Papers of William Butler

Scope and Content

Comprises manuscript copies of correspondence and other texts written by the physician William Butler. Evidently the vast majority are not the documents which were sent or received, but rather contemporary drafts or file copies. None of William Butler's letters are dated, neither are any of the recipients clearly identified. Most of the texts are in William Butler's own distinctive hand, some by another, possibly two, scribes.

There are also a handful of letters received by Butler - some original, some copied - from significant contemporaries (CCPP/BTLR/31-35). The correspondents include Samuel Harsnett, Bishop of Chichester (1561-1631), Robert Cecil (1563-1612), Susan de Vere, Countess Montgomery (1587-1628/9) and Samuel Collins (1576-1651). There is also a manuscript of what appears to be a latin eulogy by William Gager (1555-1622), as well as another anonymous latin verse text (CCPP/BTLR/25B).

Kept with offprint, "William Butler: a physician between two ages" from Medical History, Vol 21, no. 4, October 1977 by Jeffrey Boss.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Butler matriculated as sizar from Peterhouse, Lent 1557/8, BA 1560/1, MA 1564, Fellow 1561. He was elected a fellow of Clare in 1572. Despite no formal qualification in medicine, he gained a significant reputation within the medical community; he is known to have acted as physician to James I. Widely considered an eccentric, his restorative techniques were uniquely imaginative. He is said to have once revived a man suffering from an opium overdose by putting him inside the chest cavity of a recently-slaughtered cow, and cured another patient of a fever by having him thrown off a balcony into the Thames. He died 29th January 1617/8 and is buried at Great St Marys, Cambridge.

Extract from Lempriere's Universal Biography , 1808: 'Butler, William, a physician, of Ipswich, educated at Clare Hall, Cambridge, He practised at Cambridge without a degree, but the oddity of his manners, and the bold method with which he treated his patients often successfully rendered him a favourite in his profession. Some anecdotes of him are recorded, which exhibit him more as a capricious boy or a madman than a man of sound sense. He died 1618 aged 82. He left no writings behind him'.


The papers are loose leaf and although well-preserved, none of the draft letters are dated and over the years the manuscripts have been perused and re-ordered without care for retaining connections between individual texts. The papers have been numbered and listed here in the order as they were found by the present archivist. Cross references have been added where links between separated pages have been discovered.

Access Information

Older manuscript materials in the College archive are open for consultation, except where access would potentially cause damage to particularly fragile documents.

Acquisition Information

Acc 1988/ 17 - The manuscripts were found by Dr CHW Page of The Norfolk Record Society when clearing the muniment room of Lord Suffield at Gunton Park, Norfolk. The collection was then donated to the Clare College Fellows Library in 1941 thanks to the efforts of Dr Page and Sir D'Arcy Power (Royal College of Surgeons), then later transferred to the archive collections by Clare Fellows Librarian Roger Schofield in 1988.

Alternative Form Available

The collection has been digitised and made available online through the Cambridge University Digital Library.

Appraisal Information

Accessions documents relating to acquisition of the papers and transcriptions by a third party have been removed from the sequence and stored separately in the box.


William Butler's papers are discussed and some transcribed by Jeffrey Boss in his article "William Butler (1535-1618): further evidence on a physician between two ages" Medical History Vol 21 (4 Oct 1977), pp. 434-445. Also further discussed and translated (and some of Dr Boss's transcription and translations corrected) by Vivian Nutton in "Dr. Butler Revisited" Medical History Vol 22 (1978), pp. 417-430.