Next to Regent’s Park is an imposing modernist building, and in its basement, is a large room full of medical instruments that is also open to the public. This is the museum of the Royal College of Physicians and exists thanks to a large donation from a private collection amassed by Cecil Symons in the 1990s.
The modernist building it is in was built in 1962 to a design by Sir Denis Lasdun, but originally without a dedicated museum. That was added in 1998, to a design also by Lasdun, after the College found itself in need of more space for its existing collection following that earlier large donation.
It’s a wide range of medical kit, from medicine spoons, leech jars and tongue scrapers, revealing crucial medical theories, historic treatments and the history of the RCP itself. There’s a folding stethoscope that was designed to fit in a top hat — for some reason, and a large collection of nipple shields, looking not a little like miniature medieval military shields.
The castor oil spoons look particularly odd – coming with a lid, which I later found out was to reduce spillage, especially when forcing it down the throats of unruly children.
There are also some objects from the time when curing people was less about science, and more about regal power. The power of King’s anointed by God to cure by laying their hands on people. To his credit, Charles I laid hands on over 100,000 people, which while impotent as a cure, was not bad for a haughty monarch who looked down on the little people.
Away from the medical instruments, there are other items from the RCP’s 500+ years, mainly the usual sort of silver and gilt that all long-standing organisations tend to collect.
There’s a final display, but it’s outside the museum, on the wall beside it, and that’s a large collection of tin-glazed apothecary jars, and laid out like this is not that dissimilar to how they were used originally, as the decorative designs were to be showy, and early chemists would put them on display to show off their wares.
The museum is one of those places that’s been around for decades, but outside the medical professionals who visit the building for meetings, not that well known. I spent around half an hour in the museum, and if there’s an exhibition on upstairs, you can add that in as well.
It’s free to visit – although, at the moment, you do need to book a ticket first, from here.
The museum is easy to find, in Regent’s Park’s Outer Circle road, and the building is very distinctive. It’s just a couple of minutes from Great Portland Street tube station.