Novelists sometimes find themselves writing about areas of which they know little and believe me, I was the last person in the world to write about medicine or science. I had walked out of biology in eighth-grade when my teacher had encouraged us to stick our fingers in a cow’s heart. My average test score in chemistry was a zero and no one could persuade me to study physics. But oddly, many years later, a character in a novel I was writing circa 1600 was interested in those things and I found myself passionately reading piles of research books about 16th-17th century medicine and astronomy. The novel NICHOLAS COOKE: ACTOR, SOLDIER, PHYSICIAN was published by W.W. Norton to wonderful reviews and I was told, actually ended up in a few libraries under early medicine.
Which would have amazed my poor teachers long ago.
In 1600, the telescope and microscope were very new; plague came into the plot, and thereafter a tragedy for my novel’s hero Nicholas and subsequently his search for the cure of it. Instead of looking at science through the bored eyes of an artistic schoolgirl, I saw it from the point of view of a brilliant man who had to understand disease and find its cure.
And like many novelists who discover something through a beloved character’s eyes, there was never enough information for me. Living in New York City, I was able to visit the Arents Collection of the New York Public Library and pore over an original edition of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia with his detailed drawings of lice and fleas, wonderfully appalling considering how many people were hosts to those insects then. (I itch when I look at them even now.) And I went to the rare book room of the New York Academy of Medicine, one of the most interesting research experiences of my life. They found me a small pile of books about the training of a physician in Cambridge circa 1610.
As I said, you never know what your novels will lead you to! You start writing and the characters go off and do unexpected things.
Medical studies in Cambridge in 1610 were more primitive than now as the colleges had neither heat nor electricity. Students ran up and down the quads to get warm before bed. Any conversation and all classes were in Latin.
To quote Nicholas from the novel, “Students attended lectures, the public ones in the Old Schools or private ones in dining hall, chapel, or tutor’s room. We learned by lectures, by disputation with the masters, and by the art of declamation, in which we expostulated upon a chosen subject in a set speech which would display our rhetorical ability and our knowledge of the classical writers. Passionate disputation, with words running like blood, once upon ‘Whether celestial bodies can be the cause of human actions’ (I taking the negative) and then again upon the Platonic thesis ‘That men are nothing else than their souls,’ continued to the great hour of nine at night while the snow fell upon the bridges over the river Cam.
“I studied mathematics, which included cosmology, geometry, and astronomy, and attended lectures on theology and the Code of the Ecclesiastical Law of our realm. Most of my studies, however, were in anatomy, comparative anatomy, dissection, embryology, something of physiology, and a great deal of embrology and the study of pharmacopoeia. The textbooks I had already in my possession: Galen and Hippocrates and the Vesalius De humani corporis fabrica or The Fabric of the Human Body. The third, written perhaps sixty years before, disagreed fiercely with the others……Galen had said that every man possessed an intermaxillary bone. Not finding it, I asked my teacher where it might be, whereupon he angrily answered, “Man had this bone when Galen lived! If he has it no longer, it is because sensuality and luxury have deprived him of it!” For a fee some students and I were given an old corpse to dissect…
“Wainscoted halls glimmering by torchlight, architecture both ancient and contemporary, cloistered gardens and chapels, the river Cam, which ran sweetly behind the colleges under heavy willow trees, and in which, come spring, the students illegally swam. On the riverbank, which we called the Backs, one could watch the swans. The libraries, where we went at dawn and left at dusk, feeling our way down the dim stairs, for no candles were permitted, were serene. The rattle of chained volumes: the leather bindings of well-used volumes; the books of Trinity, of St. John’s, and of King’s. The bitter cold of winter, in which we hacked and coughed through lectures and dissections; the spring, in which corpses were left to be buried and we studied fevers and herbs.”
NICHOLAS COOKE was planned as the first part of a trilogy about the life of a man who is actor, soldier, physician and priest. The second book THE PHYSICIAN OF LONDON was also published by W.W. Norton; it won an American Book Award. I hope to have it as a Kindle book by the end of this year. I am presently writing the third book IN THE CHAMBERS OF THE KING. The three novels take Nicholas from an actor’s apprentice at the age of 13 through the restoration of the monarchy when he is a very old man.
I would love to go back in time and walk through the Cambridge colleges in 1610, and I would love to go back to my high school years and tell my teachers that I ended up seriously studying medicine and wrote a book about it. They simply would not believe me.
About the author: Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Her website is http://www.stephaniecowell.com