Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

John Caius, MD (1510–1573)

JMS Pearce
Hull, England

Fig 1. John Caius. Cooke AM.3

Eminent physicians are remembered in different ways. A few have a street, statue, university department, or hall to perpetuate their name. But to have a college named after you is an uncommon distinction. John (Johannes) Caius—usually pronounced Keys—was born in Norwich, son of Robert Caius and Alice (née Wode). He was an English physician and classical scholar who was the second founder of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He led an adventurous but at times a turbulent and troubled life.1

His schooling was in Norwich, and he then attended Gonville Hall College in Cambridge to read theology. He graduated in 1533 and was appointed principal of its subsidiary, Physwick Hostel, and elected a fellow of Gonville Hall on 6 December in the same year. In 1539, he visited Italy and studied medicine with Andreas Vesalius at Padua under the celebrated teacher Johannes Baptista Montanus.2

Caius and Vesalius shared a house in Padua, but whilst Caius was an ardent student of Galenic doctrine, Vesalius developed his own human anatomical investigations to rectify Galenic anatomy, which was mainly based on animal rather than human anatomy. Caius graduated in medicine from Padua in 1541; at the same time, as Professor of Greek, he gave lectures on the texts of Aristotle with Realdus Columbus, a renowned anatomist and surgeon. He traveled widely to search libraries for the original Greek manuscripts of Galen and Celsus, which he emended and translated into Latin; he included the previously unknown Hippocrates de Medicamentis.

After his sojourn in Italy, he returned to England and was admitted Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1547, became its President, and was twice re-elected. He donated a silver caduceus as part of the presidential insignia. A stout proponent of teaching anatomy, acting for the College of Physicians he initiated lectures and demonstrations in anatomy to the Barber-Surgeons’ Company (founded in 1387), which had acquired the right to make dissections.3 He financially supported the college and tried to assert its Galenist, humanist statutes and authority on general medical practices. But this had little effect since the college Fellows and Licentiates then numbered less than twenty-five.2

In 1552, he drew attention to an epidemic febrile illness that he named the “sweate or sweatyng sicknesse,” in one of the earliest recorded outbreaks, which erupted in Shrewsbury in 1551.4 Influenza or a tick or louse-borne borrelia relapsing fever have been considered possible causes.

Caius practiced in London, Cambridge, and Shrewsbury. He was appointed physician to King Edward VI, Queen Mary I, and Queen Elizabeth I. He concerned himself with his alma mater, the University of Cambridge, which was founded in 1209. Edmund Gonville, Rector of Terrington St. Clement in Norfolk, founded Gonville Hall, its fourth oldest college in 1348, principally for the study of theology. Following a period of financial insecurity and decline in Gonville Hall, John Caius’s prosperous medical practice enabled him to expand it under royal charter in 1557 as “Gonville and Caius College.” A year later he was elected Master of the College.

The new enlarged establishment consisted of the Master and twelve Fellows; Caius subsequently endowed the college with his manors in Hertfordshire, Norfolk, and Dorset. He expanded the site and gave plate, money, books, and framed the statutes for its governance. He was awarded the Cambridge MD in 1558, but declined the stipend and emoluments of the mastership.

His was a remarkably generous but autocratic reign, but his religious conservatism made him unpopular at a time of increasing puritanism and hatred of “popery.” According to Venn,5 the Fellows were narrow-minded and bitter, very young, none of them in 1564 being twenty-five years old—and Caius certainly expelled some of them. He kept certain college books, ornaments, and vestments used in the Roman Catholic service, which at the instigation of Edwin Sandys, Bishop of London, were regarded as “muche popishe trumpery.” In 1572, in an act of calumny, his room was ransacked and the university authorities burned his precious hoard of relics.5 Langdon-Brown related the consequences: “And then—the bitterness of it, his college turned against him, his University despoiled him.”6 Dispirited by this wanton vandalism, he resigned his Mastership and retired to London.

John Caius was described as an eccentric, short man with a long beard and a squeaky voice, sometimes pompous, autocratic, and overbearing. He was a profound scholar of antiquities and of Greek and Latin literature, noted for his emendments of Galen and for his work on zoology and natural history. He died aged sixty-three on 29 July 1573 in the parish of the Anglican St. Bartholomew the Less, London, precisely as he had predicted, and was buried in the chapel of Caius College. His tomb bears his ironic inscription: vivit post funera virtus (virtue lives beyond the grave).

His most visible legacy remains the beautiful Caius Court and the college’s three famous gates—of Humility, Virtue, and Honour—for which he was responsible. Gonville and Caius is one of the largest Cambridge colleges.7 It has produced ten Royal Society Copley Medalists and fifteen Nobel Prize winners who include Howard Florey, Francis Crick, Charles Sherrington, Peter Ratcliffe, and Antony Hewish.8

John Caius’s principal publications

  • De Medendi Methodo, Basel, 1544
  • John Caius and the Manuscripts of Galen by Vivian Nutton. Cambridge Philological Society, 1987
  • Boke, or counseill against the disease commonly called the sweate, or sweating sicknesse, London, 1552
  • De Libris Propriis, London, 1570
  • De Canibus Britannicis, London, 1570
  • De Variorum Animalium, London, 1570
  • De Pronunciatione Graecae & Latinae Linguae, 1574
  • De Antiquitate Cantabrigiensis Academiae, 1574
  • De Pronunciatione Graecae et Latinae Linguae, London, 1574


  1. Munk W. John Caius. In: Inspiring Physicians, also known as Munk’s Roll, 1510-1573, Vol I: 37.
  2. Nutton V. John Caius and the Linacre tradition. Medical History 1979;23:373-91.
  3. Cooke AM. Dr John Caius, 1510-1573. J Roy Coll Phycns Lond 1973;7:365-71.
  4. Caius J. A Boke, or counseill against the disease commonly called the sweate, or sweating sicknesse, London, 1552.
  5. Venn J. John Caius A Biographical Sketch, written in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of his birth. Cambridge University Press, 1910. https://www.croxleygreenhistory.co.uk/uploads/7/8/4/5/7845534/john_caius.pdf
  6. Langdon-Brown W. John Caius and the Revival of Learning. Proc R Soc Med 1941;35:61-9.
  7. Brooke C. A History of Gonville and Caius College, by Boydell Press (1985. e-book 2017).
  8. Gonville & Caius, University of Cambridge. History. https://www.cai.cam.ac.uk/history

JMS PEARCE is a retired neurologist and author with a particular interest in the history of medicine and science.

Summer 2024



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