Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.
The first doctor ever to be revalidated was Simon Forman (1552 – 1611), in 1603. It was in that year that Cambridge granted him an MD though he had never studied there. Until then he had been arrested and imprisoned many times for having practised in London without a licence. However, his mixture of astrology and herbalism became popular among the powerful and well-connected, who prevailed upon the university to grant him a degree. He was never molested by the authorities thereafter.
Among his patients was Mrs Turner, who consulted him in order to obtain a philtre for her employer, the Countess of Essex, such that the Earl of Essex would fall out of love with her. She could then divorce him and marry Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset and lover of James I (which she duly did). Mrs Turner and the Countess of Somerset then poisoned Sir Thomas Overbury, who had been against the marriage, possibly using the pharmacological advice of Forman who, however, was by then dead. Mrs Turner was hanged, but the Countess was pardoned.
The famous, learned, productive, irascible and arrogant historian, A. L. Rowse, wrote a book about Forman, whose papers contain the first references to some of Shakespeare’s plays, including Macbeth. Rowse believed, using these papers, that he had identified the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
In an essay titled Simon Forman and the Dark Lady, published in 1975, Rouse has this to say:
There is a fairly full account of Forman in the Dictionary of National Biography; but he is treated there as a quack and a charlatan. In Shakespeare’s time everybody believed, more or less, in astrology; certainly Forman did, and he was a very successful practitioner.
Quackery is usually defined as the ignorant or fraudulent pretension to medical skill that is not actually possessed. A recent medical writer on the subject wrote that quackery is “the promotion of unsubstantiated methods that lack a scientifically plausible rationale”, so that a quack would be a person who promoted such methods.
Objectively, then, Forman was a quack; and the fact that everyone of his time believed what he believed is neither here nor there. Indeed, for quacks to be successful they must persuade a substantial number of others that they possess knowledge; nor is it a necessary condition for quacks to be fraudulent, that is to say to know that what they are saying and doing is without reasonable foundation. According to most definitions of quack, then, it is the Dictionary of National Biography (whose entry was written by Sir Sidney Lee, the greatest Shakespearean scholar of the late Victorian era) and not Rouse who was right. This is ironic, because at the end of his career Rouse accused practically everyone who had ever taken a different view of things from his own of being “third-rate.” He almost alone was first-rate.
In fact for a fastidious scholar Rouse was rather loose in his use of terms such as psychotic and paranoia.
Forman was a bit of a psychotic type… So he developed signs of paranoia too – but that gave him a sharper understanding of human beings in general.
Referring to an unfavourable review of one of his books about Shakespeare, Rouse wrote of the reviewer:
He had never written a book himself and so was possessed with envy of those who can and do. This was all too boringly recognisable – one can smell it a mile off…
As one can smell paranoia querulans a mile off.