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Select Observations on English Bodies

John Hall kept case notes on his medical patients, and a book containing 155 of them was published in 1657.

John Hall's Select Observations on English Bodies, which was published by James Cooke twenty years after Hall’s death, records his case notes for a quarter of a century’s worth of patients in Stratford-upon-Avon. Before John, there is no surviving evidence of a physician living in Stratford, so his notes offer a rare insight into Jacobean medical practices in Warwickshire.

James Cooke met John Hall’s widow, and Shakespeare's daughter, Susanna when he came to Stratford in 1644 to attend to soldiers in the Civil War. He bought two of John’s manuscripts from Susanna, both of which were records of his medical cases. It appeared that John had been preparing the medical notes for publication before his death, but had been unable to complete them in time. Cooke decided to send them to press.

The running title is split across two pages in a box which also carries the page numbers. Vertical lines make a margin on each page at the foredge side of the text, and each observation is headed OBSER  followed by a Latin number.
Pages from Select Observations on English Bodies

In the original manuscripts, John had case notes for over 1,000 patients, 155 were published in Select Observations. Cooke claimed that John had already narrowed down his cases to the ones he published in the book, because those were the cases he thought were of medical significance and fit for the public to see. Cooke translated them from John’s original Latin to English, and published the first manuscript in 1657. The second volume of cases has been lost.

The first dated case in the manuscript is 1617, but it is likely that some of the dateless entries precede this. John was careful to note the ages of his patients and, when cross referenced with other Stratford records, these ages suggest the case notes were begun at least six years prior to 1617. John recorded the status, residence, and sometimes religion of his patients, most of whom lived within fifteen miles of Stratford and were evidently treated regardless of rank or faith.  The notes also reveal that John treated far more women than men, with 93 of the 155 patients being female.

It is uncertain whether John ever treated William Shakespeare, who does not feature in the case books (whereas his daughter Susanna and granddaughter Elizabeth do). However, since the majority of the case notes are now lost, and historical records indicate that John and Susanna moved to New Place in 1616 (the year of Shakespeare’s death), it is likely that he would have treated his father-in-law in the event of illness.

By all accounts, John was a skilled physician, and all the entries in Select Observations conclude with the patient being ‘cured’. John even had success in treating debilitating diseases, including scurvy, which was unusual achievement for his time. However, John’s claims of ‘curing patients’ needs to be interpreted carefully, as his ‘cures’ were often just an indication that he relieved the patient’s symptoms. This is why some of the cases claim to have ‘cured’ diseases (such as gonorrhoea) that at the time would have been impossible to treat permanently. 

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