A college meeting in the early 19th century
A small group of distinguished physicians, led by the scholar, humanist and priest Thomas Linacre, petitioned King Henry VIII to be incorporated into a College similar to those found in a number of other European countries. The main functions of the college, as set down in the founding Charter, were to grant licences to those qualified to practise and to punish unqualified practitioners and those engaging in malpractice. This included apothecaries as well as physicians.
It was founded as the College of Physicians when it received a Royal Charter in 1518, affirmed by Act of Parliament in 1523. It is not known when the name "Royal College" was first assumed or granted. It came into use after the charter of 1663. It was legally confirmed in 1960 by the Royal College of Physicians of London Act (which was primarily required in order to move the premises of the college outside of the Cities of London or Westminster to Regent's Park).
The college has been continuously active in improving the practice of medicine since its foundation, primarily though the accreditation of physicians. It is a member of the UK Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. It is sometimes referred to as the Royal College of Physicians of London to differentiate it from other similarly named bodies. It was the first College of Physicians in Britain or Ireland. Its establishment followed the incorporation of the Barber-Surgeons of Dublin in 1446 (by Royal Decree of Henry VI of England as Lord of Ireland), which was the first medical corporation in Ireland or Britain; the Barber-Surgeons of Edinburgh were incorporated by the City of Edinburgh in 1505.
The Cutlerian Theatre in Warwick Lane, an anatomy theatre designed by Robert Hooke
rebuilt after the Fire (demolished 1866).
The frontispiece to the Royal College's pharmacopeia
, 1677. Engraving by David Loggan
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 first Harveian Librarian was Christopher Merret, a fellow of the college and a friend of Harvey. He was set up with a lifetime appointment that compensated him with room and board and a small stipend. In 1666, the Great fire of London destroyed many of the rooms and most of the books, so they tried to break the contract with Merret, but he fought them at the King's Court, claiming it was a lifetime appointment. He eventually lost the case, was expelled from the Fellowship, had to seek private lodgings and return the books he had rescued from the fire.
Throughout its history the college has issued advice across the whole range of medical and health matters. College publications include the first ten editions of the London Pharmacopoeia (written in Latin, and used for regulating the composition of medicines from 1618 and, through the college's police the Censors, for enforcing the college's monopoly on medical science, then being challenged by the Society of Apothecaries), and the 'Nomenclature of Diseases' in 1869. The latter created the international standard for the classification of diseases which was to last until the World Health Organization's Manual of the international classification of diseases superseded it in the twentieth century.
The college became the licensing body for medical books in the late seventeenth century, and sought to set new standards in learning through its own system of examinations. The college's tradition of examining continues to this day and it is still perhaps how the college is best known to the general public.
The Royal College of Physicians celebrated its 500-year anniversary in 2018.