1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas Linacre

Thomas Linacre
English humanist and physician
(c. 1460 - 1524)

THOMAS LINACRE, or LYNAKER (1460-1524), a distinguished humanist and physician, was born at Canterbury about the year 1460. Of his parentage or descent nothing certain is known. He received his early education at the cathedral school of Canterbury, then under the direction of William of Selling, afterwards prior of Canterbury. Selling was an ardent scholar, and one of the earliest in England who cultivated Greek learning. From him Linacre must have received his first incentive to this study, in which he afterwards became eminent. Linacre entered the university of Oxford about the year 1480, and in 1484 was elected a fellow of All Souls' College. Shortly afterwards he visited Italy in the train of William of Selling, who was sent by Henry VIII. as an envoy to the papal court, and accompanied his patron as far as Bologna. There he became the pupil of Angelo Poliziano, and afterwards shared the instruction which that great scholar imparted at Florence to the youthful sons of Lorenzo de' Medici. The younger of these princes became Pope Leo X., and was in after years mindful of his old companionship with Linacre.

Among his other teachers and friends in Italy should be mentioned Demetrius Chalcondylas, Hermolaus Barbarus, Aldus Romanus the printer of Venice, and Nicolaus Leonicenus of Vicenza. Linacre took the degree of doctor of medicine with great distinction at Padua. On his return to Oxford, full of the learning and imbued with the spirit of the Italian Renaissance, he formed one of the brilliant circle of Oxford scholars, including Colet, Grocyn, and William Latimer, who are mentioned with so much warm eulogy in the letters of Erasmus.

Linacre does not appear to have practised or taught medicine in Oxford. About the year 1501 he was called to court as tutor of the young prince Arthur; and continued to act in this capacity till the prince's death in 1503. On the accession of Henry VIII. he was appointed the king's physician, an office at that time of considerable influence and importance, and practised medicine in London, having among his patients most of the great statesmen and prelates of the time, as Wolsey, Warham, and Fox.

After some years of professional activity, and when in advanced life, Linacre received priest's orders. But, as he had for some years previously held several clerical benefices, it would seem that he must have been already a deacon, and thus nominally at least a cleric, but this status would not in those days have interfered with his practising as a physician. There is no doubt, however, that his ordination as priest was connected with his retirement from active life. Literary labours, and the cares of the foundation which owed its existence chiefly to him, the Royal College of Physicians, occupied Linacre's remaining years till his death in 1524.

Linacre was more of a scholar than a man of letters, and rather a man of learning than a scientific investigator. It is difficult now to judge of his practical skill in his profession, but it was evidently highly esteemed in his own day; and several instances are recorded of his wise prognosis and judicious treatment. He took no part in political or theological questions, and died too soon to have to declare himself on either side in the formidable controversies which were even in his lifetime beginning to arise.

But his career as a scholar was one eminently characteristic of the critical period in the history of learning through which he lived. He was one of the first Englishmen who studied Greek in Italy, whence he brought back to his native country and his own university the lessons of the "New Learning." His teachers, who have already been named, were some of the greatest scholars of the day. Among his pupils was one—Erasmus—whose name alone would suffice to preserve the memory of his instructor in Greek, and others of note in letters and politics, such as Sir Thomas More, the lamented Prince Arthur, and Queen Mary. Colet, Grocyn, William Lilye, and other eminent scholars were his intimate friends, and he was esteemed by a still wider circle of literary correspondents in all parts of Europe.

Linacre's literary activity was displayed in two directions, in pure scholarship and in translation from the Greek. In the domain of scholarship he was known by the rudiments of (Latin) grammar composed in English for the use of the. Princess Mary, and afterwards translated into Latin by George Buchanan, and by a work on Latin composition, De emendata structura Latini sermonis, which enjoyed a wide popularity. It was originally composed for the use of St Paul's school, when founded by Dean Colet, but was set aside as unsuited for the purpose. It was, however, printed in London, in 1524, and many times reprinted on the Continent.

Linacre's only medical works were his translations. It was the cherished project of his life to make the works of Galen (and indeed those of Aristotle also) accessible to all readers of Latin. What he effected in the case ot the first, though not trifling in itself, is inconsiderable as compared with the whole mass of Galen's writings; and of his translations from Aristotle, some of which are known to have been completed, nothing has survived. The following are the works of Galen translated by Linacre:—(1) De Sanitate Tuenda, printed at Paris in 1517 ; (2) Methodus Medendi, Paris, 1519 ; (3) De Temperamentis et de Inaequali Intemperie, Cambridge, 1521; (4) De Naturalibus Facultatibus, London, 1523; (5) De Symptomatum Differentiis et Causis, London, 1524; (6) De Pulsuum Usu, London, without date. He also translated for the use of his pupil Prince Arthur an astronomical treatise of Proclus, De Sphsera, which was printed at Venice by Aldus in 1499. The accuracy of these translations and their elegance of style were universally admitted. They have been generally accepted as the standard versions of those parts of Galen's writings, and frequently reprinted, either as a part of the collected works or separately.

But the most important service which Linacre conferred upon his own profession and science was not by his writings. To him was chiefly owing the foundation by royal charter of the College of Physicians in London, which first gave the medical profession in this country a recognized legal status, and which has been the model of all the similar colleges of physicians and surgeons in the three kingdoms. He was the first president of the new college, which he further aided by conveying to it his own house, and by the gift of his library. Shortly before his death Linacre obtained from the king letters patent for the establishment of readerships in medicine at Oxford and Cambridge, and placed some valuable estates in the hands of trustees for their endowment. Two readerships were founded in Merton College, Oxford, and one in St John's College, Cambridge, but owing to neglect and bad management of the funds, they fell into uselessness and obscurity. The Oxford foundation was revived by the university commissioners in 1856 in the form of the Linacre professorship of anatomy. Posterity has done justice to the generosity and public spirit which prompted these foundations ; and it is impossible not to recognize a strong constructive genius in the scheme of the College of Physicians, by which Linacre not only first organized the medical profession in England, but impressed upon it for some centuries the stamp of his own individuality. The intellectual fastidiousness of Linacre, and his habits of minute accuracy were, as Erasmus suggests, the chief cause why he accomplished so little and left behind no more permanent literary memorials. It will be found, perhaps, difficult to justify by any extant work the extremely high reputation which he enjoyed among the scholars of his time. His Latin style was so much admired that, according to the flattering eulogium of Erasmus, Galen spoke better Latin in the version of Linacre than he had before spoken Greek ; and even Aristotle displayed a grace which he hardly attained to in his native tongue. Erasmus praises also Linacre's critical judgment (vir non exacti tantum sed severi judicii). According to others it was hard to say whether he were more distinguished as a grammarian or a rhetorician. Of Greek he was regarded as a consummate master ; and he was equally eminent as a " philosopher," that is, as learned in the works of the ancient philosophers and naturalists. In this there may have been, as the custom of the day was, some exaggeration ; but all have acknowledged the elevation of Linacre's character, and the fine moral qualities sumiiied up in the epitaph written by John Caius :—" Fraudes dolosque mire perosus ; fidus amicis ; omnibus ordinibus juxta carus."

The materials for Linacre's biography are to a large extent contained in the older biographical collections of George Lilly (in Paulus Jovius, Descriptio Britannia). Bale, Leiand, and Pits, in Wood's Athenae Oxonienses, and in the Biographia Britannica: but all are completely collected in the Life of Thomas Linacre, by Dr Noble Johnson, London, 1835.

eference may also be made to Dr Munk's Roll of the Royal College of Physicians. 2nd ed., London, 1878; and the Introduction, by Dr Payne, to a facsimile reproduction of Linacre's version of Galen, de Temperamentis, published by Messrs Macmiilan, Cambridge, 1881.

With the exception of this treatise, none of Linacre's works or translations have been reprinted in modern times. (J. F. P.)

The above article was written by Joseph F. Payne.

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