HomeEvents and ActivitiesOnline EventsMeasuring Health and the Body

Measuring Health and the Body

Size, Weight, and Pulse in Medical Theory and Practice

Webinar – 25 January 2022, 10.00-12.30 am (CET)


Chair and Organiser:

Marsha Wubbels  – University of Exeter



Yijie Huang – University of Cambridge

Holly Fletcher – University of Sussex

Marsha Wubbels – University Exeter

Alexander Pyrges – JMU Würzburg


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Taking measurement of the body is all but standard practice in modern medicine. Indeed, we rely to a great degree on figures such as our body weight and our heart rate to inform us of the state of our health.

This seminar will present how and why the pre-modern body was measured and explore how new methods of measuring, quantifying, and understanding the body affected early modern medical theory and practice. The individual papers presented will all explore how different aspects of the body such as fat, blood, and excreta, were measured using various instruments and research methods.

As such, this seminar will address a myriad of questions, relating to how new instruments and methods of measurements affected medical theory and practice, to what extent they challenged or reinforced existing knowledge, how measurements helped to determine what was healthy and unhealthy, normal and abnormal, and how researching this can help us understand how early modern society understood the relationship between the body and its environment.


Yijie Huang

Expressing the Pulse in Seventeenth-Century England: Idioms, Numbers, & Measurement

Opening Galen’s corpus, one would be impressed by the extensive variations of the quality of the pulse. Big/small, strong/weak, quick/slow, frequent/rare, hard/soft, even/uneven, regular/irregular, gazelling, double-hammer. Many of these descriptions extended into early modern medical treatises, guiding yet also disturbing pulse diagnosis during the period. Between the textual pulse-lore and the hands-on experience of the wrist, early modern medical practitioners sought for ways to justify the perceptibility of traditional pulse idioms and articulate their own pulse perception. This paper examines this process by focussing on the English physician John Floyer’s (1649-1734) The Physician’s Pulse-Watch (1707 & 1710), in which Floyer innovatively used numbers in addition to idioms in explicating diverse types of pulses and their respective physical indications. Some scholarships appreciate Floyer’s numerical analysis of the pulse as a significant shift from the long-lasting old paradigm of pulse diagnosis centred by subjective experience and qualitative rendering. This paper challenges the view by delving into the close interaction between numbers and idioms in Floyer’s pulse study, based on which it further discusses the hybrid episteme of his pulse-counting practice. It will show that by designing the combined form of pulse characteristics, Floyer strove to incorporate earlier philosophical conceptions of health into the recent empirical principle of investigating nature and the body. His deployment of the quantitative renderings contained little intention of questioning or replacing the experiential approach of expressing the pulse. Rather, they revealed notable capacity to reinforce experience as the ultimate standard to organise and make sense of its variety.



Holly Fletcher

Food and Fat: Creating Body Size in Early Modern Germany

Contemporary discussions concerning body size, and particularly fatness, are dominated by questions of food consumption and diet. Today, the relationship between food and fat is so deeply embedded in both medical and cultural perceptions of what determines a person’s body size that other contributing factors are frequently overlooked. In this paper, I examine whether this was similarly the case in early modern Germany. Were perceptions of fatness and thinness dominated by ideas about food? While food played a crucial role in the creation of body size it was far from being the only determining factor. I will explore the important distinction contemporaries made between ‘naturally’ and ‘unnaturally’ fat bodies, which drew on understandings of the four humours and the six non-naturals, thereby discussing the significance of additional factors such as sleep, bathing and the emotions for influencing body size. Finally, I will approach body size from a neo-materialist perspective, to consider how the construction of bodily form could be understood in relation to early modern people’s material entanglements with their physical surroundings. The fattening of human bodies could be understood in close relationship with the fattening of the animals which they consumed and the ‘fatness’ of the land upon which those animals grazed. Body size thus contributed to understandings of the ‘extended’ material early modern body which went far beyond merely food consumption.



Marsha Wubbels

A Weighty Matter: Understanding Santorio’s ‘Healthful Standard’ and Early Modern Body-Weighing Practices

Today, we consider our body weight to be important information of medical significance. At just a glance at the scales, we may categorise ourselves, healthy or unhealthy, underweight, overweight, or obese. The idea that our body weight can inform us on the state of our health is at least as old as the first medically motivated weighing experiment, undertaken by Santorio Santori over the course of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. The connection that we make between weight and fatness was not always so intrinsic, however. This paper will discuss early modern concerns with body weight and weight-watching and argue that these concerns differed significantly from our own. It will do so by first exploring Santorio weighing experiment and the aphorisms it wrought. It will assess the extent to which later weight-watching practices were still influenced by these aphorisms and argue that body-weighing practices remained ‘Santorian’ in nature until the late eighteenth century, when the motivations and methods of weight-watchers started to more resemble our own. As will be shown, body weight did not yet play a significant role in the medicalisation of fatness, and early modern English society did not yet share our concept of ‘overweight’. Instead, individuals pursued a perfect balance between their ingesta and excreta and used the balance to monitor this, a balance Santorio referred to as the ‘healthful Standard’.



Alexander Pyrges

Using Big Numbers. The Meaning and Purpose of Weight Indications in Medical Texts on Corpulence, c. 1600-1900

While historians of corpulence commonly regard the twentieth century as the age when quantification began to dominate medical approaches to corpulence, individual weight indications appear in medical texts on corpulence as early as the seventeenth century. The earliest weight indications were imported from outside the medical realm, more precisely, from the public discourse on monstrous bodies. Within medical reasoning, the trademark weight indications of a few publicized prodigies of nature served to underscore both the existence and the nature of corpulence as a pathology. The consequences of entangling the medical discussions on corpulence with the discourse on monsters were far-reaching, however, as it shaped both the approach to and the rhetorical framing of corpulence within medicine for at least two centuries.
As weight indications multiplied during the eighteenth century, physician authors strung them together to form the numerical basis of exceptional weight biographies, first of famous contemporaries but subsequently of common patients as well. Biographically paralleled with medical interventions, series of declining weight indications came to allegorize therapeutic success in a growing number of case descriptions. During the nineteenth century, a handful of authors attempted to expand the medical potential of weight indications beyond the mere observational. They had very limited success in the field of obesity medicine, however, as the majority of experts saw but little therapeutic and no diagnostic merits in weight measurements and indications. Thus, although weight indications were firmly established in the medical literature on corpulence by the late nineteenth century, the measurement of weight existed only in the margins of clinical obesity medicine.



The event is free to attend but registration is required. To register click here.

For queries contact: info@csmbr.fondazionecomel.org