First Monday Library Chat: Royal College of Physicians

Welcome back to the First Monday Library Chat! Today we’re back in England talking to the Royal College of Physicians in London. The RCP Library has an extensive collection of rare books and manuscripts, acquired since its foundation in 1518. Joining me today are Katie Birkwood, Rare Books and Special Collections Librarian, and Pamela Forde, Archivist.

Please tell us a bit more about the diverse collections held in the Royal College of Physicians!

The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) has been collecting both books and papers from, for and by its membership since it was founded. As a result the archives and library go back to the foundation of the institution in 1518 and contain a wealth of material on contemporary medicine and academic learning throughout its history. The archives contain a fascinating and eclectic collection of handwritten works, including an illuminated 13th century psalter, a rare mid 15th copy of the Canterbury Tales, and many medieval medical compendiums.

The library contains printed books dating from the 1470s to the present day.  Today we collect in the medical specialties covered by the RCP, as well as titles on the history of medicine, medical biography and medical education. Historically our collecting has been much broader, encompassing books on mathematics, music, astronomy, alchemy, travel, the classics and many other topics.

How does the legacy of the Royal College of Physicians shape the Library collection? Are Fellows still significant donors, and are they still your primary target audience? 

Fellows continue to donate books and papers to the library and archives. For example, the Evan Bedford library of cardiology was given to the RCP in 1971. Our collections are open for onsite access by anyone with a research interest, regardless of RCP membership status.

As well as collecting papers and publications, the organization publishes a unique biographical series which lists the known life and career details of every past member between 1518 and 1825, and every past fellow (voting member) since then. Almost 7000 entries have been published, to date. This obituary series is available at Munk’s Roll. This celebration of the lives and achievements of members illustrates how central the physicians were and are to advancing medical theory and practice.

Some of your original collection was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Do you know what was destroyed? Can you discuss what collecting choices were made afterwards to rebuild the Library?

A catalogue of the library collections was compiled and published in 1660. This lists nearly 1,300 titles, of which only around 100 were rescued from the fire. Several of the items which survived are among the oldest in any of the collections. They also display an interest in medicine and medical knowledge from across the world. The archives contain an Arabic copy of the Canon of Avicenna from 1214. This had been donated by the well-known collector and scholar John Selden in 1654. Although not a member, the library was so well known that Selden donated his medical works to it. This set of 11 works in Arabic was saved from the fire and forms the core of an unusual collection of Islamic medical manuscripts of the medieval and early modern period.

After the fire, the college library was substantially rebuilt by the donation of the library of Henry Pierrepont, Marquis of Dorchester (1607–1680). Dorchester was a lawyer, and the college’s first honorary fellow.  His library of over 3,000 volumes included medical, legal, mathematical and philosophical works, and was installed in a new library building in 1688. Within this collection are over 100 books which previously belonged to Elizabethan scholar, astrologer and occultist John Dee.

How many recipe books and formularies – both print and manuscript – do you have in your collection? Do you have any handlists or finding aids, or is it best to just begin by searching your catalogue?

The RCP has 40 handwritten medical manuals in the archives. They date from the 16th to the 19th century and contain treatments for everything from baldness to cancer, as well as recipes for making cordials, jams, rabbit stew, smothered turkey and more.

MS509 - p.23, medical prescriptions and cookery recipes, c18th century, lung's water, raspberry wine
MS509 – p.23: medical prescriptions and cookery recipes, c18th century. “Lung’s Water” and “Raspberry Wine”

There are also over 40 published manuals of medical and household recipes in the library, dating from the 16th century onwards, with several modern facsimiles of medieval and early modern works.

More information about the manuals and searching the archives catalogue is available is on the RCP website, and the library catalogue is available online.  Searching for either recipe or medical recipe should find all the receipt manuals and printed versions.

Readers of this blog are generally interested in the history of “Food, Magic, Science and Medicine”, as the sub-title goes. Could you highlight a few lesser-known items that might appeal to patrons with these interests?

Our medicinal and culinary receipt books contain very varied entries:

  • MS251, written by Mary Goodson, dated 1687, is mostly a cookery book, with very few medical treatments. It includes an interesting recipe for making chocolate which uses cocoa pods, cinnamon, sugar, aniseed and pepper.

    MS251 - receipt book_Mary Goodson, 1687, chocolate recipe
    MS251, written by Mary Goodson, dated 1687 “To Make Chocolate”
  • MS262, written in the first half of the 15th century, is a testament to the violent times in which it was produced. It is a medical receipt book which mostly contains treatments for wounds and fractures. It suggests a helpful method of triage “jus of pympernell and tempir it with water, ande gaffe it to hyme drynk it; and iff it cum out at the wounde yen he shall dye”.
  • MS354, written about 1300, including texts by Geber, is an alchemical recipe book, with instructions on the transformation of metals.
  • MS534, written supposedly by Lady Catherine Sedley, c.1686, is interesting because not only is there doubt as to the identity of the original author but it is written in two distinct hands.
  • MS654, written by Sarah Wigges and her daughter, from 1616, contains a charm and an elaborate ritual for getting rid of a toothache.

Our printed books include some rare editions of the popular Regiment of lyfe and Book of children both translated from French into English in the early 16th century by Thomas Phayer. The Book of children includes various medicinal recipes including one against worms in children recommending the use of a poultice made from ox gallbladder and cumin.

Another printed book is the 1696 edition of The Queen’s closet opened; being incomparable secrets in physick, chyurgery, preserving and candying, etc., a collection of recipes which claimed to be those presented in the Royal kitchen of Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I. Our copy has the inscription of a certain Mary Prideaux, dated 1708: comparatively rare physical evidence of women’s book ownership and use.

Queen's Closet Opened, with Mary Prideau inscription

Thanks, Katie and Pamela! Researchers using rare books, manuscripts and archives should make an appointment prior to visiting the RCP Library.


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