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Thomas Linacre

Thomas Linacre (or Lynaker) (c. 1460 - December 20, 1524) was an English humanist and physician, after whom Linacre College, Oxford is named.

He was probably born at Canterbury, but little is known of his origins. He received his early education at the Canterbury Cathedral school, under the direction of William Tilly of Selling, who became prior of Canterbury in 1472. It was from Selling that Linacre must have received his first incentive to the study of Classics. Linacre entered Oxford in about 1480, and in 1484 was elected a fellow of All Souls' College. Shortly afterwards he visited Italy in the train of Selling, who was sent by King Henry VII as an envoy to the papal court. Linacre accompanied his patron as far as Bologna. There he became the pupil of Angelo Poliziano, and shared the instruction which Poliziano imparted at Florence to the sons of Lorenzo de Medici. The younger of these princes became Pope Leo X, and later remembered 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 in the letters of Erasmus.

Linacre does not appear to have practised or taught medicine in Oxford. In about 1501 he was called to court as tutor of the young Arthur, Prince of Wales. On the accession of Henry VIII in 1509, he was appointed the king's physician, an office at that time pf 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 William Warham and Bishop Fox. After some years of professional activity, Linacre received priest's orders in 1520, though he had for some years previously held several clerical benefices. 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.

Linacre was more of a scholar than a scientific investigator. It is difficult to judge his practical skill in his profession, but it was highly esteemed in his own day. He took no part in political or theological questions, but his career as a scholar was characteristic of the critical period in the history of learning through which he lived. He was one of the first Englishmen to study Greek in Italy, and 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 I of England. 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 both in pure scholarship and in translation from 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 temperamenlis 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.

The most important service Linacre conferred upon his own profession and science was 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 bequeathing to it his own house and 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 at Merton College, Oxford, and one at 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.

Linacre's intellectual fastidiousness and minute accuracy were, as Erasmus suggests, the chief cause why he left no more permanent literary memorials. It is difficult to justify by any extant work the extremely high reputation which he enjoyed among the scholars of his time. His Latin style was greatly admired by Erasmus, who also praised also Linacre's critical judgment ("vir non exacti tantum sed sever judicii"). According to others it was hard to say whether he was 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; idus 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 Britanniae), Bale, Leland and Pits, in Mood's Athenae Oxonienses and in the Biographia Britannica; but all are completely collected in the Life of Thomas Linacre, by Noble Johnson (London, 1835). Reference may also be made of Dr Munk's Roll of the Royal College of Physicians (2nd ed., London, 878); and the Introduction, by Dr JF Payne, to a facsimile eproduction of Linacre's version of Galen de temperamentis (Cambridge, 1881). With the exception of this treatise, none of Linacre's works or translations has been reprinted in modern times.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.