How a pair of astrologers helped invent modern medical record-keeping

Even by the standards of the 1500s, Simon Forman was a horrendous doctor. A known quack in an era when respected physicians barely knew what they were doing, Forman even spent time in jail for his dangerous practices.

And yet, for all that, it's Forman and his equally disreputable protege Richard Napier who have left a great gift to the history of medicine. The pair were astrologers, who took down detailed information about a patient's medical condition, then treated them through careful calculation of their astrological chart. While that might have not done much good for their patients, Forman and Napier's methods had one huge benefit for posterity: they actually wrote down people's symptoms.

It seems like such a minor thing, but medical records are extremely rare even in relatively recent times, and most that do exist act more as self-serving odes to the physician's greatness than any real record of the conversations between doctor and patient. Forman and Napier, for all their other faults - Forman, for his part, was a known sexual predator, a massive narcissist, and an alleged devil worshiper, though that last bit was probably just scurrilous rumor - seemed only interested in calculating the most precise astrological chart. This means their records appear to reflect the actual consultation better than any other records from the era.

That's the hope of the University of Cambridge's Casebooks Project, which is digitizing all surviving records from Simon Forman and Richard Napier. Here's how they describe their work:

Forman recorded over 10,000 consultations between 1596 and 1603. His practice had begun at least a decade earlier and continued until his death in 1611. The surviving records are incomplete. In the late 1590s, Forman taught Napier his methods. Napier's records survive in full, from 1598 to his death in 1634. These contain roughly 40,000 consultations.

The 50,000 records in Forman's and Napier's casebooks constitute what is probably the richest surviving set of medical records from the period before 1700. At least 90% of the questions related to matters of health and disease. The remainder included questions about marriage, career prospects, missing persons, stolen property, travel plans, legal suits and witchcraft.

The records involve as many as 30,000 different people of all ages and from all walks of life, with nobles and servants alike visiting the pair for their peculiar brand of medical advice. It's an intriguing opportunity to uncover a part of everyday 16th century life that otherwise wouldn't easily survive into the historical records. For more, check out the Casebook Project's webpage.

Via ScienceNOW. Top image "Credulous lady & astrologer", a colour stipple-engraving by Pierre Simon after John Raphael Smith, c. 1800 from the Wellcome Library via.