Lives of the fellows

John Radcliffe

b.1650 d.1 November 1714
AB Oxon(1669) AM(1672) MB(1675) MD(1682) FRCP(1687)

John Radcliffe, MD, was the son of George Radcliffe, by his wife Anne Loader, and was born in 1650, at Wakefield, in Yorkshire, and received his preliminary education at queen Elizabeth's free grammar school in that town. When fifteen years of age he was sent to University college, Oxford, as a member of which he proceeded bachelor of arts 29th October, 1669. He subsequently removed to Lincoln college, was elected to a fellowship there, and took his master of arts degree 7th June, 1672. He then devoted himself to medicine, but seems to have studied in an irregular and superficial manner. He had but few books, and it was his boast to Dr Bathurst, president of Trinity college, that a few phials, a skeleton, and an herbal, constituted his library. The writings of Dr Thomas Willis, then at the summit of his reputation in London, were those which Radcliffe chiefly studied; and, if we may credit contemporary accounts, his medical reading scarcely extended beyond them.

He took the degree of bachelor of medicine 1st July, 1675, and at once commenced practice in Oxford. About this time Dr Marshall, the rector of Lincoln college, opposed his application for a faculty place in that college, which would have served as a dispensation from taking holy orders, which the statutes, if he retained his fellowship, required him to do. This opposition, engendered by some witticisms Radcliffe had pointed at the rector, did not, however, divert him from his intention. His reputation as a physician was rapidly extending; his practice was already considerable, and the church was incompatible with the views such a beginning had engendered. He therefore resigned his fellowship in 1677, but was desirous of keeping his chambers at Lincoln, and being allowed to reside there as a commoner. To this also Dr Marshall refused to accede, whereupon Radcliffe quitted the college, and took lodgings in the city. He proceeded doctor of medicine 5th July, 1682, and in 1684 removed to London, and settled in Bow-street, Covent-garden.

At this period, Dr Lower, who had done a most extensive practice, and who resided Covent-garden (King-street), was still alive, but had fallen into disfavour and lost much of his business in consequence of his espousal of the Whig cause. Dr Short, as we are told by Wood, had in great measure succeeded to Lower's place and practice; but his death in 1685, left the ground open, and Radcliffe, being just settled on the spot, at once came into large lucrative employment.

In 1686 the princess Anne of Denmark made him her physician, and this before he had joined the College of Physicians, of which he was created a Fellow by the charter of king James II, and as such was admitted 12th April, 1687. After the Revolution he was often sent for by king William III and the great persons about the court. In 1694 queen Mary caught the small-pox and died. "The physician's part," says bishop Burnet, "was universally condemned, and her death was imputed to the negligence or unskilfulness of Dr Radcliffe. He was called for, and it appeared but too evidently that his opinion was chiefly considered, and most depended on. Other physicians were afterwards called, but not till it was too late." The facts, as thus stated by the bishop are incorrect, and the inference unjust to the physician. The truth is, Radcliffe was called in at too late a period to be of any service; he condemned the means that had been employed in the queen's case, and declared that "her majesty was a dead woman, for it was impossible to do any good in her case, when remedies had been given that were so contrary to the nature of the distemper; yet he would endeavour to do all that lay in his power to give her ease."

Soon after this he lost the favour of the princess Anne, by neglecting to obey her call, and another physician was chosen in his place. In 1699 king William, after his return from Holland, sent for Radcliffe, and, showing him his swollen ankles, while the rest of his body was emaciated, said - "What think you of these?" "Why truly," replied Radcliffe, "I would not have your Majesty's two legs for your three kingdoms" - which freedom lost the king's favour, and no intercession could ever recover it. When Anne came to the throne, the earl of Godolphin used all his endeavours to reinstate Radcliffe in his former position of first physician, but the queen would not be prevailed upon, alleging that Radcliffe would send her word, as he had done before, "that her ailments were nothing but the vapours." Still he was consulted in all cases of emergency; and, though not admitted as the queen's physician, he received large sums for his prescriptions.

In 1713 he was elected member of Parliament for the town of Buckingham, when he withdrew from practice, recommending all his patients to Dr Mead. In the last illness of queen Anne, Radcliffe was sent for from Carshalton, whither he had retired, but answered he had taken physic, and could not come. The queen died in August, 1714, and Radcliffe on the 1st of November following; his death, it is said, having been hastened by dread of the populace, who were incensed against him for his neglect of the queen.

It is difficult to form a correct estimate of Radcliffe's attainments as a physician. That he was no scholar, and had but little acquaintance with the literature of his profession, is universally conceded. Opinions vary, however, in respect of his qualifications as a practical physician. That he was an acute observer of symptoms, and in many cases was peculiarly happy in the treatment of disease, well authenticated instances forbid us to deny. In the early part of his medical career he was perpetually at warfare with his professional brethren; and our Annals testify how frequently he was at issue with the authorities of the College. His contemporaries regarded him as an active, ingenious, adventurous empiric, whom constant and extensive practice had brought at length to some skill in his profession.

Dr Mead, who knew him but a few years before his death and whose opinion may have been unconsciously influenced by the patronage Radcliffe was bestowing on him, says "he was deservedly at the head of his profession, on account of his great medical penetration and experience." Whatever may be the judgment we form of Dr Radcliffe's medical attainments and position, he presented some traits of character which merit our warmest approbation. He was steadfast in his friendships, was a liberal benefactor to many in poverty and distress, had a great respect for the clergy, and by his will evinced, as Oxford attests, a truly magnificent regard for the advancement of learning and science. He left his estate in Yorkshire to University college, in trust for the foundation of two medical travelling fellowships, and for the purchase of perpetual advowsons for the members of that college. He left also 5,000l for the enlargement of the buildings of University college, 40,000l for building a library, 150l per annum for the librarian, and 100l per annum for the purchase of books. To St Bartholomew's hospital he bequeathed 500l a year "towards mending their dyette, and the further yearly summe of 100l for ever for buying linnen". His estates in Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, and Surrey were left to his executors in trust for charitable purposes, as they should think best. The Radcliffe infirmary and observatory were built from these funds. And from the same fund the trustees voted 2,000l towards the building of our present College in Pall Mall East (1).

Dr Radcliffe died on the 1st November, 1714, and his body, lay in state at his residence until the 27th November, when it was removed to Oxford. Another lying in state took place there, and a very imposing ceremonial was observed at his funeral. He was buried in St Mary's church, near the north-west corner of the present organ gallery. A few years since (about 1820), the situation of his grave in St Mary's was not very precisely known, but on opening one near the supposed spot, a brick grave was discovered, which proved to be that of Radcliffe, by the evidence of a gold coffin-plate, the simple inscription of which was forthwith copied and engraved on the marble stone, immediately over the place. It is as follows:-
Died November the 1st, 1714,
in the 65th year of his age.

A splendid portrait of Dr Radcliffe, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, is in the library. It was presented in 1764 by Dr Jenner.(2) The gold-headed cane presented to the college by Mrs Baillie, originally belonged Radcliffe.

William Munk

[(1) "Quid sedula et attenta potuit observatio, nos docuit Sydenhamus; a Radclivio autem discimus quid promptum atque celere ingenium, quid ab acuto homine fieri possit naturâ usuque sagaci. In hac tanta obscuritate rerum, in hac nostra tam multiplici tam recondita, subtilique arte ita versatus, ut cæteros omnes præiret, medicorum sui temporis facile princeps atque tyrannus. De instantibus verissimè judicabat, de futuris tam callidè conjiciebat ut infirmus quisque sibi diffidens languentes oculos in hunc unum converteret, qui omnem expediret morbi causam eventusque secundaret adeo ut ægri fiducia et medici anctoritas in famam ejus junctis viribus conspirarent. Callidum omne atque quæstuosum exosus, non fortunæ sed hominibus inserviit; pauca, sed necessaria imperavit, neque minimis quibusque inhærens, vultu oculis compositis singula sæpe sæpius notans atque introspiciens, scientiæ perspicacioris nomen, nugis captavit. Mores hominum utcunque dissimulatos aut celatos, vimque omnem humanæ naturæ nemo melius detexit intellexitve, nemo tanto cum sale atque libertate notavit. Famâ præter cæteros egregiâ, illis, quos fulgore suo urebat minus forsan acceptus; quos vero præcellenti ingenio extinxit vivus, iis sopitâ cum morte invidiâ splendorem et dignitatem attulit, quod ipse sustinuit decus, posteris facilè adimplendum negotio relinquens. Academiæ, ubi enutritus erat, memor usque discipulus, subsidia ibidem locavit ne quid adjumenti ad artem nostram sivè provehendam sive ornandam emergentibus ingeniis deesset; et ne in publicis operibus aggrediendis sibi dispar videretur, tam cœpta ingenti molimine assurgit Bibliotheca dignum tanti viri mausoleum." Oratio Harveiana 18 Octs 1737: auctore Jacobo Monro, MD, p.18.
(2) "1764. Apr. 16. Dr Gisborne having acquainted the College that Doctor Jenner had made them a present of the late Doctor Radcliffe's picture which Dr Radcliffe had given Doctor Jenner's father, Dr Gisborne was desired to return the thanks of the College."]

(Volume I, page 455)

<< Back to List