CAMBRIDGE, U.K.— If you lived in the time of Shakespeare and wanted to know whether your sick child was going to make it, you might well have paid a visit to the shady offices of physician-cum-astrologer Simon Forman, who, with his student Richard Napier, advised more than 30,000 patients and clients during their careers. Forman would listen to your description of the symptoms, note them meticulously as you spoke, consult the stars, and give you a prognosis or suggest a treatment. Although his fellow physicians considered him a quack, Forman's bad reputation might be about to get a boost; his casebooks between the years 1596 and 1634 have now turned out to be the most extensive and systematic set of known medical records from that period. Historians are putting these records online for all to peruse and study medical trends in Elizabethan England.
Medical historian Flurin Condrau of the University of Zurich in Switzerland, who is not involved in the project, says the notes are a great resource for historians, with a dream cohort of tens of thousands of patients over nearly 4 decades. "We know very little about what went on between doctor and patient," even in more recent times, he says. "All we have is medical writing, which is partisan" given that these practitioners tend to "write about their big expertise."
"No one else was keeping records like this, or if they were, they didn't survive," says Lauren Kassell, a science historian at the University of Cambridge, who is leading the project. The 64 hefty volumes in which Forman and Napier recorded more than 50,000 cases are now housed at the University of Oxford's Bodleian Library, illegible to the untrained eye. The goal of the Simon Forman Casebooks Project, which was formally announced last week on Forman's 400th birthday, is to transcribe them into a readable format and post them online in a searchable database. Kassell estimates that this is a million-word task, but the end result will allow researchers to follow individual patients for decades or to study conditions, historical dates, and other variables to learn about trends.
At first, Forman seems an unlikely source for serious scholars. In addition to his astrology, he dabbled in alchemy and alleged devil worship. He was also self-absorbed, a notorious sexual predator, and overall "not a nice man," Kassell says. But these faults had an upside for history. Because Forman, unlike his contemporaries, needed to track the movements of the objects in the solar system in order to make his predictions, his notes are extraordinarily systematic and complete medical records. They contain the names, ages, addresses, family members, and symptoms of the patients who visited him and even the time of day at which he saw them. He also noted factors such as family and legal problems, granting "a very vivid picture into this world," Kassell says.
Kassell doesn't expect that researchers will discover previously unknown medical treatments or practices in the records. And Condrau cautions that diagnosing people who lived long ago is a "minefield" because modern bias is so strong. But he says he was surprised to find that astrology was discussed so frankly between physicians and clients, given that a healthy competition went on between astrologers, physicians, herbalists, and other healers of the time. "If you were pregnant, you had various options as to where you could go," he says. Apparently "an astrologer was one of the more reputable."