Friday, 19 February 2016

The Royal College of Physicians

11 St Andrew's Place, Regents Park. NW1 4LE

Thursday 18 February 2016

Linda and I were lured to this museum by the promise of an exhibition about Dr John Dee, but we were interested to see the Denys Lasdun building which replaces the bit of the John Nash Terrace known as Someries House.  This had been bombed during the Second World War, and the Crown Estate Commissioners were happy with the (now Grade I listed) modernist design, which was completed in 1964.  Not everyone was happy:  an unidentified neighbour, quoted in the lobby said 'This was an elegant, gracious street, and now they slap us in the face with this thing'.

The Doctor Dee Exhibition was upstairs, but first we made use of the handsome loos and friendly cloakroom, and had a look around the ground floor. This is adorned with a case full of those ceramic medicine jars which feature in most medical museums, and also leads into the Treasure Room of the College, which was full of 'wonderful things'.  Like many male dominated institutions from the middle ages to the present day, fine dining is an important part of the life of the College. I wonder whether, with a woman president, this tradition will continue. Linda and I much admired the wonderful silverware, particularly the charming grape scissors embellished with tiny bunches of grapes. 

We were also very interested in the various medical items on display, beginning with the Prujean Chest, designed to carry surgical instruments on seaboard, or mule-back to where they were needed in war zones. We saw some of the coins handed out to people 'touched' to cure the King's Evil.  My mother used to suggest that if you were going to get within touching distance of the monarch, you might have a really good wash, which might help your scrofula symptoms, but I am just as ready to believe in a miracle...  A slight shudder marked our spotting of a range of nipple shields, and we also noted the leech jars and applicators.  An antimony cup, made of toxic metal to encourage vomiting, reminded us of the obsession of our ancestors with the need to purge poisons out of the system. One of the highlights, for me, was a set of ivory handled acupuncture needles from the end of the nineteenth century, since I had thought that the whole 'chinese medicine' thing was a fairly recent phenomenon.  Other ivory items included the handles of canes, for status, and pointers , for use by lecturers. (Which reminds me to say that there were several conferences and lectures going on in various meeting rooms and theatres)

So then it was time to head upstairs to the Dr Dee exhibition, which is displayed around the galleries of the stairwell. As we went, we passed various other cases, including one containing a modern cartoon. This illustrated Baron Munchausen's claim that he had used a balloon to keep the entire college suspended in the air for three months;  but that since they were at dinner when he did the deed, there was no risk of the members being hungry 

John Dee never completed his degree, nor qualified formally as a Physician; nonetheless he was a Member of the College.  The reason for the exhibition is that the Library houses over 100 volumes which belonged to the scholar, courtier and magician.  He annotated all his books, with doodles, or comments, or dates, or underlinings.  So it is possible to learn about his life by looking at the books he owned: an impressive 4,000, or so he claimed. Most of these books were stolen, or sold by his brother-in-law, while he was on a six year journey around Europe, leaving the bulk of his library at his house in Mortlake. (He did take 800 volumes with him, as well as his family and his personal medium, Edward Kelley)

Born in 1527, he went to university but did not take his degree, preferring a wide range of studies, including astronomy and astrology. He was at the Royal court in 1551, possibly discussing mathematics with the young and intellectual Edward VI.  But when the reign changed, so did his fortunes.  In 1555, he was arrested and accused of witchcraft, as well as casting horoscopes of Queen Mary and her future husband, Philip of Spain. I'm not clear why he was not burned, given that Mary was quite wiling to save souls by burning bodies, but he was simply placed under house arrest with Edmund Bonner, the Bishop of London. Then, of course, the wheel turned again, and he was welcomed back to court as soon as Elizabeth came to the throne. Indeed, he was asked to pick an auspicious date for the coronation.  From then on, he was at the centre of policy making.  His copy of De Natura Deorum has a lovely doodle of a trading ship as well as a tiny Posidonius Globe in one margin. He advised the Mercers' Company on how to get to the fabulous textiles of the far east without going through the lands of the Spanish Empire (which now of course included the huge areas discovered and controlled by Portugal) The idea of a North West or North East Passage was not new, and he was also an important adviser to Martin Frobisher, the explorer sometimes unfairly pilloried for imagining that pyrites was gold.

He was also interested in history, and his History of the Normans has a family tree up to Richard II added in his hand.  His preface to a translation of Euclid has 'pop-up' triangles which the reader could cut and construct. He made distorting mirrors (Queen Elizabeth apparently enjoyed them when she visited his home in Mortlake) and mechanical toys.

As for his private life, he married twice and had eight children:  his son John was one of Charles I's physicians.

So far, so (fairly) typical for a 16th century polymath. But he also hunted for the Philosopher's Stone, and attempted to communicate with angels. A small crystal ball was on display. This sort of thing does lead to suspicion, and he was associated with Christopher Marlowe's creation, Dr Faustus.  But as the exhibition points out, close observation of nature can lead towards an interest in the occult: after all, Isaac Newton dabbled a bit as well.

In a way, the strangest thing about Dr Dee is that he continues to be well known.  When Quentin Blake was designing his mural for Addenbrooke's hospital, he included Dr Dee. For those of us who spent our late adolescence and early adulthood reading Dorothy Dunnett historical novels, he is a familiar figure, so we are glad he is getting his few minutes of scholarly fame here.

Linda and I refreshed ourselves with a brief visit to the herb garden, before setting off for home.


  1. They've got quite a nice coat of arms too (C/f the anaesthetists.)

  2. Thank you for this. John Dee exhibition has been on my 'must see' list since I first heard about it. I've been to his church in Mortlake already and saw a few of his memorabilia at the British Museum. Have you? BTW, I love your blog.:-)