Our second medical excursion for this academic year took place recently. A group of KCL Global Health and Social Medicine (GHSM) staff and students visited the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) on Wednesday 1st February 2017.
The RCP is a UK professional body for physicians, which sets exams and runs development courses for doctors, as well as involvement in other areas such as health policy and outreach.
Our guide, Corinne from the RCP library, started the tour by taking us outside- luckily the rain had paused! Corinne gave us an overview of the RCP’s home, a Grade I listed modernist building which sits in contrast to the surrounding John Nash terraces of Regent’s Park.
The RCP has been in its current location since the 1960s. This building was designed for the college by a leading modernist architect, Sir Denys Lasdun, after the RCP had moved several time around London. Lasdun also designed other modernist buildings including the National Theatre complex on London’s South Bank.
The RCP building was described as being ‘like marmite’, with many hating the design and others declaring it a masterpiece from the start. Corinne gave us a fascinating insight into the building’s architectural details, from the tiny porcelain tiles encasing the exterior to the classical marble staircase that leads only to the toilets.
We moved inside, where Corinne gave us a potted history of the RCP itself; from its foundation in 1518 granted by Henry VIII, the battles between apothecaries, surgeons and physicians for income, the establishment of medicine as a profession and the college’s role in public health in the debates about smoking and health in the 1950s.
The RCP’s collections reflect the college’s long history. We saw some key treasures on display in the Symons collection, such as spectacular silverware from college dinners, a silver-gilt mace which is similar to the one used in Parliament and objects related to women and medicine. Corinne told us the story of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and her struggle to become the first accredited physician in the UK with no help from the RCP.
Finally we were shown the library, the current exhibition about physician and collector Thomas Browne, the college’s collection of anatomy tables and the Censors’ Room, a wood paneled room from 1674 that has moved with the college to its different homes and where RCP examinations used to take place.
After a quick tea break, it was on to the RCP Garden with RCP fellow and respiratory physician Dr Noel Snell. Almost all of the plants and trees in the RCP garden are related to medicine,
either used for medical treatment or named after physicians. The plants are from all over the world and are grouped by region of origin. There were lots of species that our group did not realise would survive in UK. For example a pomegranate tree, often symbolised as the tree of life and part of the RCP coat of arms, and a fig tree, already bearing fruit buds despite the cold London drizzle.
Dr. Snell entertained us with the stories behind the plants and their uses. Many only work within a very narrow therapeutic band and become harmful if given at higher dosages. We heard about many of the plants but Dr. Snell apologised for the lack of activity in the garden, given the time of year. He advised us to return in spring to see more of the garden in bloom. After such an interesting afternoon and the opportunity to explore the RCP’s spectacular building and fascinating garden, many of us are indeed planning a return visit.
The RCP have produced some podcasts about the garden: https://soundcloud.com/rcp-garden