Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The Royal Society of Medicine of London: A brief history

Arpan K. Banerjee
Solihull, England

Gray stone building with five floors
RSM, 1 Wimpole Street, London. Photo by Philafrenzy, 2017, on Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 4.0.

The origins of the Royal Society of Medicine in London can be traced back to 1805. It was in that year that a breakaway group of learned physicians and surgeons formed a new medical society, the Medical and Chirurgical Society of London. They met first in Gray’s Inn, the legal area of London, before moving their headquarters to Lincoln’s Inn Fields and then later to 20 Hanover Square. The reason for the breakaway was a dispute with the dictatorial style of the president of the Medical Society of London at Chandos Street, which had been founded in 1773 by the physician Dr. John Coakley Lettsom. The Medical and Chirurgical Society of London received a Royal Charter in 1834. Its first president was William Saunders, a physician at Guy’s Hospital, an expert on Devonshire colic and liver disease, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. The first treasurer was Sir Astley Cooper, the famous surgeon and anatomy teacher from Guy’s and St. Thomas’s Hospitals.

In 1907 the Medical and Chirurgical Society merged with another sixteen learned medical societies to form the Royal Society of Medicine. This new amalgamated society was headquartered at 1 Wimpole Street, London, in a magnificent Edwardian building opened in 1912 by King George V and is where the society has remained and flourished for over 100 years. The first president was Sir William Church, a physician at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London and past president of the Royal College of Physicians of London from 1899–1905. He was responsible for allowing Sir William Osler, who was a distinguished professor of medicine at Oxford, to form a history section in 1912, which still remains active to this day.

Today the society has over fifty sections and more than 20,000 members who are Fellows. The library boasts over half a million books with an important historical collection, arguably the largest medical library in Europe. The Royal Society of Medicine is one of London’s finest conference and meeting venues and is the largest provider of continuing educational meetings in the UK for doctors and health professionals, fostering an interdisciplinary educational environment. The building also houses a hotel, restaurant, and bar for its members and guests. The in-house journal, the The Journal of the RSM, is a continuation of the earlier Proceedings of the RSM, which often published lectures that were presented at section meetings.

Past presidents of the parent organization have included medical luminaries such as Thomas Addison, Richard Bright, and Sir James Paget, all remembered for their eponymous diseases. Honorary Fellows have included Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, and Sigmund Freud, to name just a few scientific and medical giants of the past.

The founders of this institution would have been proud to see their ideals come to fruition and maintained, despite the vicissitudes of the subsequent two centuries.


  1. Davidson M. The Royal Society of Medicine RSM, 1955.
  2. Hunting P. The History of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2002.

ARPAN K. BANERJEE qualified in medicine at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School, London. He was a consultant radiologist in Birmingham 1995–2019. He was President of the radiology section of the RSM 2005–2007 and on the scientific committee of the Royal College of Radiologists 2012–2016. He was Chairman of the British Society for the History of Radiology 2012–2017. He is Chairman of ISHRAD. He is author/co-author of papers on a variety of clinical, radiological, and medical historical topics and seven books, including Classic Papers in Modern Diagnostic Radiology (2005) and The History of Radiology (OUP 2013).

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