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Book Review

The History of the Royal Society of Medicine

Mostafa, S. M.

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European Journal of Anaesthesiology (EJA): November 2002 - Volume 19 - Issue 11 - p 851-852
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The History of the Royal Society of Medicine

Penelope Hunting

Royal Society of Medicine: London, UK, 2001, 505 pp; indexed, illustrated

ISBN: 1-85315-497-0; Price £50.00

This book comes in an attractive cover, which depicts the coat of arms of the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM), and the charter granted by King William IV to the Society is used as its endpapers. It has over 500 pages, ten chapters, a Preface by Sir Donald Harrison (President 1994-96), a bibliography, an appendix of Presidents of the Society, a list of abbreviations and a comprehensive index. It has over 70 coloured plates in addition to an extensive number of illustrations given throughout the chapters. The book is not only about the history of the Society, but also about its founders, many of its distinguished fellows and members, and it reads like a 'Who's Who' of medicine in Britain.

This is a fascinating and excellent history book. It chronicles and charts, in detail, the development of the RSM over the nineteenth and twentieth Centuries. It gives an extensive account of the history of not only the RSM, its homes and architects, but also of the men and women who were (and some of whom still are) involved with it and who have made the RSM the major professional and academic institution that it is today. Influential personalities in medicine, many of whom held Royal appointments, have either been Presidents or Council members of the Society or its Sections. Consequently, the book seems to describe and follow the development and progress of medicine, its specialties and its pioneers in Britain over the same period. Moreover, it gives the history of the development of the world famous RSM Library, one of the best known and most important medical libraries in the world.

The chapters are a chronology of the Society from its beginning on 22 May 1805 as the Medical and Chirurgical Society, which was renamed the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society in 1834, to become the Royal Society of Medicine in 1907. They also describe the evolution of the many Sections the RSM has created, their peaks and the difficulties encountered. From the first chapter, the book illustrates the importance of change, open discussion and moving with the times in medicine in the face of stagnation, failure to progress and holding onto power for too long. These factors led the founders of the RSM to break away from the Medical Society of London.

Many of the key events in medicine are chronicled. These include debate on and discussion of the first operation for aneurysm of the carotid artery by Astley Cooper, the removal of a brain tumour and the debate about antiseptic methods. The book outlines how the RSM, ever since its inception, has steadfastly resisted becoming involved in politics and remained dedicated to the enhancement of medical knowledge, public health and professional development. It records the involvement of many members of the Society in the establishment of specialist Colleges. Suggestions for the establishment of Sections for Industrial Medicine and Genetics early in the twentieth Century indicate that it was (and still is) a society ahead of its time.

The author reminds us of the difficulties the Society had, particularly with financial matters, from the early days of its foundation up to the 1970s. The massive effort and influence of Sir John MacAlister and Sir William Osler, backed by Sir Richard Douglas Powell, Sir William Selby Church and Sir Geoffrey Keynes in the formation of the RSM, is spread over several chapters.

The book, however, suffers a little from repetition and is a little heavy going in parts, but this is understandable in view of the fact that it covers two centuries in the life of the Society. A list of key events in the history of medicine and of the Society would have been useful and a good reference point for the occasional historian, especially as the book has few such lists. A tree of the structure and of the organization (of the old and the new Society) would also have been useful to show its evolution at a glance. The author, in my view, has left it to the reader to interpret events and decide what to learn from such history. Those who are members or Fellows of the RSM, and I am one of them, should feel proud to belong to an institution with such a history.

In conclusion, this is an excellent book, which is highly recommended. It is also a 'must read' for those interested in history in general and in medicine in particular.

S. M. Mostafa

Liverpool, UK

IARS 77th Clinical and Scientific Congress

21-25 March 2003

New Orleans Marriott; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

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© 2002 European Academy of Anaesthesiology