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Portrait of Thomas Linacre

Thomas Linacre (c.1460-1524)


THOMAS LINACRE (or Lynaker) English humanist and physician, was probably born at Canterbury. 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 Celling (William Tilly of Selling), who became prior of Canterbury in 1472. Celling 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.

Linacre entered 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 Celling, who was sent by Henry VIII as an envoy to the papal court, and he 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 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 were 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 John Colet, William 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. 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 Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop Warham and Bishop Fox.

After some years of professional activity, and when in advanced life, Linacre received priest's orders in 1520, though he had for some years previously held several clerical benefices. There is no doubt that his ordination 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 on the 20th of October 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. 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 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, 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 (Progymnasmata Grammatices vulgaria), composed in English, a revised version of which was made for the use of the Princess Mary, and afterwards translated into Latin by Robert Buchanan. He also wrote a work on Latin composition, De emendata structure Latini sermonis, which was published in London in 1524 and many times reprinted on the continent of Europe.

Linacre's only medical works were his translations. He desired to make the works of Galen (and indeed those of Aristotle also) accessible to all readers of Latin. What he effected in the case of 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 Prince Arthur an astronomical treatise of Proclus, De sphaera, 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, and 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 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 left 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 some exaggeration; but all have acknowledged the elevation of Linacre's character, and the fine moral qualities summed up in the epitaph written by John Caius: "Fraudes dolosque mire perosus; fidus amicis; omnibus ordinibus juxta carus."




      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol XVI.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 702.




Other Local Resources:




Books for further study:

Maddison, Francis, et al. Linacre Studies: Essays on the Life and Work of Thomas Lincacre.
           New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

O'Malley, Charles Donald. English Medical Humanists,: Thomas Linacre and John Caius.
           University of Kansas Press, 1965.


Woolfson, Jonathan. Padua and the Tudors: English Students in Italy, 1485-1603.
           Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.




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