The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) has spent over five centuries changing medicine and working for patients and doctors. Today, the RCP celebrates its 503rd birthday. In celebration of this milestone, we’ve taken the time to look back at the history of the royal college, whose existence is ultimately why our fantastic meetings and events venue operates today.
The early years
During the early 1500s, medical practice in England lacked formal regulation. Self-proclaimed ‘physicians’ would treat patients without adequate training or medical knowledge. Distinguished scholars and physicians, including Thomas Linacre, the king's physician, saw that these unregulated practitioners were undoubtedly doing more harm than good.
By 1518, six leading medical men, including Linacre, persuaded King Henry VIII to establish a College of Physicians.
The founding charter allowed these six men to grant licences to those qualified to practise and to prosecute those that engaged in malpractice. At that time, there were three main branches of medicine: physic, surgery and pharmacy. These men strived to regulate and improve the practice of physick. From that moment, the college has continued to play a pivotal role in raising standards and shaping public health.
On 23 September 1518, the College of Physicians was formally founded, receiving a Royal Charter. This was affirmed by an Act of Parliament in 1523, extending its powers from London to the whole of England.
The 1600s and beyond
In the 1600s surgery involved treating the sick by removing infected parts of the body, whether it was a tooth or a limb. It was practised by surgeons who learned through an apprenticeship with a master. Although there was a lot of theoretical knowledge of anatomy available, this was mostly accessed by the physicians, while surgeons studied the body in a more direct way. Over time practical surgical skills became more aligned with the theory of anatomy and formal qualifications. Dentistry became a separate branch of medicine, and surgeons, developing into specialist areas, achieved equal status with physicians.
Pharmacy involved the preparation of medicines from plants, minerals and other organic sources. It was practised by apothecaries who learned via an apprenticeship with a master. Physicians used theoretical knowledge about the effect these ingredients had on the body. Based on established theories of the time, they decided which ingredients in which combinations to prescribe. In practice, there were many apothecaries and very few physicians. A skilled apothecary prescribed, as well as produced the medicines, based on theory and experience.
Over time, pharmacy produced a new branch of medicine. Some apothecaries continued making and dispensing medicines, becoming modern pharmacists. Others focused on treating the sick from wide general experience and knowledge, also prescribing medicines. Today they are known as GPs.
In 21st century Britain, the RCP's core mission is to drive improvements in health and healthcare through advocacy, education and research. The RCP works with the government, politicians and other policymakers, royal colleges and other sector organisations to embed quality improvements in healthcare. The RCP also improves patient care directly in hospitals by developing guidelines for high-quality care on behalf of NICE, setting standards in key areas of care, and measuring that care through our clinical audits and accreditation schemes.
The RCP has a truly global network, with nearly one-fifth of its members based in over 80 countries worldwide. Its work spans high-, middle- and low-income countries, ranging from accreditation work and guideline development in the Middle East to clinical skills workshops in rural Nigeria. It also develops and co-ordinates globally recognised exams and delivers a wide range of projects aimed at strengthening health systems and improving medical standards across the globe.
Interested in finding out more about the RCP's history and tradition? Our timeline contains a detailed breakdown of the historical events that shaped the RCP throughout the centuries.
The college was based at three sites in the City of London near St Paul's Cathedral, before moving to Pall Mall East overlooking Trafalgar Square and finally on to its current location in Regent's Park. The current college building was designed by architect Sir Denys Lasdun, opening in 1964 and has since been recognised as a building of national importance: it is a Grade I listed building, one of a very select band of post-war buildings sharing this distinction. The current building houses our award-winning conference and events centre offering highly versatile facilities, including tiered auditoriums, conference, meeting, exhibition and dining spaces as well as a medicinal garden ideal for summer entertaining.