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What's in the Archives

The archives of the Royal College of Surgeons of England holds both institutional records and other deposited collections providing a unique resource illustrating the development of surgery and the surgical profession.

We hold institutional records documenting the activities of the College throughout its history from its beginnings as the Company of Surgeons (1745-1800), through its incorporation as a Royal College in 1800 to the present day. These archives reveal the inner workings of the College and the initiatives that have taken place throughout our history to support and develop the surgical profession.

We also hold a diverse range of deposited archive and manuscript collections that have been accumulated by the College through purchase, donation or deposit since its foundation relating to medicine and surgery from the 16th to 20th centuries. These collections include the personal papers and case notes of surgeons, a small number of hospital records, collections of correspondence, and a variety of individual items including diaries, photograph albums, recipe books, lecture notes and drawings.

Archive catalogue

Many of the deposited archive and manuscript collections have been catalogued on our online museum and archive catalogue, SurgiCat.

The College institutional archives have not yet been added to the catalogue, and the descriptions of the deposited archives and manuscripts are not yet complete. We regularly add newly catalogued material so please check for new additions.

Please contact us if you are interested in anything you cannot locate in the catalogue.

Institutional archives of the
Royal College of Surgeons of England

The institutional archives span the establishment of the Company of Surgeons in 1745 to the present day.  As well as documenting the aims, objectives, and achievements of the College, they also offer a unique glimpse into the people and events which have shaped the College’s history.

The institutional archives are open to the public for research following a 30 year closure period (except printed council minutes which are available until 2004). 

Highlights in our institutional archives include:

Council and Committee minutes

While performing their primary task of documenting key decisions made by the Council, the Council minutes also record significant moments in College history, such as the bombing of the College in 1941.  Earlier Council Minutes also provide insight into the behaviour of long dead members and Fellows whose conduct has not entirely been in line with the College’s high standards! 

Additionally, we hold the records of several College Committees, including training committees.  Some committees sound rather covert – The Formula Committee being a case in point! It was appointed for the very sensible purpose of advising on changes in the standing rules and charters.

Charters

The Royal College of Surgeons in London was founded by Royal Charter, granted in 1800. Since then, any major changes to the governance, such as changing its title to “of England” in 1843, functions, and financial status of the College have been made legal and official through new or supplementary Royal Charters. 

Our archives contain charters signed by King George IV; King George V; King George VI; Queen Victoria; and Queen Elizabeth II. 

These can also be consulted in printed format in the College Library.

Building records

Plans and drawings chart the evolution of the building from George Dance’s original 1805 architectural plans to the present day.  Additional administrative records, such as the Building Committee Minutes, add context.

Some elements of the plans can be surprising – one plan features an acid bath, presumably for disposing of cadavers or perhaps to assist conservators in cleaning skeletons.  Sadly for our current Conservator (and to the great relief of his colleagues), no such bath now exists.

Bye-laws and regulations

Bye-laws and regulations govern all aspects of College business, including the conduct of Members, Fellows, Council Members, Examiners, etc. They cover topics such as Council elections, examinations, and the running of the museum.

Examination records

The examination records date from 1745, when the Company of Surgeons became a separate entity from the Company of Barbers.  They include examination papers, which show changing knowledge and attitudes in the surgical profession, as well as examination results.

Some gems in our examinations records are rather unexpected – this entry in our examination book, for example, which regards Lord Nelson’s claim for injury to the arm:

Please note, if you require proof or confirmation of your own past examinations results, you should contact the Examinations team not the Archives.

Museum and Library records

These can include acquisition records, which provide information regarding how particular items came to be in the College's collections, as well as old catalogues. 

The museum catalogues in particular can be very useful when investigating changing attitudes in acquiring and curating material.

College Secretary Papers

In the past, the role of the College Secretary could range from planning events to negotiating gifts and bequests.  They were required to have exemplary diplomacy skills and often stayed in the role for several years - the longest serving College Secretary was Edward Belfour, who served from 1811-1865. We no longer have a College Secretary as the post has evolved into that of the Chief Executive.

The College Secretaries really were the unsung heroes of the College. This is clear in correspondence regarding gifts and the inception of prizes, which often left the College Secretary in the midst of family feuds, or at the mercy of eccentric benefactors and beneficiaries.

In 1909, the sculpture ‘Mors Janua Vitae’, which can be seen on display on the ground floor of the College, was donated by Eliza MacLoghlin, who had commissioned the piece.  The Secretary’s correspondence shows College Secretary, Silbert Forrest Antrobus Cowell, had to fend off fury from the artist, and even agreed to let Eliza MacLoghlin join her ashes in the sculpture with those of her husband.  To this day, the sculpture contains the ashes of both Eliza and her husband, Edward Percy Plantagenet MacLoghlin MRCS.

Photographs

Our photographic collections are the visual memory of the College, covering topics such as examinations, teaching, and members of the College Council, the use of the College buildings, and the curation and preservation of museum objects.

Deposited Collections in the ArchivesHunter_jenner.jpg

Correspondence

Many of our collections contain the correspondence of eminent surgeons with fellow medical professionals, scientists and other important figures. The Hunter-Baillie collection for example contains over 1000 letters from many prominent members of society including Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth and Henry Irving. (MS0014) The archives hold a series of letters from John Hunter to Edward Jenner (MS0015), and a large autograph letters series containing some 4000 items. Other correspondence collections include that of Thomas Madden Stone and Golding Bird (MS0158). Most collections include correspondence of some kind, for instance the papers of William Clift (MS0007), Richard Owen (MS0025), Frank Buckland (MS0035), and Sir Arthur Keith (MS0018).

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Lecture notes

The collections contain a large number of notes of lectures given by or sometimes taken by eminent surgeons.This includes a number of volumes of notes of John Hunters lectures, but also notes of lectures by John Abernethy, Henry Cline, Joseph Henry Green, and Sir Astley Paston Cooper. Collections of lecture notes include that of Thomas Egerton Bryant (MS0125) who attended lectures between 1812 and 1828.


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Personal papers and case notes

The archives also hold some collections of personal papers and case notes of surgeons. These might contain correspondence, research notes, case notes, diaries, drawings or photographs. Examples of collections include those of Matthew Baillie (MS0208), Sir Astley Paston Cooper (MS0008), Sir Joseph Lister (MS0021), Sir Arthur Keith (MS0018), and Sir Berkeley Moynihan.



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Clubs and societies

We hold some collections of papers relating to surgical or medical clubs and societies. These might contain minute books, signature books, or rules and regulations. Examples include the Western Medical Friendly Club (MS0163), The Society of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgeons of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the West London Medico-Chirurgical Society (MS0161), the British Society of Dental Surgeons (MS0078) and the Cardiothoracic Society (MS0063).

 

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Hospital records

As a place of deposit for public records the College holds the archives relating to the London Lock Hospital (MS0022), a hospital for the treatment of venereal disease. We also hold small collections of material on some other hospitals including some papers from the Fountain Mental Hospital (MS0242), and a case book from Deptford Hospital Asylum (MS0009).

Other items

The archive contains a great number of single individual items relating to medicine, surgery, natural history, anatomy and other subject matter. This can include diaries, recipe books, drawings, Some examples are:

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  • Sir Antony Bowlby’s war journals 1914-1919 (MS0004)
  • Joshua Naples diary of his resurrectionist activities 1811-1812 (MS0024)
  • A Sinhalese Ola – a treatise on diseases and treatments written in Pali on palm leaves c1760 (MS0271)
  • Signature book of the Old Black Jack Public House 1854-1892 (MS0031)
  • A 17th century recipe book compiled by Elizabeth Isham and Thomas Sendall (MS0030)
  • Proofs of the engravings for the first edition of Gray’s Anatomy c1850
  • William Wadd’s anatomical drawings for his publications, early C19th (MS0241)
  • Harold Burrows photographs of facial repairs during World War I (MS0168)

Much of the archive collection has been catalogued onto our online catalogue SurgiCat.

History of the archives

The archive collections were formerly part of the Library. Please see the Library History section for more information on the early history of the development of the archives.

In 1999 the first professional archivist was appointed on a part-time basis to begin to organise the archives and manage enquiries and readers. This post was discontinued in 2000.

In 2002 significant development work was carried out on the manuscript store room to install mobile racking. A programme of repackaging was initiated to ensure the deposited archive and manuscript collections were housed in more appropriate materials and conditions.

In 2003 the College received a grant from the Wellcome Trust as part of the Research Resources in Medical History scheme to catalogue the deposited archive and manuscript collections. A project archivist was employed for two years from 2003 to 2005 to carry out this project, resulting in approximately half of the deposited collections being catalogued, and the online catalogue launched jointly with the Hunterian Museum. The project archivist continued at the College as Records Manager and later as Records and Archives Manager.

In 2005 the College received a further grant from the Wellcome Trust to carry out conservation work on the deposited archive and manuscript collections. A preservation assessment survey was carried out and a large number of the collections were conserved over a two year period.

In 2007 the College appointed an Assistant Archivist to ensure an improved archive service could be provided, and to concentrate on outreach and promotion activities. Later that year a Library and Archives Assistant was appointed to assist in research enquiries and service provision, resulting in the College being able to offer much improved family history services.

In 2010 after a review of the library, archives and museum it was decided that the archives should become the responsibility of the museums department, which would be renamed the Museums and Archives department. The library would be renamed Library and Surgical Information Services.

History of the Museum

History of the Library