The founding charters of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland

The Fraternity of Physicians of Trinity Hall
What is now the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland was founded in 1654 as the result of the efforts of one man, Dr John Stearne (1624-1669). Stearne was the first professor of medicine at Trinity College Dublin. In 1654 he submitted a proposal to Trinity College to establish a fraternity of physicians based in their own building, Trinity Hall.

Trinity Hall (number 13 on the map) was built in 1604 as a ‘house of correction’ by Dublin Corporation. By 1654 the building was empty, and in need of repair. It had been given to Trinity College in 1615 to be used as a student residence. Image courtesy of Dublin City Library & Archive

Stearne’s proposal included an offer to cover the cost of repairing the building. Trinity agreed, appointed Stearne head of the new Fraternity of Physicians of Trinity Hall for life, and allowed him to live in the building.

One of Stearne’s reasons for establishing the Fraternity was to promote the study of anatomy, a relatively new and still controversial study. It has been suggested that Stearne wanted Trinity Hall as a base, so he could teach anatomy 'in privacy and without molestation’.

One of the earliest surviving records of the College are accounts for the costs of an anatomical dissection carried out in 1676. The College had to pay for soldiers to guard the body, to prevent the family reclaiming it before it could be dissected. They also provided the guards with drink.

The College of Physicians of Dublin
Although much had been achieved, Stearne was still not content. In 1667 he obtained a royal charter for his fraternity, incorporating it as the College of Physicians of Dublin. The Charter gave the new College the power to licence anyone wanting to practice medicine within Dublin or a seven mile radius of the city. The physicians retained the use of Trinity Hall, and Trinity retained the right to approve the appointment of the new College’s President. The 1667 Charter no longer survives, but the text was copied into Dun's book in 1692.

One of the first acts of the new College of Physicians was to apply to the Ulster King of Arms for a grant of arms.

The arms, heavily based on those used in the College of Physicians in London, show the spiritual hand taking the pulse of the temporal hand. A clear reference to the medical act of taking a pulse, but also an indication of divine authority for the profession and the institution.

Underneath is the Irish harp, to distinguish the Dublin College from the London one.

The grant also provided the College with a motto, Reason and Experience.

In the late 1680s many Protestants fled Ireland, including several doctors. One of these was Patrick Dun, a Scot by birth, who had been practicing in Ireland since 1676. Dun returned to Ireland in 1689 as physician to the army of King William III. In 1692 he used his influence with King William to obtain a second, and more extensive, Royal Charter for the College of Physicians.

The King and Queen's College of Physicians in Ireland
The College’s second royal charter, granted in December 1692, aimed to address the ‘daily abuses of the most laudable and necessary art of physic in the kingdom of Ireland, by the practice of mountebanks and empirics, and other ignorant and illiterate persons, to the impairing of the health, and the hazard of the lives of his good subject there’. It extended the licencing power of the College to the whole island of Ireland, and gave the College authority over apothecaries and midwives. The Fellows of the College, initially limited to fourteen, were named as the body corporate of the College.

Granted by the duel monarchy of King William and Queen Mary, the charter also changed the name of the College to the King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland.

The 1692 Charter, in making the College of Physicians independent from Trinity College, also made the Physicians homeless, as they had to move out of Trinity Hall. Although the Charter made provision for the Physicians to own a hall this did not happen. For the next 170 years the College of Physicians was essentially homeless.

In 1864 the College finally moved back into a home of its own, in the newly designed and built building at 6 Kildare Street. Medicine as a profession was flourishing in the mid-nineteenth century, and the physicians wanted a building to reflect their aspirations.

In 1864 the College of Physicians applied to the Ulster King of Arms for a new grant of arms.

The 1864 Grant of Arms seem to be based on the 1667. However, in making room for the crown to be placed over the harp, the temporal hands has been removed. Taking away the reference to the medical act of taking a pulse.

Letters Patent
In 1858 the Medical Act had introduced the registration of doctors for the first time in the British Isle, and the College of Physicians was named in the act as one of the recognised medical licensing bodies.  The 1692 Charter was found to be insufficient for the needs of the modern medical profession, and in 1878 Letters Patent were issued by Queen Victoria allowing the College to adapt to modern conditions. The most significant alteration was the introduction of the new order of Membership, which greatly expanded the numbers of doctors associated with the College, and their input into the running of the College.

Twelve years later, in 1890, Queen Victoria again issued Letters Patent to the College, this time with just one provision;

‘that the Corporation of the King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland shall henceforth be called and known by the name of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland’

The Fellows of the College had, apparently, long felt the old name to be unnecessarily cumbersome.

Royal College of Physicians of Ireland
Just over 30 years after finally becoming the ‘Royal’ College, Ireland began to break free from the monarchy which had given the College its Royal title. In 1926 the Department of Justice of Saorstát Éireann, wrote to the College to inform them that an Adaptation of Charter Order would be passed to make the College Charter and Letters Patents valid under the law of the new Irish Free State. The minutes of the College make it clear that there was not even the suggestion that the Royal, so long in coming, should be removed from their name.
In 2016 extensive conservation work was carried out on the 1692 Charter by Pat McBride of the Paper Conservation Studio. Aged over 300 years, the original document was cleaned, flattened and conserved to ensure its future. This work was only possible thanks to support from The Heritage Council and generous donations from several of the College's Fellows.
Credits: Story

Curation: Harriet Wheelock

Images: Davison & Associates and Andrei Vlad Vasilescu

Thanks to Dublin City Library & Archives for permission to use the image of Speed's Map of Dublin.

RCPI is very grateful to the Heritage Council and those of our Fellows who contributed to the restoration of the 1692 Charter.

Credits: All media
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