University of Oxford Medical Sciences Division, UK

The record of a ‘physick hall’ in the Chancellor’s Book for the early 1300s attests that medical sciences have been taught at the University of Oxford for more than seven centuries. Over this period, the institution has educated researchers and clinicians who have made revolutionary contributions to the medical sciences, and been the home of outstanding research and teaching. The history of the medical sciences at Oxford is closely entwined with the development of a medical school at the institution, but both clinical and pre-clinical departments have today made the University a world-leader in the medical sciences.

It is not known exactly when a formal program for teaching medical sciences was established at the University of Oxford, but it is likely that there was some form of organised curriculum from the early 1300s. The Chancellor’s Book from this period states that to achieve a license to teach medicine, a student had to be awarded a Master of Arts degree, study medicine for a further six years, undergo practical training, and then lecture for a further two years once licensed.

Medical practice throughout England began to be loosely regulated after the establishment of the Royal College of Physicians in 1518, and the United Company of Barber-Surgeons in 1540. Since the 15th century, developments in printing and the increasing power of humanist thought had stimulated a culture of innovation and experimentation throughout European universities. This experimentation reached a ‘golden age’ in Oxford during the 1600s, where some groundbreaking medical and biomedical research was conducted.

One early pioneer, Doctor William Harvey, settled in Oxford in 1642. In the early 1600s, Harvey was the first to accurately describe the human circulatory system. Looking beyond a Galenic tradition, which suggested that blood was able to move around the body through the expansion of the heart and the contraction of the arteries, Harvey proposed that that the heart was a muscle which propelled blood around the body in a continuous circuit.

The history of Oxford medical sciences during the 1700s is inevitably dominated by the legacy of Doctor John Radcliffe. Born into a middle class family in 1652, Radcliffe studied, and then practiced, medicine at Oxford, becoming a Doctor of Medicine in 1682. Moving to London, he established a successful practice, and his reputation among the moneyed classes bought him great wealth. He was physician to James II’s daughter Princess Anne (later Queen Anne), and also to William III and Mary II. When he died in 1714, his estate amounted to £140,000, a huge sum at the time. He bequeathed the majority to the University of Oxford, donating money for travelling medical scholarships and a new quadrangle at University College, as well as for a new library for the University (the Radcliffe Camera).

The Medical Sciences Division was formed in 2000 to oversee the activity of the clinical and pre-clinical academic departments at Oxford. Since then, new, world-leading departments have opened within the Division, and the University has continued to pioneer medical and biomedical research.

Tropical medicine has remained a particular area of strength for Oxford. In 2005, University research teams working in Thailand published a landmark paper which demonstrated that intravenously administered artemisinin (a compound capable of treating malaria) was a more potent antimalarial treatment than quinine. Due to this research, from 2006 the World Health Organisation began to recommend artemisinin and ACT (artemisinin-combination therapy) as the superior treatment for malaria in both adults and children. It is estimated that ACT, along with other control measures such as insecticide treated nets, saved more than 1 million lives between 2002 and 2012. Oxford teams continue to work on a programme of pre-clinical malaria vaccine development, and have had some significant successes.

The Bodleian Libraries provide in-depth support for the full range of learning, teaching and research activities at the University of Oxford. They provide access to one of the largest collections of online resources in UK Higher Education including thousands of online journals, databases, and e-books in the health and biomedical sciences. Their libraries provide access to extensive physical and online collections as well as IT facilities, 3D printing, quiet study spaces, training rooms, group study rooms, and comfortable break out spaces.

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