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Gonville & Caius College

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 college college > General history of Caius > John Caius

Our second founder, John Keys entered Gonville Hall in 1529, at the age of eighteen and initially studied the humanities. He became a Fellow of the College in 1533 and at some stage adopted a Latinized spelling of his name - Caius. By 1539 he had developed an interest in medicine and departed from Cambridge to study this discipline at the University of Padua, one of the leading medical schools in Europe. Some years later, having qualified as a Doctor of Medicine in Padua, he returned to England and set up to practice in London. He rapidly became an eminent member of his profession. He became wealthy and when he discovered that his old college in Cambridge had fallen into a dilapidated state, he set to work to restore it. In 1557 he obtained a new charter for the College from Queen Mary and gave the College its present name. He then provided secure endowments and set about extending the buildings. Caius was fond of symbolism. As part of his reconstruction he erected three Gates, which survive to the present day as visible reminders of this taste. New students entered the College through the Gate of Humility, while studying in the College they would pass through the Gate of Virtue every day, and finally when they left to receive their degrees they departed through the Gate of Honour. This sequence of events continues unchanged to the present day. Caius also presented us with one of our earliest surviving relics, a silver caduceus which is used as the Master's symbol of office. This caduceus is a narrow silver rod surmounted by four serpents (the traditional symbols of medicine) which support a a field of symbolic flowers.

Caius was also a meticulous man. He initiated a detailed set of matriculation records, which recorded not just the name and age of each new student, but also their parents' names, their father's occupation and the location of their home. This gives a fascinating insight into the sort of young men who became University students in the 16th century. They were certainly not all the sons of the aristocracy, indeed the majority were the sons of merchants and farmers, some from very humble origins. Most of those who entered Caius came from East Anglia. We are left with a picture of a College mainly serving its local community.

Caius finally became Master of the College in 1559 and remained in this office till shortly before his death in 1573. His time as Master was not entirely happy. In his later years he had become quick tempered, cantankerous and dictatorial. He is reputed to have confined Fellows who met with his displeasure in the stocks. He also has the distinction of being the only Master of a Cambridge College to appear in a Shakespeare play, as the bumbling eccentric Dr. Caius in the Merry Wives of Windsor.

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