‘Doctor’ Dee: John Dee and medical practice

Show Navigation

By | Early Medicine

John Dee (1527–1609) was a true Renaissance polymath. He pursued many different branches of learning, including medicine. The current Royal College of Physicians (RCP) exhibition, ‘Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee’, explores Dee’s life and legacy through books that Dee once owned and annotated.

Painting of John Dee.

John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I. Oil painting by Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852–1913), currently on loan to the RCP exhibition on the lost library of John Dee. Wellcome Library no. 47369i. Wellcome Images L0021973.

The subject of medicine fascinated John Dee but he was not a qualified or registered physician. He received an honorary doctorate of medicine from the University of Prague in 1584 or 1585, but he did not study medicine there, or anywhere else.

He was, however, commonly known as ‘Doctor Dee’. Elias Ashmole (1617–92) described him in his preface to Arthur Dee’s ‘Fasciculus chemicus’ as an ‘excellent’ physician. Ashmole’s full quotation suggests that the accolade ‘doctor’ was given as much for Dee’s other academic work – especially the preface he wrote to Euclid’s ‘Elements of geometry’ – as for his medical expertise.

that excellent Physitian, Doctor John Dee (whose fame survives by his many learned and precious Works, but chiefly celebrated amongst us, for his incomparable Mathematical Preface to Euclids Elements)Dee owned many books on medical topics and was particularly interested in the work of the Swiss-German physician, botanist and alchemist Paracelsus (1493–1541). Sadly, only a few of Dee’s medical books are in the RCP collection. This is because he took most of them with him when he left England for Poland in 1583. The books that are now in the RCP were stolen from the library that Dee left behind in England.

Dee made notes on diseases and treatments in many other non-medical books, including André Thevet’s global geography and history ‘La cosmographie universelle’. His annotations in this French book, which reported some of the newest findings of the age of exploration, show his interest in the French pox, leprosy and gout.

Notes by John Dee.

Dee’s medical notes in André Thevet, La cosmographie universelle (Paris: Guillaume Chaudière, 1575). Image credit: Royal College of Physicians.

Other books in Dee’s library concerned the interrelationship between medicine and astrology. Dee also read books about botany and the medicinal values of plants. One surviving annotation records that tobacco was being grown in England by a surgeon, Mr Larder. It accompanies a description of the plant’s supposed purgative and curative properties.

Annotation by John Dee.

Annotation concerning tobacco in Nicolás Monardes, De simplicibus medicamentis ex occidentali India delatis, quorum in medicina usus est (Antwerp: Christophe Plantin, 1574). Image credit: Royal College of Physicians.

Dee’s diaries record details of his own and his family’s health, and the treatments he administered. For example, on 11 March 1577 he recorded that ‘My fall upon my right knuckle bone … With oil of Hypericon, in 24 hours eased above all hope’. Hypericon was probably Hypericum perforatum, also known as St John’s wort.

According to his diaries, Dee attended patients and was familiar with various afflictions and symptoms. His entry for 18 January 1588 gives a detailed account of his medical assistance during a miscarriage.

Mistress Lydda … had an aborsement of a girl of five or six months. She was merry and well till the night before. I helped to further the dead birth within one hour after I had caused her to have myrrh given unto her in wine warmed, the quarter of a bowl, beaten small. She was discharged of the secundine, and all at once. The woman was sufficiently strong after.

Dee’s medical advice was sought not only by friends and neighbours, but even by Queen Elizabeth I. According to his own report, in 1578 Dee conferred with the royal physician Walter Bayley (1529–92) ‘about her Majesties grievous pangs and paines by reason of toothake and the rheume’. In the autumn of that year Dee undertook a ‘dangerous’ journey across Germany, travelling as far as the city of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder where he consulted the physician Leonhard Thurneisser (1530?–96) to seek medical advice for the queen. Francis Walsingham, principal secretary and spymaster to the queen, and Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester and the queen’s close friend, sent Dee on this journey.

Dee’s eldest son Arthur (1579–1651) continued the family tradition of giving royal medical advice. Arthur trained as a physician, although he was not licensed by the RCP. Arthur’s friends included eminent RCP fellows Thomas Browne and Theodore de Mayerne, and he became physician to Queen Anne (wife of James I), to the Russian Tsar Michael Romanov, and to the English King Charles I.

‘Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee’ at the RCP runs until Friday 29 July 2016.

A version of this post was first published on 19 February 2016 on the RCP library, archive and museum team blog.

Author: Katie Birkwood is the rare books and special collections librarian at the Royal College of Physicians, London. She writes regularly for the RCP library, archive and museum team blog, and tweets about rare books, library history and other topics as @girlinthe.

One Response to ‘Doctor’ Dee: John Dee and medical practice

Related Blog Posts