Harold on History | Shakespeare, Elizabethan Medicine and 500 Years of the Royal College of Physicians

“The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.”
— Winston Churchill in March 1944 addressing the Royal College of Physicians (London)

The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) is celebrating its 500-year anniversary. In February, Queen Elizabeth II unveiled a modern-day RCP500 charter that focuses on professionalism and reaffirms the commitment made by member physicians to provide the highest standards of patient care; train, develop and support doctors; act as leaders and promote good health and prevention of ill health. All values that have remained constant since the RCP was founded by King Henry VIII on September 23, 1518.

The oldest medical college in England, its charter enabled the RCP to license and regulate medical practice in London. An Act of Parliament in 1523 extended the RCP’s authority and licensing powers to all of England. Thomas Linacre, a royal physician and cleric, was a driving force behind the founding of the RCP, to protect the public from unscrupulous practitioners by examining and licensing physicians. He was inspired by professional self-regulation of medical institutions in Italy and petitioned the King in 1517 to charter a Royal Medical College. Linacre established the RCP in his home near St. Paul’s Cathedral. The current headquarters is in a listed building in Regent’s Park in London.

The RCP, with 34,000 fellows and members, has been honored by the patronage of Queen Elizabeth II. It continues to play a pivotal role in raising standards and shaping public health policy across England. Earlier this month, I was humbled to receive honorary fellowship in the RCP (photos below).

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William Wanamaker, MD
Credit: Neil McLeod, DDS
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Samuel Wanamaker
Credit: Public Domain
Cardiology Magazine ImageHarold J. C. Swan, MD, PhD, MACC

My colleague William Wanamaker, MD, who died in 2006, was a cardiologist with an avid interest in Elizabethan Medicine, the plays of William Shakespeare and the Royal College of Physicians. He was also an honorary member of the RCP. His brother, Samuel Wanamaker, was a well-known American actor and director who moved to England after becoming fearful of being blacklisted in Hollywood because of his liberal sympathies. Samuel Wanamaker is credited for the modern re-creation of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London and founding the Shakespeare Globe Trust in 1970. Dr. Wanamaker along with his brother Samuel were instrumental in fundraising efforts for the “new” Globe Theater, built near the original location adjacent to the Thames River. Early donors included my mentor and former president of ACC Harold J. C. Swan, MD, PhD, MACC, and members of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center staff.

In July 1993, Samuel Wanamaker was made an Honorary Commander of the British Empire (CBE) by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of his efforts with the new Shakespeare Globe Theater. He died later that year and did not see the formal opening of the theater by the Queen in June 1997.

In Elizabethan England, the founding of the RCP was linked to the practice of medicine, and medicine was integral in the plays of William Shakespeare. In 2002, a three-day seminar on Shakespeare and medicine, organized by Dr. Wanamaker, was held at the Globe Theatre.

The concept of disease at the time, including the four bodily humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm) thought to be critical to health, figured prominently in Shakespeare’s plays, along with references to the influence of the stars, planets and constellations on human health.

Shakespeare’s protagonists were steeped in the medical culture of their day. Romeo and Juliet met their tragic end after taking the apothecary’s poison. Henry VIII subsequently promoted the Pharmacy Wares, Drugs, and Stuffs Act in 1540 empowering physicians to inspect apothecaries’ wares and destroy them if defective. The apothecaries’ efforts to be recognized as independent practitioners were rewarded in 1617, a year after Shakespeare’s death, when the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries was founded under James I. Apothecaries' Hall in Blackfriars Lane, built in 1632, is the oldest meeting hall in the City of London with remnants that survived the Great Fire of 1666. I was privileged to attend a dinner event at Apothecaries Hall that was hosted by the British Cardiovascular Society.

As William Osler, MD, noted, “The best preparation for tomorrow is to do today’s work superbly well.” We honor the legacy of Shakespeare, Elizabethan Medicine and 500 Years of the Royal College of Physicians.

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Queen Elizabeth II unveils the Royal College of Physicians RCP500 charter, recommitting the RCP to maintaining high standards of care for patients – values that have remained constant for over 500 years.

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John Gordon Harold, MD, FACC, received Honorary Royal College of Physicians Fellowship in July 2018.

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John Gordon Harold, MD, FACC, received Honorary Royal College of Physicians Fellowship in July 2018.

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Leaders from the ACC join the British Cardiovascular Society Presidents Dinner at Apothecaries' Hall in 2009. From left to right: Fred Bove, MD, PhD, MACC; Huon Gray, MD, MACC; Dipti Itchhaporia, MD, FACC; John C. (Jack) Lewin, MD; and John Gordon Harold, MD, MACC.

Keywords: ACC Publications, Cardiology Magazine, Professional Role, Fellowships and Scholarships, Professional Autonomy, Mentors, Health Policy, ACC History


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