Lives of the fellows

Thomas Linacre

b.c.1460 d.20 October 1524
MD Padua MD Oxon FRCP(1518)

Thomas Linacre, M.D. - This distinguished scholar and physician, the founder [‘founder and’ crossed out] and first President of the College of Physicians, was born at Canterbury [?]. The names of his parents have eluded research, and the time of his birth is uncertain - it probably took place A.D. 1460. His first instructions in grammar were obtained at the school of the monastery of Christchurch, Canterbury, then presided over by William Selling. In 1480 Linacre was removed to Oxford, and in 1484 was elected a fellow of All Souls' college. With Cornelio Vitelli for his master, he applied himself assiduously to the study of Greek, and laid the foundation for that perfection in it which he so amply displayed at a later period of his life.

About the year 1485 he travelled into Italy with his former master, Selling, who had been appointed ambassador from Henry VII. to the court of Rome. The two friends parted at Bologna, Linacre remaining there for a time to avail himself of the instructions of the celebrated Politian. He next passed on to Florence, where he was honoured by the countenance of Lorenzo the Great, who associated him with his two sons Piero and Giovanni as their companion, and granted him permission to attend the instructions of their preceptors. Amongst these was the learned Greek, Demetrius Chalcondylas, under whom Linacre perfected the knowledge he had obtained at Oxford under Vitelli.

After a residence of more than twelve months at Florence, Linacre left that city for Rome, and there laid the foundation of a firm and lasting friendship with another eminent scholar, Hermolaus Barbarus. From Rome he proceeded to Venice, and from Venice to Padua. At the former he became acquainted with Aldus Minutius [Manutius], the learned printer, and at the latter, then the most celebrated school of physic in the world, he took the degree of Doctor of Medicine with the highest applause.

On Linacre's return to England he immediately revisited Oxford, to renew his studies and enjoy the privileges which the tenure of his fellowship still supplied. His degree of doctor was confirmed to him at home by an act of incorporation immediately after his arrival. It is asserted that this act of incorporation by his own university was followed by a similar act at Cambridge, a statement which receives some weight from his subsequent foundation at that university of a lecture, for which he made a provision equal to that for his corresponding institution at Oxford.

About the year 1501 he was summoned from Oxford to the court, to undertake the office of preceptor and physician to Prince Arthur; and to these duties is said to have been added the still more important charge of the King's (Henry VII.) health, in the capacity of domestic physician. The death of the prince allowed Linacre to enter on the practice of his profession unfettered by the obligations which his office of tutor had laid upon him. That he had entered on the public exercise of it seems probable from a letter of Erasmus, who, having availed himself of his skill whilst in England, wrote to him from Paris in 1506 describing his complaints, lamenting the want of his usual advice, and earnestly requesting him to remit a former prescription, from which the writer had derived great benefit, but which the pharmacopolist had neglected to return.

The interval between the death of Prince Arthur and the accession of Henry VIII. Linacre so ardently devoted to the practice of his profession, and the studies connected with it, that his friends complained to him of a too rigid economy in the distribution of his time, and urged him to occasional relaxation by a mutual intercourse and epistolary communication.

The accession of the new King seems to have occasioned a temporary alteration in Dr. Linacre's views, for he returned about this time to his residence at Oxford, where he read a Shagglyng lecture - an institution of which the origin is involved in equal obscurity with the name. He was soon, however, honoured with the appointment of physician to the King (Henry VIII.), resided occasionally at court as the guardian of his Majesty's health, and maintained a literary intimacy with the most eminent characters by whom it was adorned. Linacre had now reached the highest point of professional fame, and to his care was committed the health of the foremost in the church and state. Amongst these were Sir Reginald Bray, knight of the garter and Lord High Treasurer, to whose will he was a subscribing witness in 1503; Wolsey, cardinal of St. Cecilia; with William Warham, the primate, and Richard Fox, privy seal and bishop of Winchester, to both of whom he has gratefully acknowledged his obligations.

We have now to regard Linacre in a new character, and to exhibit him at an age past the meridian of life, devoting himself to the study of theology, and the duties of the priesthood. These occupations were admitted by the Church as compatible with the practice of medicine (though not of surgery); and the union had prevailed for several centuries, thus giving to the ecclesiastics of the middle ages a similar power over the bodies, as their more legitimate office had given them over the minds and conscience of mankind. In examining the motives of this choice, it would seem that he was guided less by the expectation of dignity and preferment than by the desire of retirement, and of rendering himself acquainted with those writings which might afford him consolation in old age, and relief from the infirmities which a life of assiduous study and application had tended to produce.

The precise time of Linacre's ordination, or from whose hands he received it, has not been discovered; certain passages in his letters dedicatory seem to point to Warham or Wolsey as the bishop by whom he was ordained. The register of the former, about the period when it was most likely to have occurred, is altogether silent on the subject. His ordination probably took place in or about 1509, for in October of that year he was collated by the primate Warham to the rectory of Merstham, in Kent, from which he derived no emolument, as he resigned it a little more than a month from his collation. By whatever causes this resignation was induced, it was followed in December of the same year by his installation into the prebend of Easton-in-Gordano, in the cathedral church of Wells, and in the year 1510 by an admission to the church of Hawkhurst, in Kent, on the presentation of the abbot and convent of Battle, which he held till the year 1524. An interval of seven years elapsed before he was further advanced: he was nominated in 1517 to a canonry and prebend in the collegiate church of St. Stephen's, Westminster, vacant by the death of Andrea Ammonio, apostolic prothonotary and papal collector in England. In the following year he became prebendary of South Newbold, in the church of York, which preferment he held for the short period of six months only, being succeeded on the 23rd of April, 1519, by Richard Sampson, afterwards bishop of Chichester. He probably resigned this stall on receiving the more dignified and lucrative appointment of precentor of the same cathedral, to which he had been admitted on the 9th of April preceding, and for which there is sufficient reason to believe he was indebted to Wolsey, to whom about this time he dedicated his translation of "Galen on the Use of the Pulse." This dignity was also resigned in November of the year of his admission. In addition to the appointments mentioned, he had the rectory of Holsworthy, in Devonshire, which was given to him by the King in 1518; and in 1520 he obtained the rectory of Wigan, in Lancashire, which he appears to have held till his death. [1520 Rector of Freshwater, I.O.W. (Mr. L. M. Payne on holiday noticed). June 1979.] Why these preferments were accepted, and why so speedily resigned, it is difficult to divine, since the expenses of institution must have exceeded the profits which were derived from them during the period of possession.

My late very learned friend, the Reverend George Oliver, D.D., the author of the "Monasticon Diœcesis Exoniensis," in a letter to me dated Exeter, 2nd December, 1854, explains the matter thus: "In ancient times," says he, "the clergy applied themselves not a little to medicine, and such as gained celebrity were pretty certain of being retained by the nobility and the court, and were loaded with Church preferments. This arose to a very great abuse. These doctors on resigning a benefice often obtained, with the connivance of the bishops, an annual pension from the succeeding incumbent. The Crown was satisfied with these arrangements, as it was a saving to the royal purse; but religion and the poor, who looked up naturally to the Church for relief, were the sufferers."

The most magnificent of Linacre's labours was the design of the Royal College of Physicians of London - a standing monument of the enlightened views and generosity of its projector. In the execution of it Linacre stood alone, for the munificence of the Crown was limited to the grant of letters patent; whilst the expenses and provision of the College were left to be defrayed out of his own means, or of those who were associated with him in its foundation.

In the year 1518, says Dr. Johnson(1), when Linacre's scheme was carried into effect, the practice of medicine was scarcely elevated above that of the mechanical arts; nor was the majority of its practitioners among the laity better instructed than the mechanics by whom those arts were exercised. With the diffusion of learning through the republics and states of Italy, establishments solely for the advancement of science had been formed with success; but no society devoted to the interests of learning yet existed in England unfettered by an union with the hierarchy or exempted from the rigours and seclusion which were imposed upon its members as the necessary obligations of a monastic and religious life. The wealth which the prelates of the middle ages derived from the church had reverted to it in the creation of numerous collegiate establishments with endowments of the most ample and liberal kind. In reflecting on the advantages which had been derived from these institutions, Linacre did not forget the impossibility of adapting rules and regulations which accorded with the state of society in the middle ages, to the improved state of learning in his own, and his plan was avowedly modelled on some similar community of which many cities of Italy afforded an example.

"The wisdom of Linacre's plan," wrote Dr. Friend, "speaks for itself. His scheme without doubt was not only to create a good understanding and unanimity among his own profession, which of itself was an excellent thought, but to make them more useful to the public; and he imagined that by separating them from the vulgar empirics and setting them upon such a reputable foot of distinction, there would always arise a spirit of emulation among men liberally educated, which would animate them in pursuing their inquiries into the nature of diseases and the methods of cure, for the benefit of mankind; and perhaps no founder ever had the good fortune to have his designs succeed more to his wish."

Of the new College Linacre was the first President(2), an office he continued to hold till his death on the 20th October 1524.(3) The meetings of the College were held at his house, situated in Knight-rider-street(4), which, from the time of Linacre until the year 1860, continued in the possession of the College, when it was taken under the provisions of a recent Act of Parliament, to provide "a site for Her Majesty's Court of Probate, and other courts and offices." It was given during Linacre's life-time, and was certainly not bequeathed by will, as has usually been supposed.

Linacre was buried in St. Paul's cathedral, in a spot chosen by himself, and expressly specified in his will. His grave was unmarked by any memorial for many years, nor was the neglect supplied until 1557, when Dr. Caius, then President of the College, gratefully erected a monument to him at his private cost, with the following inscription:
THOMAS LYNACRUS, Regis Henrici VIII. Medicus. Vir et Græcè et Latinè, atque in re medicâ longe eruditissimus: Multos ætate suâ languentes, et qui jam animam desponderant, vitæ restituit; Multa Galeni opera in Latinam linguam, mirâ et singulari facundiâ vertit: Egregium opus de emendatâ structurâ Latini sermonis, amicorum rogatu, paulo ante mortem edidit. Medicinæ studiosis Oxoniæ publicas lectiones duas, Cantabrigiæ unam, in perpetuum stabilivit. In hac urbe Collegium Medicorum fieri suâ industriâ curavit, cujus et Præsidens proximus electus est. Fraudes dolosque mirè perosus; fidus amicis; omnibus ordinibus juxta clarus; aliquot annos antequam obierat Presbyter factus. Plenus annis, ex hac vitâ migravit, multum desideratus, Anno Domini 1524, die 20 Octobris.
Vivit post funera virtus.
THOMÆ LYNACRO clarissimo Medico
JOHANNES CAIUS posuit, anno 1557.

"The character of Linacre," writes Dr. Johnson, “has been drawn in high but not undeserved terms, by those who were best qualified to give an opinion of his merits. It has been questioned whether he was a better Latinist or Grecian, a better grammarian or physician, a better scholar or man for his moral qualifications. For his accurate skill in the Greek and Latin tongues, in other sciences, and in his own profession, he was esteemed the ornament of his age. By his endeavours Galen speaks better Latin in the translation than he did Greek in the original; and Aristotle shines not more in his Attic than in his Latin garb.

"Linacre selected for his models in composition the works of Quintilian and Aristotle, rather than those of Cicero, at least his orations and other rhetorical works. His style is remarkable for its elegance, propriety, and conciseness. Erasmus has found fault with him for being too elaborate; and Sir John Cheke has censured him for not being Ciceronian enough in his style, and represents him as, out of some morose humour, an enemy to that author; at the same time, however, he could not refrain from doing justice to his character for medical knowledge, on which he passes a high encomium.

"That Linacre was of a great natural sagacity and of a discerning judgment in his own profession, we have the concurrent testimony of the most knowing of his contemporaries. In many cases, which were considered desperate, his practice was successful. In the case of his friend Lilye, he foretold his certain death if he submitted to the opinion of some rash persons who advised him, and prevailed with him to have a malignant strumous tumour in his hip cut off, and his prognostic was justified by the event.

"In private life he had an utter detestation of every thing that was dishonourable; he was a faithful friend, and was valued and beloved by all ranks in life. He showed a remarkable kindness to young students in his profession; and those whom he found distinguished for ingenuity, modesty, learning, good manners, or a desire to excel, he assisted with his advice, his interest, and his purse.

"'In short' (to use the words of Dr. Friend), 'he was, in his own time, reckoned by the best judges a man of a bright genius and a clear understanding, as well as of unusual knowledge in different parts of learning; and his works, which are now extant, will fully satisfy us that he deserved this character. He was one, who, both living and dead, by his writings and benefactions, has done great honour not only to his profession but also to his country.'"

In fine, it was said of Linacre, that no Englishman of his day had such famous masters, namely, Demetrius and Politian, at Florence; such noble patrons, Lorenzo de Medici, Henry VII, and Henry VIII; such high-born scholars, the Prince Arthur and the Princess Mary of England; or such learned friends, for amongst the latter were to be enumerated Erasmus, Melancthon, Latimer, Tonstal, and Sir Thomas More.

It yet remains to give some particulars of the lectures Linacre founded at the two universities, the letters patent for which received the sign manual but eight days before his decease, namely, on the 12th October, 1524. By this document a licence was granted to himself, his executors and assigns, to found three separate lectures, to the glory of God and the true art of medicine, for the relief of the fallen and the increase of the whole realm. Two of them were to be appropriated to Oxford, and one to Cambridge; and they were to be distinguished by the name of "Lynacre's Lectures." In the 3rd Edward VI, Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London, the sole surviving trustee appointed by Linacre, assigned two of the lectures to Merton College, Oxford, and one to St. John's College, Cambridge. The office of the two Oxford professors was to explain or comment on certain parts of Hippocrates and Galen; that of the Cambridge professor to explain the treatises of Galen "De Sanitate Tuendâ" and "De Methodo Medendi," as translated by Linacre, or those of the same author "De Elementis et Simplicibus."

Linacre's translations, which were numerous, are as follows:-
Proclus - De Sphærâ 1499.
Galen - De Sanitate Tuendâ 1517. [Reservation of health]
Methodus Medendi 1519. [Method of medication]
De Temperamentis 1521.
De Naturalibus Functionibus 1523.
De Pulsuum usu 1523.
De Symptomatibus, lib. iv.; De Symptomatum Differentiis, lib. i.; et De Causis, lib. iii 1528.

His philological works were the following:-
Rudimenta Grammatices.
De Emendatâ Structurâ Latini Sermonis.

Linacre's will, dated 19th June, 1524, was proved in London 18th July 1825 [Munk strikes out the ‘8’ – 1525]. A bust of Linacre, in bronze, by Sir Henry Cheere, is in the library of All Souls' College, Oxford. His portrait in the Censor's Room is a copy from an original picture in Kensington Palace. It was painted in 1810 by Mr. William Miller, the College bedell, an amateur artist of considerable merit.

The Life of Dr. Linacre has been admirably written by a late Fellow of the College, Dr. J. Noble Johnson, to whose work (8vo. Lond. 1835) I am indebted for most of these particulars.

William Munk

[(1) Life of Linacre, 8vo. London, 1835.
(2) For list of Presidents, see Appendix.
(3) "1524 Vicesimo Octobris moriebatur Thomas Linacrus, Presidens. Is dono dedit Collegio primam faciem seu partem ædium suarum in locum Comitiorum et Bibliothecæ." Annales.
(4) For Sites of College, see Appendix.]

[Memorial to Linacre in Old Brampton Church, near Chesterfield. (B.M.J., 28.1.39. p.185)]

[LINACRE (Thomas) It is proposed to place a memorial window to Linacre in the parish church of Mersham. [Linacre, by founding the College of Physicians, dissolved the medical union of cleric and physician which had so long existed, of which union the memorial window in Mersham Church will remind visitors; and it may also help to recall the fact that the personal friend of Leo X. was Rector of Mersham, the guest of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and for a time the companion of Erasmus. – Ed. Dublin Medical Journal, 3rd ser., vol. 88, 189, p.192]

[Ref: Notes and Queries, series 8, Vol.4, p.148. Linacre’s “Three Parts of Medicine.”]

[Tho Lynacre – was a legatee under the will of Lord Mayor Tho Kneseworth (?) 1513. Thomas Lynacre and Alice Lynacre Legatees under will of W. Grocyre (?) the scholar 1520. He proved the will. Mr. J. C. C. Smith’s Notes.]

(Volume I, page 12)

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