Five Centuries of Medical Mastery


Successful events are usually followed by lively celebrations to punctuate the ebullient experience of victory. One mode of celebration that is extremely popular across all cultures is dancing. Let’s take a look at one beautiful example. The triumph of the third estate over the monarchy set the ecstatic Parisians into a frenzied boogie to the tune of the Jacobin’s Danse de Terreur in G#. Bodies rocked and rolled. And so did heads. Not even the king and queen could stop themselves from hitting the dance scaffold. They rocked and rolled. And so did their heads. A crude paraphrase of an Emma Goldman remark best captures the spirit and ethos of the times, “it’s not my revolution if I can’t dance.”

Revolutions are important paradigm shifting events in science, at least according to Thomas Kuhn. So if you see some scientists dancing, perhaps it’s best to leave them be because they might be simply celebrating the latest scientific revolution. Or they might have taken the whole revolution thing wrong by downing bottles of vodka instead of the Tsarista. Either way, let the music play, and let your body sway.

Because why not? Experts say that dancing is good for the health (who are these experts anyway?). There’s nothing to lose except the last threads of dignity and bits of fat (for my personal stance on dancing, I am a firm believer of Big Shaq’s philosophy). And if there’s one demographic that constantly needs to be reminded to take care of their health, I nominate my fellow scientists.

But five centuries ago, the act of dancing wasn’t seen as a sign of good health and cheer. It actually brought horror, fear, despair, and death. People literally danced to their graves. This is what happened: In an otherwise normal month of July in 1518, the people of Alsace, Strasbourg was suddenly struck by an unprecedented desire to dance. No one really knows what started it, but a certain Frau Troffea was the first to feel a strong urge to move, to shake her body, to flail her arms, to heat things up on the dance floor. She danced nonstop for days. People started to take notice of this aberrant behaviour and instead of inspection they took it as invitation. They followed Frau Troffea’s lead. A month passed and hundreds of people were documented to have joined in. The jitterbug had spread. No sooner did the disco fever turn into a public health nightmare, with the dancers fainting and dying from exhaustion. People pranced until they perished. The local authorities and nobility didn’t know what to do to stop this frenzy but they came up with a plan. They decided that they way to stop these people from dancing was to encourage them to dance even more, hoping that they’d get bored of the whole thing and then just calm down. Kind of like the USA’s way to stop wars: which is to wage more wars. Dance halls and stage platforms were built and musicians were hired. Well, their plan backfired. As the authorities told the afflicted that they should be dancing, they didn’t realize that the dancers were desperately staying alive, and as the tempo steadily increased, things easily turned into a tragedy. The grim reaper was found busy on the dance floor as he took the dancers to tango.

A different sort of tune was also heard on the other side of the English channel in 1518. One that also inspired dance. Surely, the English wouldn’t just let the French have all the fun would they? The song of public health was just too irresistible, so the English had to have a go at it. But it wasn’t an affliction that set the mood. It was a Royal Charter: King Henry VIII had just granted the wish of some petitioners to establish The Royal College of Physicians. The leading voice of that petition was the English scholar, educator, priest, translator, physician, and all-around smart renaissance man Thomas Linacre (1460 – 1524).

Students (former and current) of Oxford University may have heard of the name. Just around the corner of South Parks Road stands Linacre College, named after, you guessed right, Thomas Linacre. This namesake surely attests to his greatness in the realm of intellectual culture. But what sort of man was he and how did he come up with the idea of starting a college of medical practitioners?

Portrait of Thomas Linacre. Wellcome Trust©

Linacre grew up in Canterbury. Mentors saw early signs of academic promise in him and he did blossom in intellect as he grew up, leading to a fellowship in All Souls College, Oxford. There he studied the classics, history, and literature, eventually establishing himself as an expert in Greek. He pursued further academics in Rome, where he studied Latin. Padua was his next destination, where he enrolled to learn the medical arts. At that time, Italy was enjoying a moment of monumental intellectual flourish spurred by the vigor of the renaissance spirit, and was arguably the best destination for medical education, thanks to recent translations into Latin of Galen, Hippocrates, Avicenna, Al-Razi, and Aristotle.

(Perhaps we can devote a little space for speculation here to answer or perhaps partly explain why Linacre studied medicine. Maybe it was reading about the black death in England that inspired Linacre to take up medicine. If this were the case then we can assume that he had a calling for taking care of the sick and administering drugs. But this doesn’t seem to be the best explanation, as he abandoned medical practice later in his life to pursue religious orders. The milieu that he lived in, is for me, the best starting point from which we can anchor our guess. In Linacre’s time, the practice of medicine was plagued by quacks and mystics. There was no organized cadre of physicians for the people to rely on for quality medical care. This was anathema to the medical culture espoused and endorsed by Hippocrates and his followers. Something had to be done. The Hippocratic idea of professionalizing the practice of medicine [which is still part of today’s medical training, as every medical doctor is obliged to recite and follow the Hippocratic Oath] was a Greek thought embodied in social policy. Ergo, far from being a break from his Greek scholarship, Linacre’s study of medicine was simply a continuation of it, an expression of a desire to shape the practice of medicine in accordance to Greek ideals.)

On August 30, 1496 Linacre obtained his medical degree in Padua with “great distinction” and shortly after headed back home to England. Not much is known about his qualities as a physician, but what we do know is that in the decade after he graduated, he was appointed as court physician to the king himself. Perhaps it’s safe to surmise that he was actually a capable doctor. Keeping track of his highness’ health was in no way an easy task, after all, we’re talking about Henry VIII here, the very same Henry who had a knack for cutting people’s heads off, just ask Anne Boleyn how she lost her head over his antics. Linacre would pay this appointment well by dedicating to the king a translation of Galen’s de Sanitate Tuenda into Latin in 1517. It is this gesture that I’d like to believe made Henry VIII seriously take heed of Linacre’s head and instead of detaching it, granted Linacre the Royal Charter to found the Royal College of Physicians (a college, back then, simply meant an organization not necessarily associated with educational institutions).

During the course of his medical career, Linacre didn’t discover a new organ, nor did he pioneer a novel approach to palliative care. It is not therefore in medical theory that Linacre’s legacy rests, but in the standard for medical practice that the Royal College of Physicians set.

In Linacre’s time, there was no consultative body that defined what it actually meant to be a physician. No standards, no requirements, no procedures were clearly outlined. As long as you had the charm and confidence to present yourself as a healer, you can be one. This was a social illness that needed immediate redress. So the college’s first order of business was to identify quacks and strip them off their station. The college also granted licenses to would-be physicians if they passed the college’s examinations.

The other major contribution of the college to medicine was in archiving old but important medical texts, which greatly aided medical education and instruction during the enlightenment. The college has also had a hand in helping publish new medical books, be it pharmaceutical catalogues, novel medical treatises and advises, or historical investigations on various medical concerns and interests. With these considerations, one is easily tempted to associate the group with what a modern college is (or should be, depending on one’s scholastic experience).

While the body of the college was itself quite modern and ahead of its time, its mind was blatantly conservative. The emphasis on professional medicine ignored and persecuted what was a common medical practice at that time, that of kitchen physick, effectively silencing that one group of people who’ve been instrumental in keeping everyone at home healthy: women. True, some women administered and prescribed dangerous concoctions to patients, like Elizabeth Pratt who was found guilty by the college in 1709 of advising the use of mercury for sore throat. This was the right decision, of course. But underneath this judgment was the sexist assumption that women were not and could never be capable of doing good medical work. Men at that time strongly believed that women’s mental faculties were largely inferior to men (we have hardly learned anything, for a lot of men still believe this nonsense to be true). A scathing 1511 royal release perfectly captured how men at that time viewed women: “a great multitude of ignorant persons”. Alice Leevers, a physician who had started practicing in 1577 was deemed by the college to be an “unskilled woman, and a demented old wife”, who, in regards to medical knowledge and talent, was “utterly ignorant in that profession”. But were women really “ignorant”? The records say no. Some isolated male voices at that time echoed a different sentiment, voices that even castigated the pompous air of males. In the Anatomy of Melancholy (first published in 1621) the English scholar Robert Burton emphatically wrote that “many an old wife or country woman doth often more good with a few known and common garden herbs than our bombast Physicians.” Fortunately for Leevers, she had the leverage of royal support, as the Lord Chamberlain Baron Hundson saw her capable and issued his support for her licensure in 1586.

It took centuries for the minds of men to be mended.

While the college remained reticent in affording women some measure of merit, another authoritative institution took the task of sanctioning the healing and medical services of women. Elizabeth Moore was granted a license to practice in 1690 by a consultative body made up of archbishops. To the college, this might have been a terribly bad move, a vulgar trespass of outsiders into the realm of science, but patients say otherwise. Contrary to being unskilled and ignorant, Moore’s patients described her as “a person of great skill and experience in the practice of physick, and very safe in her administrations, and very successful.” This testimony would go on unheard, sadly. Even in the 19th century, the college still held firmly its baseless belief in the unworthiness of women in the medical field, stating in a release in 1885 that allowing women in its ranks was “an experiment which another generation may show to be a mistake.” This Victorian stubbornness was maintained even when pioneers such as Elizabeth Garret Anderson, Elizabeth Blackwell, and Florence Nightingale all convincingly proved that women were as capable as men in medicine.

It was only in 1909 that the Royal College of Physicians granted membership to women, giving that special distinction to Ivy Evelyn Woodward. Since then, the college had adopted a more open policy in welcoming new members, and has even feted three women presidents in its hierarchy: Margaret Turner-Warwick (1989-1992), Carol Black (2002-2006) and Jane Dacre (2014-2018). While it was a long sickness, women fought long in order to heal it.


This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Royal College of Physicians. While it did have its sick setbacks, its founding and establishment ushered a new era for medicine in England. It set the standard for scientific medical practice by insisting on excellence and actual achievement (much to the disadvantage of those who were barred entry into medical schools by social norms and economic limitations). Nowadays, the college busies itself in promoting medical education not just to practitioners but also for the public by bringing into light the latest in medical science through various lectures, workshops, and projects. I don’t know about you but to my ears that sounds like music. If it sounds the same to you, then perhaps this celebration of longevity merits some moves on the dance floor from you and me.

But I’m sick, so I’ll pass for now. You go on ahead. Just be sure to take a rest after. 


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