A breadcrumb trail

As I explored in my last post, Crooke claims to have been “Physitian to His Majestie” James I on the title page of all but (what I believe to be) the earliest printings of Mikrokosmographia, in editions reaching from the earliest in 1615 to the last in 1651.

I explored my sources on Crooke for commentary on this issue. As I’ve mentioned before, Crooke’s biography has not been the subject of much study to date. Most scholars who cite his text as a representation of seventeenth-century anatomy knowledge in England are, understandably, not much concerned with the finer points of his life story. My favorite one-sentence summation of Crooke’s identity comes from Elizabeth D. Harvey, who calls him “Helkiah Crooke, seventeenth-century physician and promoter of the dissemination of medical knowledge into the vernacular” (295-96).* This is certainly accurate, but whether Crooke really was personal physician to James I has little or no bearing on that. Jonathan Sawday mentions the matter in passing when he introduces “the anatomist and physician to James I, Helkiah Crooke” (110). Elizabeth Lane Furdell observes, “Although Crooke described himself as ‘Physitian to His Maiestie, and his Highnesse Professor in Anatomy and Chyrurgery,’ the Fellows in the College of Physicians did not approve of his book” (52); this brings up another interesting issue I plan to explore in this blog, but rather elides the question of whether Crooke’s claim was legitimate or not.

The authors specifically interested in Crooke’s biography have slightly more to offer, but not much, in part because they are so few in number. The most recent of these is William Birken’s entry on Crooke in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2010); Birken mentions “Crooke had a strong[…] ally in James I” and “the continuing support of James I,” but doesn’t take a clear stance on the issue (or, indeed, even directly mention it).  Edward O’Donoghue, chronicler of Bethlehem Hospital where Crooke was keeper from 1619-1635, wrote the following in 1914:

Hilkiah [sic] Crooke was a Suffolk man of parts and learning, and, after studying at Cambridge and Leyden, was appointed in 1604 physician to James I. In the next year he wrote a book on anatomy (“Mikrokosmographia”), which he dedicated to his royal patron. (157)

The only source O’Donoghue credits for this passage is a 1631 copy of Mikrokosmographia. It is clear he must be somewhat confused, for although portions of Crooke’s text were in circulation in 1614, it was first published in 1615 – ten years after O’Donoghue’s timeline. Other idiosyncrasies make O’Donoghue’s reliability dubious. More promising is C. D. O’Malley’s 1968 article in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, which, if my research has been thorough, appears to be the only source that clearly denounces Crooke’s claim. O’Malley writes, “[Crooke] became attached to the royal medical service, but certainly not, as it is sometimes said, as one of the king’s personal physicians” (3). He provides some insight into his reasoning, explaining the fact that Crooke sought election as a Candidate of the College of Physicians in 1610 “is indication that he was not one of the king’s personal physicians, since they with royal support passed directly to the Fellowship” (3-4). This certainly makes sense to me, but I have to admit that when I went back and took this closer look, I was surprised to realize that O’Malley was the only clear voice in this camp; as you’ll note from previous posts, this is the side I stand with.

*For full bibliographic information on all sources used in this post, see Further Reading

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2 Comments on “A breadcrumb trail”

  1. Lois Potter says:

    Maybe the best place to start unraveling this thread would be a biography of James I. All I know is that one of his physicians was a Frenchman, Theodore de Mayerne. Looking him up on the ODNB might lead to other discoveries in the bibliography.

    • Thanks for your advice, Lois! It is rapidly become apparent that I have a lot more reading to do before I can come to a conclusion on this, so I am going to move on in the blog but continue exploring this issue behind the scenes. I continue to be surprised by the directions this project takes me, but by exploring all of these tangents I am gaining a much broader scope on the period and expanding my general knowledge, which I greatly need.


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