Canes were commonly carried by English physicians in the 1600’s. They contained a cavity for aromatic substances such as rosemary, camphor or Marseilles vinegar to counteract offensive odors and prevent contagion.
The tradition of the Gold Headed Cane originated in 1689 with John Radcliffe, who had a particular interest in asthma as the personal physician to King William III, an asthmatic. Dr. Radcliffe began the tradition of passing the cane to a successor whom he considered to be the greatest English physician of his time. Recipients of the Gold Headed Cane were Richard Mead (1714 – 1754), Anthony Askey (1754 – 1774), William Pitcairn (1774 – 1791) and Matthew Baillie (1791 – 1823). The widow of the last physician gave the illustrious cane to the Royal College of Physicians in London, where it remains.
The Gold Headed Cane Award is a concept used today by many medical schools and specialty societies to recognize a physician who symbolizes the pursuit of the highest standards of scientific excellence and integrity. The award serves as an inspiration to younger doctors and encourages them in family, social, civic, religious and professional life to cultivate character that earns the respect and goodwill of colleagues and the profession at large.