Medical museum at Royal College of Physicians – nipple guards and poison

Many young doctors do a tour of this museum after they qualify: medics will get an idea of both the history of medicine and how doctors achieved such a high status British society.  Originally set up under Henry VIII in 1518, the idea of the Royal College was partly to establish a hierarchy and make clear that physicians were more important than the other two great medical groupings – the apothecaries and the surgeons.  In those days, and for at least a couple of hundred years afterwards, anyone who was ill and could afford it, would see a physician who would talk to them, provide a diagnosis and suggest a cure.  The physician would not actually touch the patient of administer the treatment himself – that “dirty” work would be done by the apothecary or the surgeon.  Physicians saw themselves as gentlemen and when they had their portraits painted these would convey the idea that they were men of learning, wealthy and civilised.  These pictures of former heads of the Royal College illustrate the point.

Portraits of former heads of the Royal College of Physicians
Portraits of former heads of the Royal College of Physicians

The museum houses some unusual items such as this small porcelain model of a woman.  The idea here is that women seeing the physician might have been too modest to take off her clothes and show him the area of concern but instead they would indicate in the model where her body was hurting.  Other items that catch the eye are the nipple protectors and the various spoon-like devices for getting medicine down people’s throats without them tasting the bitterness of the concoction.  The tongue scrapers also reveal a practice that is not now widely practiced.  Some early treatments were quite brutal such as the “Antinomy Cup” which would be filled overnight with a wine that would absorb some of the antinomy.  In the morning the patient would drink the wine steeped in antinomy.  On the periodic table antinomy is next to arsenic and is poisonous so the treatment would usually either make the patient die or, after severe vomiting and pain, they would recover.  This treatment is the origin of the expression “kill or cure”.

Porcelain model used to indicate the area of the body which was affected by a maladie
Porcelain model used to indicate the area of the body which was affected by an illness or infection

Pomp and pageantry have always been a part of the medical profession and this is very much on show at the Royal College with the 1683 Mace which is the sister mace to the more famous rod on display in front of the Speaker at the House of Commons.

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1683 Ceremonial golden mace – sister to the one used in the house of commons for parliamentary openings and when the house is in session

Some of the great medical discoveries are illustrated in the College of Physicians displays.  For example the proof by William Harvey that blood circulated and was not directly related to food in the way that had previously been believed.  Harvey took an animal heart and pumped water through it to show that the volume of water pumped meant that it had to be in a totally separate system from the digestive tract.  Like other scientists of the time he was slow to publish his results and only did so in 1628, 12 years after his experiment with water and the animal heart.

The Royal College of Physicians
The Royal College of Physicians

The whole medical museum is housed in an extraordinary modern square building which is in fact the fifth home that the Royal College of Physicians has had since 1518 – the last one being next to the Canadian Embassy in Trafalgar square and the current base being at St Andrew’s Place next to Regent’s Park.  It was controversial when it was built in the early 1960s and remains a rather incongruous bit of architecture.  Sir Denys Lasdun, who also designed the National Theatre with its brutal concrete, designed the new headquarters for the Physicians after Sir Isaac Wolfson generously agreed to pay for the building.  Lasdun hoped that his square-blocky building would “match and rhyme” with the elegant Nash Terrace adjoining but to many people the result verges on the disastrous: for example the marble tiles with which the building is clad were chosen to be the same colour as the Nash Terrace in the 1960s but as the Terrace has now been repainted the rhyming as become somewhat discordant.  Lasdun wanted the first floor to overhang the entrance creating an open and protected area in front of the main entrance – unfortunately the engineers weren’t confident that the cantilevering would be strong enough so they insisted that he put in three rectangular supporting pillars which have the effect of cluttering up the entrance, actually almost blocking it.  It can’t be described as a fine example of glass and concrete because the architect chose not put in large windows which could have given spectacular views across Regent’s Park – instead he mostly put in slit windows which would be ideal for firing arrows at approaching critics.  The building has been described by its critics as looking like a battleship or a sausage factory.  At least the medical material on display inside is worth a look.

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