designed by architect Sir Denys Lasdun, opened in 1964 and has since been recognised as a building of national importance with a Grade I Listing, one of a very select band of post-war buildings to share this distinction.
The museum has elements all around the building which gives the opportunity for visitors to appreciate some of the fine points of the remarkable building.
The Royal College of Physicians has had a library since its foundation in 1518, although many of the original books were destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666. However it still has a wide selection of rare books and special collections including classical medical texts by Greek, Roman and Arabic doctors books belonging to Elizabethan astrologer and occultist John Dee.
All around the building is a selection of portraits associated with presidents, Fellows and other physicians associated with the college from its foundation in 1518 to the present day.
The silver collection has few pieces pre-dating the Great Fire of London (1666) but Baldwin Hamey’s inkstand bell and William Harvey’s whalebone demonstration rod, tipped with silver do survive. Many pieces of silver are used for formal occasions in the college. Special objects include the President’s staff of office, the caduceus and the silver-gilt College mace.
Some of the more stranger objects in the museum are six 17th-century anatomical tables, these were probably made by drying and mounting the actual blood vessels and nerves of the human body onto blocks of wood and then varnishing them. They were used as a teaching aid for teaching anatomy.
The Symons Collection of medical instruments is not for the squeamish with collection of objects relating to self-care in Georgian times and expanded to include items that would have been used by physicians when treating patients, mostly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The modernist building does offer a major surprise for visitors, the Royal College of Physicians’ Censors Room has a 17th-century oak-panelled interior. Historically, medical students gained their licence to practise after passing a difficult viva voce examination held in the Censors Room. The interior has been used in the three former locations of the Royal College of Physicians and is a physical and tangible part of the college’s history.
All the attractions are not inside the building, The Royal College of Physicians’ garden contains over 1,100 plants, all with links to medicine. Visitors can enjoy the peace and calm of the garden and admire the main building from outside.
The Museum often presents special exhibitions that include objects from the collection within a particular theme and holds a series of events throughout the year.
The Royal College of Physicians Museum is a fascinating insight in the medical profession and its long and sometimes strange history. Many of the collections have been built up by physicians over the centuries and provide plenty of interest and discussion. The building is perfectly suited to the modern and ancient aspects of the Physicians profession and it well worth a visit on its own merits.
Admission to the collections are free and are open to the general public Monday to Friday 9 am – 5 pm, however access to some parts of the building may be restricted if there is official events taking place.
Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended
For more information, visit the Royal College of Physicians website here
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