Royal College of Physicians celebrates its 500th anniversary

And to mark the occasion, the medical masterminds are putting the gems from their archives on display for the whole year

Antimony cup held by curator Kristin Hussey. Photo: John Chase
Unbelievably established in 1518 with the granting of a royal charter by wife-beheading scoundrel King Henry VIII, this college is the oldest of its kind in England and Wales – and amongst the most ancient still operating anywhere in the world.

Founded to reward medicine’s finest practitioners, its role was also to protect the public from the ‘avarice’ of quacks and those guilty of malpractices. To celebrate its quincentennial – yep five centuries, no less – it’s quite rightly staging a year-long season of free exhibitions, public lectures and special events.

What to expect? From anatomical discoveries to treasures from its archives and museum collections, it aims to reveal medical history in “a brilliant new light”, say the organisers.

Various exhibitions take place throughout 2018 but the flagship show is Curators’ Curiosities, an anniversary heritage trail mining the college’s 6,000 paintings, sculptures and prints, 20,000 historic books on all manner of subjects, and a significant selection of medical artefacts.

Andreas Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Photo: John Chase
From portraiture by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Johan Joseph Zoffany and Dame Elisabeth Frink, to anatomical specimens and curious medical instruments, the items are a testament to the intersection of medicine, art and society.

Visitors will journey through the Grade I-listed building discovering highlights from the college’s collections, with changing displays throwing the spotlight on a particular object from the vaults.

Among the artefacts are the original founding documents bearing King Henry VIII’s great seal from 1518; an antimony cup from the 17th century used to ‘poison patients back to health’; a centuries-old forged medical qualification, and a remarkable 1930s machine for collapsing tuberculosis sufferers’ lungs. Wowsers.

A programme of guided visits, exhibition events, walking tours, study days and series of lectures is also on offer, as well as late openings on the first Thursday of each month.

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Curators’ Curiosities runs throughout the year at 11 St Andrews Place, NW1. Free entry. More info here.

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