We received a number of disturbing reports following our most recent posting on Microbes and Medicine. Dr John Radcliffe appeared to have fallen on his side, his magnificent statue having, for some unfathomable computerish reason, rotated 90° to the left.
We are delighted to confirm that order has now been restored and the good doctor is fully vertical once more. Let us, therefore, take this opportunity to pay tribute to Oxford’s most notable benefactor, the man whose philanthropic bequest has done so much to benefit and beautify our world.
John Radcliffe was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1652. He came up to University College at the tender age of thirteen. The matriculation lists record his father, George, as a ‘pleb’. In 1675, having completed his medical course and degree he became a Fellow of Lincoln College, but resigned his fellowship two years later because he did not wish to take holy orders as was then required under the university statutes.
He developed a glowing reputation as a perceptive diagnostician (with a preference for herbal remedies rather than purgatives and leeching). He was also noted for his straight-talking, not to say blunt style, a mode of delivery which became more pronounced in later life. When one patient with a tendency towards hypochondria complained to him of hearing ‘singing noises in the head’, Dr Radcliffe is said to have recommended that he ‘go home and wipe your arse with a ballad’.
In 1684 he moved from Oxford to London, where he became personal physician to King William III, Queen Anne and a number of ‘Society’ clients, including luminaries like Isaac Newton, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and Samuel Pepys. Presumably this is how he came to amass a considerable fortune, the cushion of which eventually enabled him to become an MP, first for the notoriously venal borough of Bramber in Sussex (1690-1695), and then for Buckingham (where he had acquired substantial landholdings) from 1713 until the year of his death in 1714. Following a lavish funeral, he was buried in the university church, St Mary the Virgin. A plaque records his tomb’s location ‘near the north-west corner of the organ screen’.
Radcliffe never married. In his will, dated 13 September 1714, he left the bulk of his considerable estate (estimates put the figure at around £140,000) to his two sisters and a variety of Oxford-based trusts. ‘The love of money, which I have emphatically known to be the root of all evil, was too predominant over me,’ he confessed in a private letter, ‘though I hope I have made some amends for that odious sin of covetousness in my last disposition.’ To give some idea of the size of his bequest in the values of the time, the first porter to attend the Radcliffe library, the splendidly named Pudsey Mussendine, received a salary of £20 per annum.
Radcliffe’s funds were used to provide scholarships, travelling fellowships, prizes, bursaries, and, in due course, to build the Observatory, the Infirmary (which went on to spawn the later Hospital) the Library, and the quad in University College, all of which bear his name. The Warneford hospital, too, was previously called the Radcliffe lunatic asylum.
But it is the Radcliffe Camera for which Dr John is best known, the magnificent rotunda which sits at the heart of Oxford. It was designed by James Gibbs and built over a dozen years (1737-49) to accommodate a library and reading room. With its pedimented bays and cupola-topped dome of lead it is surely one of the most striking, most distinctive, most photographed buildings in Britain. The adjective ‘iconic’ is overused but in this case accurate. As for inside, according to Geoffrey Tyack, our leading architectural historian, ‘There is no finer classical interior in Oxford, and few in England,’ – though you do need to be a member of the university to use it.
In the Upper Reading Room of the ‘Rad Cam’ (as it is inelegantly known to students) stands a life-size carving of Radcliffe in white marble. Far more engaging and accessible is the statue located outside the Observatory at Green Templeton College, commissioned by the Radcliffe Trustees in conjunction with the Ashmolean Museum to mark the three hundredth anniversary of his death. It was designed, created and cast in bronze by Martin Jennings, who for 39 years lived in Oxford, and whose superb work includes the much-loved statue of John Betjeman in St Pancras Station.
Here the sculptor captures brilliantly the spirit of his subject, including no doubt an attitude of general disdain and more than a whiff of self importance. Swagged in his voluminous baroque cloak, gold-topped cane in hand, Radcliffe gazes imperiously into the middle distance …
As well he might. For whatever his qualities as a physician and foibles as an individual, there is no doubt that Dr John Radcliffe’s farsighted gift to humanity, and with it his memory, will live on for many grateful generations to come.