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John Radcliffe's medical marvels
By Jane Curran
Historian

Dr. John Radcliffe 1652  1714
Dr. John Radcliffe 1652 1714

The Radcliffe Infirmary, John Radcliffe Hospital, Radcliffe Camera, Radcliffe Observatory and the Radcliffe Science Library...

All of these are named for the man who was the most famous physician of his time.

He was a blunt, outspoken Yorkshireman who had studied at Oxford and became a fellow of Lincoln College.

Having never married, he regarded the University as his wife, leaving much of his fortune to her and his old college.

John Radcliffe was born in Wakefield around the end of 1652. His father, a lawyer, had been a supporter of Cromwell during the Civil War, and was governor of the local gaol.

John was the only surviving son of the family, and was well educated at Wakefield Grammar School before coming up to University College Oxford in 1666 at the very young age (even at that time) of thirteen.

The precociously intelligent boy flourished and gained his BA in 1669, and was then elected to a fellowship at Lincoln College, where he studied for his MA, before settling down to the medical studies on which he had set his heart.

Lest this all sound too serious, it must not be forgotten that he was still only very young, and fond of the pleasures of youth: drinking, japes and escapades of all kinds - indeed, he was described by a cleric who had been the object of Radcliffe's mockery as "a wild young scholar".

Oxford in the middle of the seventeenth century was a renowned centre for scientific and medical experimentation and discussion, and Radcliffe was greatly influenced by this, and particularly by the work of Dr. Thomas Willis (a friend of Christopher Wren) and of Dr. Ralph Bathurst, the President of Trinity College.

He was determined to become a practising physician, and did not want to take Holy Orders as was required by the University if one was to remain a fellow of a college, so he was forced to relinquish his fellowship at Lincoln. He reluctantly moved out and took lodgings with a confectioner just round the corner on High Street.

He soon became known for the quality of his medical care, despite, or perhaps because of, his often unorthodox treatments: he was very against the common practice of bleeding patients no matter what their ailment, and he prescribed fresh air and cooling skin lotions for those who had smallpox rather than shutting them up in dark and airless rooms.

Above all he was a gifted diagnostician, and when he was called out to Yarnton Manor to attend Lady Spencer, and successfully treated her where others had previously failed, his reputation soared.

As a result, he moved to London in 1684, to Covent Garden, an up and coming area which was home to the nobility, merchants, successful artists, and, importantly, apothecaries.

In those days apothecaries could become immensely wealthy and powerful, far more so than doctors themselves, and it was essential for a doctor to be on good terms with his local apothecary if his career was to thrive. Radcliffe took care to nurture his relationships with them.

His practice developed rapidly, not just because of his undoubted skills, but also because he enjoyed the patronage of James II, thanks to whose favour he was elected as one of the founding fellows of the Royal College of Physicians.

He was also appointed principal physician to the King's younger daughter Princess Anne, whose delicate son (then second in line to the throne) he restored to health from death's clutches.

Unfortunately, Radcliffe could be rude and tactless, especially when he had been indulging his taste for fine claret.

After refusing to obey two urgent summons to visit Princess Anne, remarking to his fellow drinkers that she was suffering from "nothing but the vapours", he lost her official patronage, and although he continued to advise and prescribe for her unofficially, he never saw her in person again.

Similarly, he was scornful of colleagues and lost no time in saying publicly what he thought of them: his forthright remarks, coupled with a lack of generosity, both spiritual and monetary, and a frequently bullying manner, meant that he had few friends within his profession.

He never lacked patients, however, as many people deemed it an honour to be treated by such a man, and enjoyed his stimulating conversation. His closest friends, mostly from Oxford University, were intensely loyal to him and he could be a lively and witty companion.

He did not really enjoy the company of women, and only once courted a woman with a view to marriage. He felt that a wife might be a useful asset, but luckily for the lady concerned he did not proceed to matrimony when his sharp eye discerned that she was pregnant and she admitted that she was in love with and expecting the child of her father's bookkeeper.

Dr. Radcliffe, who was also twice elected to Parliament, was what might now be called a workaholic. He was disliked by his colleagues, regarded as difficult and obstructive by the other members of the Royal College of Physicians, and had no home life to speak of.

He amassed a great fortune and collected paintings by artists such as Rembrandt, Rubens and Vermeer; he purchased stocks and shares, and invested in property; he had a library that reflected his wide range of interests, and he owned a magnificently well-stocked wine cellar. When he died, his estate was estimated to be worth around £140,000 - the equivalent of millions today.

John Radcliffe died of a stroke in November 1714, and was buried, as he had wished, in the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin on High Street, where a simple plaque stands in his memory. A great funeral cortege wound its way from the Divinity School, where he had lain in state, along the Turl to the Northgate and from there to Carfax, whence three choirs accompanied it to St. Mary's.

When his will was read, it was seen that apart from legacies to his sisters and their children, and to his servants, he had made a bequest of £5,000 to University College as well as endowments for medical fellowships, and also left £600 per annum to St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London (of which he had been a governor) to ensure better food and clean linen for the patients.

This was to be paid "for ever" and indeed is still being paid every year.

However, his monument, so to speak, was to be the library in Oxford which bears his name. He stipulated that £40,000 should be spent on buying up houses off Catte Street and on building a library on the land thus acquired, and this was to become the Radcliffe Camera, the great circular library which dominates the square which bears his name.

The rest or bulk of his fortune was to be spent on charitable causes as the Trustees of his estate saw fit, and it was as a result of this that the foundation stone of the Radcliffe Infirmary on the Woodstock Road was laid in 1759. The hospital expanded over the years, but when it finally outgrew its space, work on its successor, the JR complex in Headington, began in the 1960s.

In 1799, the Radcliffe Observatory opened next to the Infirmary on land near Jericho. Isaac Newton had been a friend and patient of Radcliffe's, and astronomy, which had been studied at Oxford since the Middle Ages, had become a fashionable science when Radcliffe was a young man.

Oxford lacked a modern working observatory, and the Trustees decided that income from the trust should be used to build one. It is no longer used for its original purpose but is now part of Green Templeton College and a fine landmark in North Oxford.

John Radcliffe never received a knighthood, he never wrote a book or treatise, but his diagnostic skills, force of character and sheer common sense ensured that his name would never be forgotten in the medical world and in Oxford.




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