John Radcliffe was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire at the end of 1652. He was the third son and fourth child of George and Ann Radcliffe. There were two other sons to follow but John was the only one to survive infancy; however he had three sisters as companions when he was growing up. As to his exact date of birth there is no record. Parish registers during the Republican period were often poorly kept or not at all and in some instances actively discouraged by the authorities so it is not surprising to find no record, even though his father was a relatively prominent citizen.
George Radcliffe was an attorney at law and himself the son of a country vicar. As a supporter of the Cromwellian cause he was rewarded with the post of Governor of Wakefield’s House of Correction, only to lose this to the previous incumbent after the restoration of the monarchy.
John’s background therefore was solid provincial middle class. The Radcliffes were not wealthy but neither were they poor. John attended the local Grammar School and showed himself to be a bright pupil and in 1666, when he was just 13 years old, he was sent to University College, Oxford. He graduated with a B.A. in 1669 and then embarked upon studies in anatomy, chemistry and botany for an M.A., which he was awarded in 1672. Following this he was able to begin his proper medical studies. He obtained a licence in 1675.
From the start he appeared to have an intuitive gift to diagnose illness and prescribe novel and effective treatment. For example, his treatment of smallpox, then a common enough scourge, used cooling emulsions on the skin, and ordering his patients to get plenty of fresh air. The conventional treatment was to bleed the patient and to confine him to bed in a dark and stuffy room. It did not take too long for the word to spread about the effectiveness of Radcliffe’s treatment and prospective patients were soon lining up outside his door. And as these matters often run it took the cure of one celebrated patient to cement his rsing reputation. A certain Lady Spencer had been ill for years and the ministrations of successive doctors had made no impression. After three weeks in Radcliffe’s care she was up and about looking better than she had in years. Now Radcliffe could command high fees from the well-to-do and well-connected.
In 1682, after completing his Doctor of medecine degree he moved to london, finding a house in Covent garden, strategically placed between Westminster and the city. As his fame grew so did his fees and by 1690 he was charging 20 guineas for a consultation. He was patronized by the Royal Family and by many of the Aristocracy. On the other side of this he tended to live frugally, with the exception of his drinking habit, which I will come to. He had no wife or children and very little that he wanted to spend his money on. As his wealth accumulated he did invest money in various venture. usually these paid off, leaving him more wealthy than before.
He did not achieve his fame through his medical skill alone; he was also a “personality”.
He liked to talk; he liked male company; he liked the ale-house; he did not care very much what he said to people and to whom. He was able to maintain good friendships but he was often arrogant and was not sparing in his criticisms of some of his colleagues. Needless to say this did not go down well with the medical profession of the day.
One of the Royals Doctors, Gibbons, was described contemptuously as “Nurse Gibbons” by Radcliffe for always prescribing “slops, caudles and diet-drinks”. Another, Doctor Lister, was characterised as “having his head turned the wrong way”.
He was no less gentle with his patients. One peer, apparently something of a hypochondriac, came to him to complain of singing in his head. He was despatched with the advice that “you should try wiping your arse with a ballad.”
Even the Royals were not immune. Princess Anne (later Queen) sent a summons to him one evening while he was drinking in a tavern. He replied that he would be along shortly and carried on drinking. An hour or two later a second messenger was sent when Radcliffe was even more comfortably ensconced. The Princess’s symptoms were described and Radcliffe reacted, “By God! Her Highness’s distemper is nothing but the vapours, and she is in as good a state of health as any woman breathing, could she but give in to the belief of it.” It would not surprise you to learn that Anne never called him again.
But his commanding and bullying manner was no doubt part of the attraction. Patients generally appreciate forceful advice, even if they do not always act upon it. In 1697 he was called to King William, who was then suffering from dropsy. Radcliffe told him that the best he could expect was another three or four years of life, but only if he followed Radcliffe’s orders. “If Your Majesty will forbear making long visits to the Earl of Bradford (the kings drinking companion), I’ll try what can be done to make you live easily.”
Radcliffe showed little interest in women, although there were some reported dalliances, and even less in marriage. He therefore found himself towards the end of his life with no heirs. In his last decade he began to acquire property – the Wolverton Manor being the chief, and a smaller estate in Yorkshire. In the last year of his life he bought a large house at Carshalton in Surrey.
His own health problems started to appear when he was fifty with a serious attack of pleurisy in 1703. He recovered but the years of overindulgence in red wine began to catch up with his health. He began to go to places like Bath and Tunbridge Wells for recuperation, but the decline had set in. He was still practising in his last decade but increasingly his thoughts turned to his legacy. He did provide for his sisters and their families and make some other bequests, but the main endowment went through his Trust, to his first college, University College, Oxford.
He died of a stroke at his house in Carshalton on November 1st, 1714