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Title page and part portrait of a work on phrenology ;

Guy's Hospital Physical Society Collection

The Physical Society of Guy's Hospital (1771-1852) was one of the many fora in which scientific ideas were discussed in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth centuries. It is highly significant that this was a society which was devoted primarily to medical matters (as was John Coakley Lettsom's London Medical Society, founded in 1773), as this marked an important stage in the development of a medical profession. It was also notable that physicians, surgeons and apothecaries, who were intent on preserving the boundaries between their occupations, could all participate in the Society.

Portrait of Sir Astley Cooper.

Until the advent of medical education at University College London and King's College London from the 1830s onwards and the expansion of facilities at the teaching hospitals, the Physical Society had an important role in filling in the gaps left by an often inadequate medical education and by the absence of medical journals. It fulfilled this task through weekly meetings, facilitating contact between experienced physicians and medical students, the provision of discussions and lectures, and the existence of a lending library.

The leading lights of the Society, Sir Astley Cooper, Richard Bright, Thomas Addison and Thomas Hodgkin, were instrumental in constructing the formidable reputation of Guy's Medical School during the first half of the nineteenth century, thus rendering the Physical Society obsolete. Even the rules of the Physical Society, which were designed to enforce regular attendance on pain of loss of membership, proved ineffectual in preventing the falling away of interest.

The increasing superfluity of the Society after the Apothecaries Act was the principal reason for the failure of the poet John Keats (1795-1821) to join the Society while he was a medical student at Guy's, not any lack of enthusiasm for medicine on his part. The evidence indicates that the opposite was the case.

Among the most important papers which was presented to the Society by a physician not working at Guy's or St. Thomas's was Edward Jenner's on vaccination, which was given in 1802. Other famous physicians associated with the Society who did not work at Guy's or St. Thomas's included the anatomist John Hunter and Benjamin Rush, one of the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence, and the founder of post-colonial American medicine.


Portrait of Richard Bright.

The presentations ranged across a variety of medical and scientific topics, although there was often controversy when papers of a more general scientific nature (sometimes with philosophical implications ) were presented. A paper presented by the radical democrat and atheist John Thelwall, a friend of Sir Astley Cooper and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1793 on "mental action and the definition of animal vitality" was discontinued after three meetings, a heated debate and a close vote.

The ostensible reason for the Society's disapproval was that Thelwall's paper had nothing to do with medicine. It is apparent that Thelwall's materialistic explanation of physiology had atheistic implications which may have been politically disturbing to many members. Thereafter, it appears that discussions were mostly of a strictly medical nature. The discussions of the Physical Society ranged over: surgical problems; new therapeutics, such as Peruvian bark or opium; and re-consideration of existing medical practices, such as Richard Bright's paper on abuses of blood-letting of 1813. Both the archives and the library of the Physical Society offer valuable insights concerning the troubled transformations which medical education and medical science were undergoing during this period.

The Library of the Physical Society

The Society's library raised funds for book acquisition and for its maintenance through the subscriptions of its members. In this respect, it resembled the libraries of the literary and philosophical societies which had been founded by Dissenters during the course of the eighteenth century, and which catered for both the business and leisure reading of the burgeoning professional classes.

In the case of the Physical Society, such a library filled the gap caused by the absence of any institutional library provision for medicine in London until the middle of the nineteenth century. The library therefore had to be comprehensive and cover general scientific and philosophical subjects. However, the core of the library was medicine.

The library was insured for £1,000 annually from 1816. This appears to have been occasioned by the perennial problem of loss of the stock, caused by the lack of security against illicit borrowing by members. This was remedied in 1802 by the appointment of a paid library assistant and by the request to members to raise £50 to defray losses.

Members could borrow only one book at a time and had to lodge a deposit equivalent to the value of the book against loss. Loss of stock remained a constant anxiety, but there appears to have been no permanent damage to the integrity of the library, as can be seen from the catalogues of the library produced in 1829 and 1850 available at the Foyle Special Collections Library. Almost every volume which was not a folio was bound according to a standard specification, in brown leather with red morocco panels on the spine with gilt tooled titles.

The collection of the Guy's Hospital Physical Society was moved to the Foyle Special Collections Library, together with the other historical collections at Guy's, St. Thomas's and King's College Hospital, in 2002. The cataloguing project for the Physical Society collection started in 2003. A special feature of this cataloguing project is the inclusion of both the original and the revised shelfmark for each book in the catalogue record, so that the institutional shelving order of the books can be re-constructed. Items of special interest are being selected for conservation. Information about the collection has been disseminated through exhibitions and the web pages of the Foyle Special Collections Library.

An essay on electricity, 1787.

The library of the Physical Society includes many of the most important medical works of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Matthew Baillie's The morbid anatomy of the most important parts of the human body (1797) foreshadows much of the work of Thomas Hodgkin in drawing conclusions about the course of diseases from autopsy evidence. Other works focus on certain therapeutics which were becoming popular during this period such as sea-water or electricity, including Richard Russell's A dissertation on the use of sea-water in the diseases of the glands (1753), and George Adams' An essay on electricity (1787).

Opium as a therapeutic features in John Brown's The elements of medicine (1795) in the translation of this work from the Latin by Thomas Beddoes. Brown's "excitement" theory of disease causation faded into obscurity, but his enthusiasm for opium found favour with such literary figures as Coleridge and De Quincey, the second edition of whose Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1823) is included in the collection. Beddoes, who for a time was an associate of Coleridge, was a fascinating writer on medicine, whose most remarkable work, Hygèeia, or Essays moral and medical (1802-1803) is a combination of popular medicine and social commentary. Beddoes' partner in the use of nitrous oxide as a therapeutic was Sir Humphry Davy, the first edition of whose Researches, chemical and philosophical (1800 ) details the experiments which he undertook with Beddoes.

The transformation in obstetric medicine which took place in the eighteenth century is also represented; the collection includes William Smellie's A treatise on the theory and practice of midwifery (1779) and other lesser known works. The role of naval and military medicine in improving nutrition and in originating tropical medicine is disclosed in James Lind's A treatise of the scurvy (1757) and in Gilbert Blane's Observations on the diseases of seamen (1789). Both Lind and Blane were instrumental in altering the diet of sailors.

Noteworthy larger format books from the collection include a 1609 edition of the works of Galen; an English translation of the works of the pioneering French military surgeon Ambroise Paré; and copies inscribed by the author of Thomas Addison's On disease of the supra renal capsules (1855) and of Sir Astley Cooper's On the anatomy of the breast.


All the Guy's Hospital historical journals, including those of the Physical society, are now on the online catalogue. They cover the period from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth century and include titles on the natural sciences as well as medicine. Although the journals are predominantly British, some overseas journals, such as The Transactions of the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta (1825-1845) and the Medical Repository (1797-1824), published in New York, are included.

Using Library Search

Records from all collections are available through King's Library Search.

Being signed in to Library Search gives the best functionality for searching and the homepage gives advice on how to narrow down your searches by using scopes and by filtering searches you have made. For full instructions please see both the Library Search homepage and also our 'Catalogues' webpage, available by scrolling down to the menu on the Special Collections homepage.

Using scopes

You can limit your search to Foyle Special Collections Library items by using scopes.

If you select the ‘Library Resources’ scope, only the print and ebooks, audiovisual material and journals held by the campus libraries and Foyle Special Collections Library will be retrieved in your searches

Using filters

For finding material related to specific collections or former owners, use the ‘Library Resources’ scope in the drop down menu and then filter by ‘Former owner’ in the Advanced search criteria to display records from a specific collection.

You can also use the Location drop down menu on the left hand side of the screen to identify items from specific named special collections.

Please do contact us for further advice on identifying material which will assist you with your studies.

The Archives of King's College London hold a significant amount of material relating to the history of Guy's Hospital Physical Society and a general Summary guide to the Guy's Hospital: Physical Society holdings has been published online.

Further reading

Andrew Baster. "The Library of the Guy's Hospital Physical Society", Guy's Hospital Gazette, 1984. H. C. Cameron. Mr. Guy's Hospital, 1726-1948. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1964. [New Hunt's House WZ23. GUY ]

Bransby Blake Cooper. The life of Sir Astley Cooper, Bart. ( 2 vols.). London: John W. Parker, 1843. [Weston Education Centre WZ100. COO]

Christopher Lawrence. Medicine in the making of modern Britain, 1700-1920. London: Routledge, 1993. [Maughan Library KRA418.3 G7 LAW ]

Susan C. Lawrence. "Desirous of improvements in medicine: pupils and practitioners in the medical societies at Guy's and St. Bartholomew's Hospitals, 1795-1815", Bulletin of the History of Medicine ( 59 ), 89-104

Susan C. Lawrence. Charitable knowledge: hospital pupils and practitioners in eighteenth-century London. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. [New Hunt's House WZ56. LAW]

Jeanne Peterson. The medical profession in mid-Victorian London. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. [New Hunt's House. WZ59 PET]

Nicholas Roe. John Keats and the culture of Dissent. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. [Maughan Library PR4838.P6 ROE ]

R. Wall. "The Guy's Hospital Physical Society (1771-1852)", Guy's Hospital Reports, 1974, 123 [Wills Journals]

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