The Royal Marsden

Celebrating the legacy of our founder

We are celebrating the work and legacy of our founder William Marsden, who opened the world’s first ever hospital dedicated to cancer before his death 150 years ago this week
Dr William Marsden

Dr William Marsden

In 1851, after losing his beloved wife Betsy to cancer, Dr Marsden opened a drug dispensary at 1 Cannon Row in Westminster. With little hope for a cancer cure, the drugs were palliative and aimed at treating symptoms, but it gave him the opportunity to research and study the disease.

He told friends at a meeting in his home: “Now gentlemen, I want to found a hospital for the treatment of cancer, and the study of the disease, for at the present time we know absolutely nothing about it.”

Financed by famous philanthropist Baroness Burdett-Coutts, the hospital opened its doors on its current site on Fulham Road, Chelsea, in 1862, five years before Dr Marsden’s death.

His pioneering vision was realised and his legacy lives on. Today, together with its academic partner, The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), it is the largest and most comprehensive cancer centre in Europe treating over 50,000 NHS and private patients every year.  It is a centre of excellence with an international reputation for ground-breaking research and pioneering the very latest in cancer treatments and technologies.

Amongst its achievements is the development of the drug Abiraterone, which significantly improves the life expectancy and quality of life for men with a specific type of prostate cancer, and leading clinical trials for Vemurafenib and Ipilimumab, which represented the biggest breakthrough in the treatment of advanced melanoma skin cancer for more than 30 years.


The hospital was renamed The Royal Marsden hospital in 1954 in recognition of the vision and commitment of its founder. Previously it was known as The Cancer Hospital (Free) before King Edward VIII added the word ‘Royal’. In response to the need to treat more patients and train more doctors, a second hospital in Sutton, Surrey, was opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 20 May 1963.

The tradition of philanthropy which began with Baroness Burdett-Coutts continues to this day; over recent years, supporters of The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity have funded facilities including the Oak Centre for Children and Young People, the da Vinci robots, the CyberKnife radiotherapy machine and the Reuben Foundation Imaging Centre.