New book sheds fresh light on the medical career of Shakespeare’s son-in-law

THE first full English translation of the 400-year-old Latin medical casebook of Shakespeare’s son-in-law, the prominent physician John Hall (1575–1635), gives a new and rare insight into his career and the medical practises of the 17th century.

John Hall, Master of Physicke: A casebook from Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon (RRP £20) was written by the late Dr Greg Wells, who turned his attention to scholarly research after his own medical career. The book — proceeds of which will support the work of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust — is a direct transcription and translation of 178 of Hall’s cases between 1611 and 1635 that he included in his original 131-page personal manuscript that he modestly titled A Little Book of Cures, which is held by the British Library.

It shows that Hall was treating people at all levels of society in Stratford-upon-Avon and within a 20-mile radius. Within a few pages of attending to aristocratic patients, including the Earl of Northampton, William Compton’s eldest son, Spencer, the godson of Queen Elizabeth I, for ‘desperate quinsy’ (throat abscess) and later pleurisy, he records treating a local glove-maker, Robert Butler, for kidney stones, and Mrs Archer, a Stratford-upon-Avon malt dealer, for loss of speech and facial convulsions.

Although there is no reference to him treating William Shakespeare, Hall does detail treatments of other members of the family, including his wife, Susanna, Shakespeare’s eldest daughter, and their daughter, Elizabeth, the only grandchild that Shakespeare knew. 

Dr Wells also reveals, for the first time, the conversations Hall had with his patients, his prayers for their recovery, and his thanksgivings for their cures. Of Richard Wilmore of Budbrooke, whom Hall had treated for ‘astonishing worms’ when Wilmore was 14 years old, Hall writes: ‘I saw him in passing two years later and asked whether he ever felt any corrosion of the stomach or passed worms. He replied that he had been free of all pain and torment since that time. Praise God’.

References to other medical books that Hall was borrowing from were discovered by Dr Wells in the original manuscript, indicating that the physician was a well-read scholar who had a significant library of books, most of which came from continental Europe.

Hall was born in Bedfordshire and educated at Queen’s College, Cambridge, where he obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1594, and his Master of Arts in 1597. He would have studied medical text books, but did not have a medical degree, which meant he was not licensed by the College of Physicians in London. Although it did not mean he couldn’t practise*.

The first record of him being in Stratford-upon-Avon was his marriage to Susanna in 1607. The couple’s only child, Elizabeth, was born the following year. They lived in the house now known as Hall’s Croft in Old Town, Stratford-upon-Avon, before moving to New Place when Shakespeare died in 1616. Both sites are now cared for by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the independent charity that cares for the world’s greatest Shakespeare heritage sites in Stratford-upon-Avon, and promotes the enjoyment and understanding of his works, life and times all over the world. The book will be on sale in the Trust's shops and online, with proceeds supporting the Trust’s work.

Dr Paul Edmondson, head of research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, who edited the book, said, “Greg believed that John Hall was a significant figure in the history of medicine even without the Shakespeare connection, because physicians’ records from the early 17th century are rare. In this ground-breaking work, Hall emerges as a compassionate scholar physician who treated all levels of society. Greg discovers the previously unnoticed conversations that Hall had with his patients, which show the ongoing sense of his pastoral sensitivities and expertise. And through close examination of the Latin, he also identified Hall’s many borrowings from other medical textbooks, which offer a unique insight into the intellectual climate of early 17th century Stratford-upon-Avon.”

Dr Edmondson will give two talks in 2020, both illustrated with images of items held in the museum, library and archive collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

John Hall, Master of Physicke: A Casebook from Shakespeare’s Stratford

Saturday, 8 February, 5.30pm-7pm
Hall’s Croft, Old Town, Stratford-upon-Avon

An illustrated talk by Dr Paul Edmondson, head of research, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, followed by a discussion with Dr Erin Sullivan, senior lecturer, The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. Part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's After Hours programme of events. Tickets £10 adult, £8 concession, £5 SBT Friends, from any of the Shakespeare Family Homes, on 01789 204016, or online.

Tuesday, 24 March, 7pm-8.30pm
The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB

An illustrated talk by Dr Paul Edmondson, head of research, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, followed by discussion with Dr Erin Sullivan, senior lecturer, The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, and Professor Sir Stanley Wells, Honorary President, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Tickets £6.50-£13, call 01937 546546 or online.

*Between 1603 and 1643 only 30% of registered physicians outside London were Doctors of Medicine, and only 34% had an M.A. So Master John Hall B.A / M.A. was well qualified to practise.

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