Who was JR?

Story by Maggie Chaplin that first featured in the May 2015 issue of the magazine

Even if you’ve never been to “The JR”, you’re bound to know someone who has. The yellow signs from the Oxford ring road to the John Radcliffe Hospital simply point to “JR”. But who was JR and what did he have to do with Oxford and hospitals?

John Radcliffe was born in Yorkshire, the son of a Wakefield lawyer. Sources differ as to the exact year of his birth and apparently JR himself wasn’t sure, but it was probably 1652. Confusion arose because his parents also called their first son John. He was born in 1650, but died in infancy. The John who eventually came to Oxford to study and practice medicine and who rose to fame and fortune was originally destined for a career in trade or agriculture, but he was a bright child and his teachers encouraged his father to pay for him to be educated at the local grammar school. A wise choice as it turned out.

Wakefield Grammar school was founded by Royal Charter in 1551. The schedule was rigorous. The young John Radcliffe and his schoolmates would have to attend from 6am to 6pm from 10th March to 10th October, and from sunrise to sunset in winter. It was a strictly Christian upbringing, studying mainly Latin and Greek, and whilst at school the pupils were expected to speak in Latin. They had three weeks holiday at Christmas and a fortnight at midsummer, and 17th November was designated a play day. “Play”, however, consisted of spending their time writing verses in honour of their founder, Queen Elizabeth I. Some fun!

John shone academically and won a place at University College, Oxford in 1665. Compared with the austerity of his schooldays, the way of life in Oxford must have come as a profound shock. The University was undergoing considerable change. Studies had all but been suspended during the Civil War that lasted from 1642 to 1648, and learning and morals suffered. Divided political loyalties amongst academics resulted in large scale staff shakeups. By the time JR became an undergraduate many of those dismissed under Parliamentarian rule had been re-instated after the Restoration, but they were still unsettled times.

All this upheaval seemed to stimulate an upsurge of new ideas, but discipline remained lax. This was the melting pot into which the young John Radcliffe was thrust when he left Wakefield to move into the heady world of undergraduate life. Whether he was thirteen or fifteen at the time was probably irrelevant.  He was fortunate in that his tutor and mentor, Obadiah Walker, took a keen interest in his welfare and no doubt sought to moderate the excesses of undergraduate behaviour, but teenage boys are easily influenced.

Extracurricular activities were many and varied, and some, such as longbow shooting, bowls and tennis, received tutorial approval. Play-acting, which had been suspended during the Puritan regime, had resumed, but this diversion didn’t find universal support amongst the academic staff, many of whom considered it encouraged impudence, revelry and drunkenness.

It’s not known which of these pursuits appealed to the young John, but there were other influences to distract him. London was in the grip of the plague and Charles II transferred his Court and Parliament to Oxford, where they stayed from September 1665 to January 1666. The influx of flamboyant cavaliers with their drunken conduct and loose morals must have had an unsettling effect on undergraduate studies. This juxtaposition of classical learning and dissolute behaviour was the culture in which the naïve Yorkshire lad found himself. It appears that he slid into the life of a libertine and began an association with alcohol that was to last a lifetime.

Despite playing hard he didn’t entirely neglect his studies and he did well enough to be elected to a university fellowship at Lincoln College. He took a Master’s degree in botany, chemistry and anatomy and then three years later qualified as a doctor. He was in his early twenties when he began practicing medicine from his college rooms.

Medical teaching in Oxford at the time was poor. Radcliffe gained most of his knowledge from the eminent Oxford physician Thomas Willis, one of whose claims to fame was the resuscitation of Anne Green of Duns Tew, who was hanged for infanticide and cut down from the gallows presumed dead. She subsequently took a breath, was revived and Willis was credited with performing a miracle.

Willis was a progressive thinker and, following in his footsteps, Radcliffe abandoned many of the old methods of treatment and diagnosis. He dismissed the notion that the cause of any ill could be determined solely on the appearance (and taste!) of a patient’s urine, and he revolutionised the treatment of smallpox, which was rife in Oxford at the time. He insisted on fresh air and cooling emulsions rather than the stuffy confinement in darkened rooms that his contemporaries prescribed. The eminent physicians of the time were scornful of his methods, but those methods were remarkably effective. He was also an accurate prognosticator. If Dr Radcliffe said you had only twelve months to live, you started working on your will.

Such were his medical successes, often when other more prestigious doctors had failed, that he was soon sought out to treat the ailments of the important families of Oxfordshire. Recovered nobility were generous, and his income as well as his reputation soared. On the basis of this, the thirty-two year old John Radcliffe, decided to leave Oxford and seek his fortune as a physician in London. He set up in Bow Street in Covent Garden and within a year was earning more than twenty guineas a day – a handsome sum in the seventeenth century.

Life as a fashionable doctor in London was a world away from a middle-class Wakefield childhood. He would rise late, having lingered over copious quantities of fine wine the previous evening, and still in his dressing gown, take a light breakfast of morning chocolate, possibly followed by a little tea and toast.

One of his servants or a visiting barber would shave him, and then later, attired in a velvet coat, powdered wig and three-cornered hat he would set out to meet apothecaries or visit patients. He would travel in a coach with as many as six horses. In winter a fur muff would keep his hands warm for taking a patient’s pulse, and always he would carry his professional symbol of office – the physician’s cane.

John Radcliffe’s skill earned him a client list that not only included most of the nobility of the period but royalty as well. His successes were handsomely rewarded and he amassed a fortune. He spent it on land and property, fine furnishings, valuable paintings, much precious silver and of course, a well-stocked cellar.

James II, William III and Queen Anne were all his patients at one time, but he never abandoned his Yorkshire bluntness. His candour verged on rudeness, and on one occasion he apparently told King William when treating him for swollen ankles,

“Why, truly, I would not have your Majesty’s two legs for your three kingdoms.”

It is also said that he once announced publicly that Queen Anne was suffering from nothing more than a fit of the vapours. These weren’t the first times he’d pushed his luck and the royal tolerance finally snapped and he wasn’t summoned directly again, although such was his reputation that his opinion was often sought discretely.

As a diagnostician and clinician, John Radcliffe was undoubtedly brilliant, but he was self-assured to the point of arrogance. He had many acquaintances who enjoyed his conversation and often vulgar wit, but few close friends, and he’d lost touch with his family. By his own admission he drank too much. Although he almost married on at least one occasion, he was a bachelor when he died in 1714. He is buried, according to his wishes, in St Mary’s church in Oxford and last year a commemorative plaque was placed near his grave to mark the 300th anniversary of his death

In life, he was often guilty of petty meanness, and was slow to pay tradesmen, but was capable of compassion too. When his old tutor Obadiah Walker fell on hard times, he provided him with regular food and clothing. In his will he made numerous personal bequests and was generous to his college and the university that he loved. Some of the evidence remains today. University College’s Radcliffe Quadrangle, the Radcliffe Camera, the Radcliffe Observatory and the former Radcliffe Infirmary were all named for him and financed in whole or in part by the Radcliffe estate.

Dr John Radcliffe wrote neither learned treatises, nor wordy academic tomes but he revolutionised medical practice. He was a reformer and pioneer, and his diagnostic skills were based on shrewd observation and practical commonsense, not outdated mysticism.

This brilliant, larger than life, arrogant, Yorkshireman, “JR”, would no doubt have been gratified that Oxfordshire’s major hospital carries his name, although he’d probably also have considered the honour as no more than his due. In that we’d have to agree with him.