The history of medicine like you’ve never seen it before.
The Royal College of Physicians has been collecting fascinating and extraordinary objects, stunning works of art, recorded interviews, rare books and diverse documents for over 500 years.
In 2021 – at a moment of unparalleled interest in all matters medical – the college is showcasing some of its most remarkable unseen riches for the very first time in a new online exhibition.
The more than 80 items on display range from the magical to the medical, the purely practical to the beautiful, the morally dubious to the historically significant. Amongst the tongue scrapers and leech applicators, the plaster spreaders and castor oil spoons are truly unique objects.
Highlights include a glass prism thought to have been owned by Sir Isaac Newton and deployed in his exploration of the nature of light and optics, an ether vaporiser originally believed to have been used to administer anaesthetic to Queen Victoria during the birth of one of her nine children, and one of the first stethoscopes ever made, belonging to the French physician René Laennec, inventor of the device that has come to symbolise the work of doctors worldwide.
Other treasures take in some of the earliest printed books in Europe, a beautiful silver box that once contained a bezoar stone (of Harry Potter fame), and works of art by Sir John Everett Millais, John Singer Sargent, William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray amongst others.
No objects exemplify the ongoing relevance of the collections more than a set of surgical blades likely owned by Edward Jenner, the British doctor widely credited with the invention of disease-conquering process of vaccination.
From fine silverware to medieval dancing manuals, insulin injectors to opulent portraits, doctors’ canes to surgical apparatus, astrological textbooks to anatomical illustrations. The collections of the Royal College of Physicians are as eclectic and unexpected as they are immense. Spanning the 15th to the 21st centuries and a vast range of pursuits from the intellectual to the decorative, the previously hidden treasures on display in this online exhibition offer a unique perspective not only on the history of medicine, but the relationship between medicine and humankind through time.
Free from 18 January 2021 online at the Royal College of Physicians museum website.
The exhibition is accompanied by a programme of online events. A season of talks, virtual tours and workshops will be held throughout the year, with details appearing on the exhibition webpage. See the events page at https://history.rcplondon.ac.uk/events