Five centuries of book collecting telling the history of physicians and their work.
The heritage library reflects the changing nature of medicine and the RCP’s role throughout 500 years of history. The library is open (within current COVID restrictions) to everyone who wants to use its resources.
The collection includes rare books dating to the earliest years of printing as well as histories of medicine, biographies and a complete set of past RCP publications. The contents of the heritage library can be searched in our library catalogue.
The separately-managed RCP library provides contemporary resources to support fellows, members and students to meet their professional development and educational goals. It offers access to books, ejournals, databases as well as article supply and literature searching.
How to access the collections
The Heritage library is open for public research at the RCP at Regent’s Park, London. You will need to make a research appointment to visit. Modern books can be lent to RCP fellows and members: contact us for more information.
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 printed books have been digitised by Wiley Digital Archives, and are available online via subscribing universities and onsite at the RCP at Regent’s Park, London.
We are hoping to make more digitised books available online in future years.
How to search the collections
You can search the heritage library online in the library catalogue.
Using the advanced search you can refine your search by date, subject, language, provenance or other criteria. Scroll to the bottom of the page to add additional search fields.
What’s in the heritage library?
The heritage library contains over 50,000 printed items dating from 1471 to the present day. The collection encompasses books, journals (including complete runs of the BMJ and Lancet), tracts and pamphlets, a full record of RCP publications, and biographies of medical figures.
There are more than 20,000 rare books published before 1900. The rare books collection covers a wide range of subjects, reflecting the broad interests of early modern physicians. Medical topics are well represented and stand alongside biological, chemical and physical sciences; engineering and mechanics; mathematics and astronomy; music, dance and literature; food, botany and nature; travel and geography, and more.
The 20th and 21st century collections focus on the history of medicine. This includes histories of medicine, medical specialties and medical institutions, and biographies of medical people. The College collection preserves a copy of every publication produced by the RCP. The collection illustrates socio-medical milestones such as the formation of the NHS, the legacy of two world wars, and the increasing participation of women in the medical profession. Public health concerns including alcohol, smoking, obesity, sexual health are included, and the relationship of medicine with other disciplines such as ethics, philosophy, art, and literature is well represented.
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 which can 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
History of the library
The RCP has had a library since its foundation in 1518. The first library was the personal collection of founding fellow Thomas Linacre, and it was expanded through gifts from RCP fellows. William Harvey made a major contribution in the 1651 by donating his collection of books, manuscripts and artefacts, known as the Musaeum Harveianum. Harvey also provided for a new library building design by John Webb to be constructed, and for the appointment of the college’s first librarian, Christopher Merrett.
The Musaeum Harveianum was almost totally destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and only a few dozen books were preserved from it. In 1680 the college received the gift of the library of Henry Pierrepont, Marquis of Dorchester: some 3,000 volumes spanning subjects across medicine, mathematics, law and languages. Subsequent generations of RCP fellows continued to augment the library through donations and bequests, with the subject coverage focussing more closely on medicine as the centuries progressed.
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.