The Notorious Astrological Physician of London: Works and Days of Simon Forman

by Barbara Howard Traister
232 pages,
ISBN: 0226811409

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Brief Reviews
by Barry Goldlist

Simon Forman

Modern thinking concerning "quacks" can follow two paths: First, proven 'scientific' treatment is available, but some charlatan (the quack) offers useless or frankly injurious therapy for personal gain (usually financial); alternatively, 'scientific' medicine has little or nothing to offer (e.g. end-stage cancer resistant to therapy), and the quack engenders false hope by providing therapy nonetheless. Both opinions are reasonable only if useful therapies actually exist. Can there be "quacks" in the absence of effective medical care? This book The Notorious Astrological Physician of London Works and Days of Simon Forman (University of Chicago Press, 232 pages, $30 US, ISBN: 0226811409), by Barbara Howard Traister, demonstrates that there can be, and raises unsettling questions about how the medical establishment (of the past and present) evaluates 'evidence'. Certainly the lengthy persecution of Simon Forman by the London College of Physicians (from the 1580s until his death in 1611) seems to have been based more on suppression of competition and maintaining power than any interest in protecting the public. Forman frequently used astrological readings to guide both prognosis and therapy. Today we would have no trouble labeling him a charlatan and quack, but in fact astrology was an important part of conventional medicine in late 16th century London. Forman was investigated and imprisoned because he was a bad medical astrologer! Question: How does one can evaluate the relative value of completely ineffective therapies? This difficulty with the interpretation of evidence persists into the modern era, and is in fact even more significant because we do have some effective treatments today. The same information conveyed in different ways can create completely different impressions. Consider the following statement: Birth control pills increase the likelihood of fatal pulmonary embolism by 200 to 400 percent in healthy young women. This is enough to convince me not to take them (okay, so I am a man). This is expressed in the form of relative risk increase. Let us rephrase the statement in terms of absolute risk. Birth control pills increase the chance of fatal pulmonary embolism in young women from 1 in 1,000,000 to somewhere between 2-4 in 1,000,000. This is substantially less than the risk of mortality during pregnancy and would be considered inconsequential by most young women. Same information, different presentation, different conclusion. No wonder Mark Twain talked about lies, damn lies, and statistics. Modern clinical epidemiologists often liken statistics to a bikini; what they reveal is interesting, but what they hide is crucial. (Barry, I would prefer to omit this section as it doesn't tie in that Well)

Professor Traister has written a scholarly book on the life of Simon Forman. She has seemingly consulted all the primary sources of information available, as well as analysing pertinent secondary information. Forman's favourite topic for his copious writings was himself and his medical practice, so Traister's book gives us fascinating information about the nature of medical practice in the late 16th century. Forman was born into poverty and struggled for many years before achieving prosperity, and eventually a formal medical license from Cambridge. His battles with the London College of Physicians were not unique, but his unwillingness to obey their restrictions over a period of many years was probably not common. Forman, like most physicians, used astrology in his practice, but he also did astrological casts for non-medical reasons in some cases (i.e predicting whether a woman would win the favour of a possible spouse), and this is probably a reason for his posthumous notoriety. The most scandalous court case during the reign of James I involved Frances Howard, her husband the Earl of Essex, and her lover Robert Marr. The court case concerned the death by poison of Marr's courtier and advisor, Sir Thomas Overbury, who apparently opposed Marr's relationship with Frances Howard. At the time these events started to unfold, Forman had already been dead for almost two years. And yet, the trial focused on the influence he may have had on the course of events, even though there seemed to be no reasonable proof of any actual association. After the trial the legend of the evil wizard Simon Forman grew while the memory of the actual physician receded. Professor Traister has successfully resurrected the real man behind the four centuries of legend and confabulation.

This is an academic text, with numerous notes and endnotes. As well, original quotes, in the archaic English, are used extensively. Traister gives a brief overview of Simon Forman's life, but subsequent chapters examine certain aspects in greater detail. This combination of factors results in a book that is certainly not an 'easy' read. It requires attention and concentration, but I felt the effort was worthwhile. However, I would suggest you ignore my 'evidence' and read the book for yourself¨make up your own mind. ˛


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