Behind a Name: John Radcliffe

A number of landmark buildings in Oxford, including the Radcliffe Camera (in Radcliffe Square), the Radcliffe Infirmary, and the Radcliffe Observatory are named after John Radcliffe, a blunt, outspoken Yorkshireman who became the most famous physician of his time.

Radcliffe was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, and was educated at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School. He graduated from University College, Oxford in 1666 at the age of 13 (which was extremely young, even for the times) and then became a Fellow of Lincoln College.

Radcliffe’s passion was for science and his ambition was to become a practising physician. He refused to take the Holy Orders required by the University if he was to remain a Fellow, and so he decided to leave Lincoln College.

He soon became renowned for both the quality of his medical care and also for his unorthodox treatments. His reputation steadily soared and he moved to Covent Garden in London which was home to the nobility, merchants, successful artists and apothecaries where his success continued.

He amassed a great fortune and collected paintings by artists such as Rembrandt, Rubens and Vermeer. He purchased stocks and shares, and invested in property. He also owned a magnificently well-stocked wine cellar. When he died, his estate was estimated to be worth around £140,000 which is equivalent to millions today.

Radcliffe was known for his colourful character. As a student he was described as a “a wild young scholar” by one of his tutors and was said to be fond of drinking, socialising and practical jokes. Later in his professional career he was said to be scornful and outspoken about his colleagues. His blunt remarks and a frequently bullying manner meant that he had few friends within his profession.

Anecdotes about Radcliffe’s convivial ways recall that when he was in a lively party, he was unwilling to leave it, even if sent for by persons of the highest distinction. Radcliffe is also said to have taken a certain impious pride in having read very little. Therefore it is ironic that he should have bequeathed a substantial sum of money to Oxford for the founding of the Radcliffe Library for which he has become most famous.

After his death of a stroke in 1714, Radcliffe made a bequest of £5,000 to University College. The bulk of his fortune was to be spent on charitable causes and it was as a result of this that the foundation stone of the Radcliffe Infirmary on the Woodstock Road was laid in 1759 which expanded out to the JR complex in Headington, built in the 1960s. However, his monument was to be the library in Oxford which bears his name.

Radcliffe is buried in the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin on High Street beneath a simple plaque that stands in his memory.