England Medical Occupations (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


The medical profession has traditionally been divided into physicians, surgeons and apothecaries and their histories are different.

Physicians and Surgeons - History

The London College of Physicians (now the Royal College of Physicians of London) was founded in 1518 to supervise the practice of physic within seven miles of the capital. Most physicians had a university degree from Oxford or Cambridge, although many English doctors trained at Scottish universities, especially Edinburgh and at Leyden in Holland. By the end of the 18th century most physicians were graduates so can be found in university registers, however these degrees may have been bought rather than acquired by study!

Physicians diagnosed and treated internal maladies but did no surgery, considering it beneath them, and they were in constant arguments with the apothecaries on who was allowed to prescribe and dispense medicines.

The Company of Surgeons of London joined with the Barbers Company (incorporated in 1461), in the time of Henry VIII to form the Barber-Surgeons Company. The barbers did shaving, cutting of hair, blood-letting and tooth-drawing but no major surgeries, whilst the surgeons, also spelled chirurgeons, concentrated on surgery and were not allowed to do any shaving and hair cutting. The sign of a barber was a white-and-red striped pole with a basin hung from the end; this signified the bandage used in blood-letting, the basin receiving the blood, and is one of the few trades signs still found today, albeit in a modified form.

In 1745 they divided from the barbers in search of higher professional status and formed their own company which in 1800 became the College of Surgeons and is now the Royal College of Surgeons. The profession of surgeon still did not carry the same prestige as that of physician. A young man first served an apprenticeship to a surgeon and records of these can be found with those of the hospitals where they served.

Since London lacked a university until the 19th century most surgeons, surgeon-apothecaries and visiting physicians were taught in the seven major hospitals—St. Bartholomew’s, St. Thomas’, Guy’s, Westminster, St. George’s, Middlesex and London. By the early 19th century some provincial medical schools had been established. The General Medical Council took charge of medical education in 1858. Good synopses of the history of medical practitioners of various kinds are by Bourne and Chicken (Records of the Medical Professions. A Practical Guide for the Family Historian. Self-published. FHL book 942 D27bs, 1994, Camp (Sources for Medical Men. Family Tree Magazine. Vol 17 #4, page 19-20, 2001) (with an addition on army personnel by Melville), and in more detail by Amsden The Medical Professions and Their Archives. ASAT Productions, Dunbeg, Argyll, 1999). Pelling (Medical Practice in Early Modern England: Trade or Profession? in PREST, Wilfrid. 1987. The Professions in Early Modern England. Croom Helm, London. FHL book 942 U2p considers the development of the medical profession from 1500-1750, and Beresford (The Development of Medicine in London. Metropolitan (London and North Middlesex Family History Society) Vol 18 #4, page 167-169) lists dates of major advances in London medical care.

The Haynes’ (Local Boy Makes Good [John Keats, doctor and poet]. Metropolitan (London and North Middlesex Family History Society) Vol 18 #4, page 170-172) give us a vivid life story of John Keats who apprenticed as a surgeon before devoting his life to poetry. For contemporary portraits of ‘typical members of the species’ see Horne (The Fashionable Physician in Portraits of the English Vol III: In Sickness and in Health edited and published by COLLINS, Audrey. 1999-1. Original published by Robert Tyas, London--fashionable physician), and Prendergast (The Medical Student in Portraits of the English Vol III: In Sickness and in Health edited and published by COLLINS, Audrey. 1999-1. Original published by Robert Tyas, London, 1840--medical student). There was a proliferation of unqualified charlatans (see Prendergast 1840 on the quack doctor, The Quack Doctor in Portraits of the English Vol III: In Sickness and in Health edited and published by COLLINS, Audrey. 1999-1. Original published by Robert Tyas, London), as well as genuine healers who used folk remedies until at least the middle of the 19th century.

Physicians and Surgeons - Records

In the 16th century there was no formal medical training but outside London you did need a licence from a bishop or archbishop in order to practise, so names of medics are found in diocesan records. Some have indexes; that for the medical licences issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury 1535-1775 is on the Lambeth Palace Library website and includes at least one woman with an impressive biography.

Example from Register of Surgeons of Diocese of Canterbury

FHL Film 1836361

August 25th 1755
A licence passed to enable Lewis SMITH of Fordwich in the Diocese of Canterbury to Practice the Art of Surgery he having first taken the Oath.

Examples from Index of Archbishop of Canterbury
Surgeons Licences

WRIGHT, Daniel gent. of Lawshall, Suffolk 1590
WRIGHT, Ellis of Braintree, Essex 1634
WRIGHT, Richard of Derby, Derbyshire 1724
WRIGHT, Richard apothecary of St. Michael, Derby 1757

A few of the company and society registers which can be consulted include:

  • ŸUniversity alumnae registers, especially Oxford (Foster) and Cambridge (Venn and Venn), are an excellent source for early physicians.Ÿ
  • Barber-Surgeons Company records, such as apprentice bindings 1657-1786, and freedom admissions 1522-1801, their lists of navy surgeons, and their quarterage books. Ÿ
  • Admission registers of the former Company of Surgeons 1745-1796.
  • Munk’s Roll of Physicians is a compendium of Fellows and Licentiates (but not ordinary members) of the Royal College since its beginning.
  • Plarr’s Lives of the Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons.

There have been various directories of medical men giving details of current physicians, surgeons, and sometimes apothecaries, including:

  • ŸThe Medical Register of 1779, 1780 and 1783. The first is available on fiche from the Society of Genealogists and has been indexed by Hawkins. It includes sections on the physicians’, surgeons’ and apothecaries’ societies and lists their members, addresses throughout Britain and their publications, as well as staff of existing hospitals in Britain and Europe and much else

CHART: Examples from Medical Register

Mr. Thomas BERDMORE was Surgeon-dentist to his Majesty, of Racquet Court, Fleet Street.
Joseph BRUSAUD was in Jersey. Mr. John BIRCH was an army surgeon of Essex Street, with the 2nd troop of Grenadier Guards, and warrant date 12 Jan 1770.
James BUREAU of Aldermanbury had written “An essay on the Erysipelas” 8vo, London 1778, 1s.”

  • The commercial Medical Directory [London and Provincial] was started in 1845 contains similar information and also published obituaries of recently deceased doctors. A complete run from 1846-1940 is on fiche on the FamilySearch Catalog (see Churchill’s The London and Provincial Medical Directory. John Churchill, London. 1573 fiches starting at FHL fisch 6085462 (each year a separate set).) except for 1847 which has been fiched by the Society of Genealogists.

CHART: Examples from Medical Directory

DASHWOOD, Jarrett, Greenwich, surgeon. M.R.C.S. 1830.
Surgeon to the National Truss Institution for the Relief of Hernia; late Demonstrator of Anatomy and the Principles and Practice of Surgery.
FLOWER, John Swan, 4 New Terrace, Camberwell Road,
gen[eral] prac[titioner]. M.R.C.S. 1827, L.S.A. 1826. Surgeon to the P Division of the Metropolitan Division of Police and to the district of St. Giles’s parish, Camberwell.
KEEK, John, Scarborough, York[shire]. Physician, M.D. Leyden 1824. Author of: 1. “Dissertatio de Syphilide”, Leyd[en] 1824; 2. “On the Scarborough Spa” 1841.


  • The official Medical Register commenced in 1858 and the FamilySearch Catalog has only the 1893 volume (942.U24).

The range of other sources is extremely wide; consider the following ideas:

  • Eighteenth Century Medics (Wallis and Wallis) is a valuable compendium of many indices to medical people including physicians, surgeons, apothecaries, pharmacists, distillers, chemists, druggists, dentists, opticians, midwives and patent-medicine sellers.
  • Vestry and Boards of Guardians’ minutes as well as churchwardens’ accounts typically name the doctors contracted to provide services to the poor.
  • The Wellcome Institute is the largest library in Britain specializing in the history of medicine, supporting MAMS (the Medical Archives and Manuscripts Survey) on their website; details of this library and several others are given by Amsden.
  • There are at least 19 museums of health and medicine just within the London area (Gibbens 1996).
  • Medical schools often have archives, too, for example the Westminster Hospital Medical School registers of students 1890-1973 are in Imperial College archives, on the [www.aim25.ac.uk AIM25] (Archives in London and the M25 Area) [the M25 is the circular highway around outer London].
  • The Shire books on the Victorian hospital (Lavinia Mitton) and ambulances (Chris Batten).
  • The database of hospital records called HOSPREC.
  • Many doctors, particularly surgeons, did a stint in the Royal Navy, the Army or the East India Company all of whom have extensive records. Royal Navy surgeons kept Medical Journals which are at the Public Record Office in class ADM 101.
  • The Guildhall Library has a leaflet on all kinds of medical practitioners and most county archives have a leaflet describing what they have.


The apothecaries dispensed medicines, perfumes, spices, herbs, comfits, antidotes, aphrodisiacs, antiseptics, tonics, purgatives, laxatives, emetics, astringents and general cure-alls (Hey). They are the forerunners of the later chemists and druggists, dispensing chemists, the more qualified pharmaceutical chemists and modern pharmacists as well as the old general practitioner in medicine. The duties of the apothecary including compounding herbs and distilling, and are quaintly listed in the 1779 Medical Register.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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