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John Caius was a prominent medical professional in the 16th century. A staunch adherent to the teachings of Galen, who himself was the ultimate authority on medical knowledge for close to 15 centuries. John Caius owned a copy of Galen’s text and that original copy survives at Eton College, Berkshire, with Caius’ notes and annotations there for review. Galen’s work was essentially the Grey’s Anatomy of its time and Caius’ interest in Galen’s work was not merely being a fan, but the doing of his due diligence in medical study. However, despite the evidence to suggest he was a pillar of medical knowledge in the 16th century, training major medical figures of the period, John Caius is accused even in his own time, of being too much of a traditionalist, unable to change and grow with the rapidly evolving mindset of his time period and was even held responsible for annoying Queen Elizabeth at a medical forum that took place at court the year Shakespeare was born. As a result, about 30 years after his death in 1573, William Shakespeare satirizes his namesake through the comedic French doctor of Dr. Caius in Merry Wives of Windsor. Here today to share with us the life and accomplishments of the real Dr. Caius, is our guest, Vivian Nutton.

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Vivian Nutton taught Classics at Cambridge before moving in 1977 to University College London, where he became professor of the History of Medicine for over thirty years. He has held visiting professorships in the USA, Canada, Australia and Russia, and is a member of learned academies in Britain, Germany, France and Italy. He has ranged widely over the whole history of medicine, but particularly over the classical tradition in medicine from the Greeks to the seventeenth century. His recent books include Ancient Medicine, of which a third edition  is scheduled for 2023; Galen, A thinking doctor in imperial Rome, 2020, an annotated translation of John Caius’ Autobibliography, 2018, and, just out, Renaissance medicine, a short history of European medicine in the sixteenth century.

What I will be asking Vivian Nutton in our show today:

  • Merry Wives of Windsor was written between 1597 and 1601, almost 30 years after John Caius died. Keeping in mind, Elizabeth I was still reigning at the time this play was first performed and she would have remembered John Caius personally. Vivian, what was John Caius' reputation when Shakespeare included him in this play and why was the memory of Caius able to be used for comedy?
  • John Caius was a prominent man in the medical community in England, even head of the London College of Medicine at this time. How did John Caius come to be appointed to this position?
  • At the university of Cambridge, there is a college named after Dr. Caius, called Gonville and Caius College, colloquially known simply as “Keys.” They are in possession of a caduceus, or silver staff bearing the serpents and cross we associate with medicine today, that was given to them by John Caius. Vivian, what is the story of Caius giving this symbol to the college. Did he make this staff and on what occasion did he present it to the college?
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Recommended by Vivian Nutton

The best biography of Caius is given by Christopher Brooke in his 1985 History of Gonville and Caius College. Greg Wells, John Hall, Master of Physick, 2020, translates the casebook of Shakespeare’s son-in law. Much is now available on the web: John Caius’ treatise, A boke or Counseill against the disease commonly called the Sweat, 1552, is fascinating in the light of Covid. No student of Shakespearian English can afford to neglect the writings of a contemporary surgeon, William Clowes, which gives a better flavour of medical life than any modern historian. There is a splendid selection by Noel Poynter, Selected writings of William Clowes, 1948,

Notes from Cassidy: You can find a pdf version of John Caius' book here The book on William Clowes' writing by Noel Poynter is not (at the time of this episode's publication) available on Amazon. I was able to find a copy on Google Books and at AbeBooks

The Folger has a copy of this book, but it's not available online. See their record here.

I was unable, by the time we needed to go to print on this episode, to find an online version of this book on William Clowes. If you know of an online (free to read) record please list a link to that resource in the comments.

This episode is equipped with bonus visual content and research information about today's topic. You can access these extras right here on the page by logging in as a Patron. Not yet a patron? Join today! Use the same orange button to sign up and the detailed show notes will expand automatically on this page.

Here's what's inside the Patron's area for this show:

  • Portrait of John Caius, 1563
  • Picture of the Silver Caduceus
  • Picture of Caius College, London
  • The spirit of medicine, as imagined by Salomon Trismosin, 1582
  • Woodcut of Gonville and Caius College by David Loggan, 1690
  • Painting of Philip of Spain and Mary Tudor (Who gave Caius his charter in 1557)
  • Painting of death, 16th century (monk fleeing from death, images of plague)
  • 1549 Caduceus Symbol
  • Links to images of the silver caduceus Dr. John Caius gave to Caius College
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