Thanks to the generous donations of RCP fellows, the library collection has been able to grow, evolve and thrive despite facing challenges like fire and theft.
Our collections reflect the changing nature of medicine and the RCP’s role throughout the years. Our rare book collections reflect the interests of past physicians while our collection of 20th and 21st century books provide further insight into the changing nature of medicine and the RCP by illustrating socio-medical milestones. The library collection can also be searched and viewed online through our library catalogue. RCP publications include everything from 17th century anti-plague advice to the landmark 1962 report Smoking and health. We continue to add printed and digital material to the collection today.
Rare book collection
The RCP has had a library since its foundation in 1518. The library was built up from donations made by RCP fellows including William Harvey. As a result of this, it reflects the interests of past physicians and the broad education they were expected to have. The subjects of our rare books include medicine, science, law, architecture, travel, cookery and medical advice for the public.
All of our rare books are accessible to the public. You will need to make a research appointment to see any of the books published before 1850. Appointments are usually available Monday–Friday 10am–5pm, and we ask for at least three days’ advanced notice. Please see the research appointments page for full details.
Over 4,000 books dating from 1780 to 1914 are available for free online via the UK Medical Heritage Library. There are links to each of these from the library catalogue, and they are searchable via the Internet Archive, the Wellcome Library and Jisc Historical Texts.
Around 7,000 digitised printed books dating from 1471 onwards are available online at the RCP headquarters in London via computers in the library reading room or personal devices connected to RCP wifi.
We are hoping to make more digitised books available online in future years.
20th & 21st century library collection
The library contains an outstanding collection of 20th century materials which reflect the changing nature of medicine and the role of the RCP. They also illustrate socio-medical milestones such as the formation of the NHS, the impact of AIDS and obesity, the legacy of two world wars and the increasing participation of women in the medical profession. Throughout, the development of both new and established specialties is reflected in this collection. The relationship of medicine with other disciplines such as philosophy, art and literature is also well represented. Books are lent directly to RCP members who are also entitled to access electronic collections on clinical medical and healthcare see the RCP library website for more information. Our visitors are able to view these collections on site, you will find more about library services here.
Illustration from Lizars, System of anatomical plates of the human body; accompanied with descriptions,1825
Illustration of carving a rabbit, Trincir Buch, 1657
Illustration from Nevrologie, ou, Description et iconographie du systeme nerveux: et des organes des sens de l'homme avec leur mode de preparation, 1853, plate 68
John Dee's doodle of a ship in the margin of a book
What’s in the RCP’s library collections?
The RCP's 20th and 21st century library collections include current developments in healthcare, health policy and the NHS as well as information on the public health effects of alcohol, smoking, obesity, sexual health and medical ethics. The collection also includes subject areas on clinical specialties and their history, medical biographies – including fellows of the RCP and a comprehensive history of the RCP, including a copy of everything published by the RCP.
You can search all the rare books online in the library catalogue. The library includes books about medicine and books written by physicians. It also contains many wider topics, illustrating the broad interests that physicians throughout history have held. Subjects range through the biological, chemical and physical sciences; engineering and mechanics; mathematics and astronomy; music, dance and literature; food, botany and nature; travel and geography, and more.
117 titles in the library were published in or before the year 1500. These include some of the earliest printings of classical medical texts by Greek, Roman and Arabic doctors, as well as religious, literary and scientific works. One book is known to be a unique surviving copy: L’art et instruction de bien dancer, a manual of French courtly dance that is able to be viewed online.
The Marquis of Dorchester’s library
The library of Henry Pierrepont, first Marquis of Dorchester was given to the college in 1680. Dorchester was a trained lawyer, polymath and the RCP’s first honorary fellow. His collection of approximately 3,000 volumes was used to re-found the RCP library after almost all of the college books were lost in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The Dorchester Collection contains some of the rarest books in the collection, spanning subjects from mathematics to linguistics.
The RCP library holds the largest surviving collection of books from the library of Elizabethan mathematician, astrologer and polymath John Dee. As many as 160 books may have been owned by Dee, with firm evidence for approximately 100 titles having once been his. Most of the Dee Collection came to the RCP as part of the Marquis of Dorchester’s Library. Several books from the collection were displayed in the 2016 exhibition Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee.
The RCP library manages the Heberden Library on behalf of the British Society for Rheumatology. The library contains all the pre-1983 books, pamphlets and journals owned by the society, including many key works on gout, arthritis and other join disease. These books are also accessible onsite at the RCP's Regent’s Park location.
The RCP library manages the Willan Library on behalf of the British Association of Dermatologists. The library contains all the pre-1930 books and articles owned by the association, including many key atlases and textbooks of skin disease. These books are accessible onsite at the RCP's Regent’s Park location.
Davis Evan Bedford collection
The library and archive catalogues and other collection management documents may contain information about living persons, in relation to collection items. The RCP also keeps records on research visitors, to meet access and security requirements. Please view our permanent collections processing statement for further details.