The popularity of celebrity doctors like Dr Phil or Dr Christian of Embarrassing Bodies fame is nothing new. Simon Forman and Richard Napier were the 17th-century equivalents, prescribing ointments and other “cures” to the folk of Elizabethan England.
A decade-long project at the University of Cambridge is seeing some of their patient records digitalized – and the result is a fantastical insight into the medical world of the pre-industrial era. A time prior to Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin in 1928, or Edward Jenner and the invention of the first successful vaccine (for smallpox) in 1798.
Before the use of antibiotics and vaccines became widespread, astrology, magic, and religion were the cornerstones of medicine. As the records show, Forman and Napier advised patients to wear dead pigeons as slippers and consulted angels for advice.
Lauren Kassel, head researcher, told BBC News that the case notes offer a “wormhole into the grubby and enigmatic world of 17th-century medicine, magic and the occult”. The medics – and their patients – would comfortably move from the empirical world to the supernatural, fusing the two together, both in terms of diagnosis and treatment.
This is clear in their attitude towards witchcraft, which was blamed for a whole range of ailments, from epilepsy to back pain. One case study reports on a patient who was “Lame in the knees a fortnight ever since Goody Slone was denied to bake with her.”
Similarly, references to poor mental health would often call out the devil and other demons. For example, one case report reads “Himself is idle headed by fits & either he is St David or else the Devil.” Another, “Thinks something haunts her & inwardly possesses her & speaks within her telling that she is his.” Meanwhile, Joan Broadbrok of Weston Underwood, “Tempted by an ill spirit” believes “her children to be rats & mice.”
What’s more, Forman and Napier would seek advice from actual angels, even going as far as to include dialogue with Asariel and Michael in their case notes. As one example reads, “Asariel, Michael: It will do her good.” Other times, the angels’ verdicts were less promising. Another case study reads, “Michael: He will die shortly. New ague. 3 days kept his bed. Yesterday very ill. Asariel: He is dead.”
Astrology is also frequently mentioned, again as a cause of illness. One person visits complaining of an upset stomach and lightheadedness. The given reason: “It is of Saturn in Scorpio Moon separating from Jupiter in Virgo.” Another, unable to eat or sleep: “It is of Venus in Pisces, the Moon separating from Jupiter in Gemini.”
But there are some surprisingly acute observations in the records – at times, there is an acknowledgment of the interconnectivity between mental health and gut health, something that is only now beginning to be explored by modern medicine. A John Hibbo of Longwick from beyond Aylesbury was “troubled with melancholy & heaviness” among other things. According to the case note, “when the melancholy goes up to his stomach, stomach sick.”
In all, the records are some of the largest surviving sets of medical records in history and show just how much medicine has changed over the last 400 years. The project includes 80,000 separate case notes from the 1590s to 1630s.
So far, 500 have been transcribed and digitally curated by a team at the University of Cambridge, UK, but they hope to continue the work until the full collection has been completed.
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