Aclassical scholar and physician, Thomas Linacre is remembered for being "the founder and prime mover of English medicine." Linacre served as personal physician to King Henry VIII. With permission from Henry VIII, he founded the Royal College of Physicians in London, an institution through which he and a body of educated physicians decided who could practice medicine in greater London. Members of the college were charged with the authority to examine and license physicians. Later in his life, Linacre published volumes of Latin grammar before leaving medicine in 1520 to become a Roman Catholic priest.
Linacre was born in Canterbury, Kent, England around 1460. He was educated at Oxford from 1480-1484, then traveled through Italy studying Greek and Latin classic literature. In Italy he studied medicine at the University of Padua, receiving a degree in 1496. Upon his return to England in 1500 he earned another degree in medicine, this one from Oxford. He was appointed tutor to Prince Arthur, son of King Henry VIII. He subsequently served as personal physician for Henry VIII from 1509-1520. Linacre also treated private patients, some of whom were among the most notable men in London: Cardinal Woolsey, Desiderus Erasmus (1466?-1536), and Sir Thomas More (1478-1535).
During this time, dissatisfied with a lack of government regulation over the practice of medicine—which could then be practiced by barbers, clergy, or anyone considering themselves a physician—Linacre sought and received (in the form of a letters patent) Henry VIII's permission in 1518 to institute the Royal College of Physicians. Cardinal Woolsey was instrumental in helping Linacre receive the patent of letters. As founder and president, Linacre, along with other formally educated London physicians, examined and licensed those who would be permitted to practice medicine in greater London. The Royal College of Physicians had the power to fine and imprison those practicing medicine without a license, with graduates of Cambridge and Oxford excepted.
Linacre biographer John Freind has claimed that Linacre sought to raise the profession of English medicine and subsequently gave "encouragement to men of reputation and learning" to become physicians. Under Linacre, British physicians through the Guild of Physicians consolidated against their less educated rivals of barbers, clerics, and apothecaries. They required graduation from Oxford or Cambridge for membership in the Guild. While the consolidated physicians were only partially successful at controlling medical practice, Linacre was considered "the founder and prime mover of English medicine."
Besides being a physician, Linacre was, of course, a man of letters. He continued studying the Greek and Latin classics and taught Greek and Latin to British scholars such as Sir Thomas More. His practice of medicine and his work as a grammarian "placed Linacre in the front rank of the medical humanists of the Renaissance," wrote his biographer. For Princess Mary, for example, Linacre translated into English Latin works on medicine written by the Greek physician Galen, the most important physician of pre-Renaissance Europe. He translated Galen's works on hygiene (1517), therapeutics (1519), temperament (1521), natural faculties (1523), the pulse (1523), and disease symptoms (1524).
During this same period, however, Linacre left his medical practice to become ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. He died in London of a stone in the bladder on October 20, 1524, at the age of 64. At the time of his death he had just completed a book on Latin syntax, which was published posthumously.
Linacre was so highly thought of as a grammarian that many consider the poem by British poet Robert Browning (1812-1889) entitled "The Grammarian's Funeral" to be a tribute to the physician.