Friday, October 14, 2011

Astrologer's medical records a star turn

Sara Reardon

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 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 set of medical records from that period. Historians are putting these records online for all to peruse and study medical trends in Elizabethan England.

''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 announced last week on Forman's 400th birthday, is to transcribe them and post them online in a database.

Dr Kassell estimates that this is a million-word task, but the end result will allow researchers to follow patients for decades or to study conditions, dates and other variables to learn about trends.

At first, Forman seems an unlikely source for scholars. In addition to his astrology, he dabbled in alchemy and alleged devil worship. He was also a notorious sexual predator and overall ''not a nice man'', Dr Kassell says. But these faults had an upside for history. Because Forman needed to track the movements of the objects in the solar system in order to make his predictions, his notes are complete medical records. They contain the names, ages, addresses 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'', Dr Kassell says.

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