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Lincoln College

John Radcliffe (1650 - 1714)

Dr. John Radcliffe, known by contemporaries as 'the Aesculapius of his age', had a great reputation as a physician in the late Seventeenth century, and has proved to be one of Oxford University's leading benefactors. His memory is perpetuated in an observatory, two libraries, a college quadrangle, a square, a road, travelling fellowships for medical students and two hospitals. The son of an attorney, he was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1650. He matriculated at University College, Oxford when he was thirteen and was elected to a fellowship at Lincoln College in 1669 aged only eighteen. He became a lecturer in Logic in 1671 and in Philosophy in 1672. When living in Lincoln, Dr. Bathurst (the President of Trinity College, Oxford) called upon him and was surprised to see so few books in his room. Radcliffe is said to have pointed to a skeleton and a couple of vials declaring 'This is Radcliffe's library!' He was obliged to resign from his job at Lincoln in 1677, when under the statutes of the College he was called to take holy orders. Embittered, he bequeathed nothing to Lincoln in his will; however, he did show some affection for the college in 1684 when the Senior Common Room was being furnished with 'a fine dark chestnut wainscoting'. He gave £10, a contribution more than double that of any other donor.

He took a subsequent degree in Medicine, graduating in 1675, and established himself as a physician. He gained a reputation as an excellent diagnostician, apparently more on the basis of instinct than on technique! He did have much success with smallpox, as he believed that fresh air was a preferable cure to blood letting. It has been said that he secured his fame through his bluntness. His recipe for success was to “use mankind ill".

Radcliffe practised first in Oxford, but in 1684 he moved to London, where he started work earning twenty guineas a day. In 1690 Radcliffe was elected Member of Parliament for Branber, and for Buckinghamshire in 1713. Despite being a Jacobite, he became physician to William III and Mary, and attended the king frequently until 1699 when, examining his skinny frame and swollen ankles, he offended the monarch by remarking, 'I would not have your Majesty's two legs for your three kingdoms.' Despite this, by 1707 he was worth £80,000.

On 1st November 1714 he died of apoplexy at his house in Carshalton. William Macmichael asserts that the dread he had of the populace, and the want of company in the country village where he had retired to and which he did not dare leave, shortened his life. He is buried at The University Church of St Mary, Oxford.

In his will, he left property to University College to found two medical travelling fellowships. A further £5,000 bequest to this college enabled it to build a new quadrangle. Radcliffe did stipulate that the architecture must be 'answerable to the [seventeenth century] front already built'. In 1770 his trustees allocated £4,000 to establish the Radcliffe Infirmary, where building began in 1758. The original Radcliffe Infirmary in Woodstock Road opened on St Luke's Day 1770. Now it has been largely superseded by the John Radcliffe Hospital, a modern building of concrete and glass on Headington Hill. Until 1885, the Radcliffe Infirmary was a University institution, governed by University officers and often staffed by Fellows of the colleges. There is a plaque in the old infirmary commemorating the first use of penicillin on a patient in the Briscoe ward on 12th February 1941. This represented the culmination of two years research at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology under the leadership of Professor Florey (also an old Lincolnite) to isolate and purify the exudeate from the mould Penicillium notatum, the bacteriocidal effects of which had first been noted by Sir Alexander Fleming.

Money was also bequeathed for enlarging St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London, and another grant was made to build Oxford's Radcliffe Observatory, which, designed by James Wyatt, was erected eighty years after its donor's death. It is an unusual building modelled on the ancient Tower of the Winds in Athens (100 B.C.E), and became an astronomical observatory and lecture room for the University. When Green College, housed in the Radcliffe Observatory, was founded in 1977, it was originally going to be named after John Radcliffe, but instead reflects the generosity of its founder Cecil Green.

Radcliffe also left £40,000 in his will towards the building and endowment of a new library. When one academic heard this, he remarked rather cuttingly that this was 'like a eunuch founding a seraglio!' The library was to stand on the site of a conglomeration of modest houses occupying the space bounded by St. Mary's church, Brasenose and All Souls colleges and the schools. Nicholas Hawksmoor's original plan was that the square would be devoid of buildings save a central statue. Radcliffe's bequest altered this and the square is now home to one of Oxford's most distinctive buildings, the Radcliffe Camera, which Sir Nikolaus Pevsner called 'England's most accomplished domed building.' The idea of the rotunda originated with Hawksmoor, but he died in 1736, so the final designs belonged to James Gibbs, even though he was a Catholic and a Scot! Gibbs wanted the library to be 'a public building seen by all sorts of people who come to Oxford from different parts of the world.' In 1927 the Camera was taken over by the University and became part of the Bodleian Library, a copyright library and the main University library. It now houses the reading rooms for English Literature and Language, History and Theology. In 1901, the Radcliffe Science Library, in the University Parks, was opened and now has an extensive collection of medical literature on its shelves.

Radcliffe claimed relationship with the Earl of Derwentwater and assumed the Derwentwater coat of arms. After he died, the College of Heralds refused to accept this, forbidding the Derwentwater arms being displayed on any buildings erected from his estate. Oxford University ignored this point blank, and the arms appear in University College's Radcliffe Quadrangle, the Radcliffe Science Library and on the ceiling of the Lower Reading Room in the Radcliffe Camera.

Select Bibliography

The Life of Dr. John Radcliffe, Campbell R. Hone, Faber and Faber Ltd, 1950
The Gold Headed Cane, William Macmichael, Thomas Davidson - Whitefriars, 1828
Oxford, Jan Morris, Oxford University Press, 2001
Oxford, a Cultural and Literary Companion, David Horan, Signal Books, 1999

Odette Orlans, 14th October 2004