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A practitioner massaging a patient's shoulders, c.1890.

A practitioner massaging a patient's shoulders, c.1890.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

The early modern doctor relied on his senses to examine and diagnose his patients. Touch, on the other hand, was important for the surgeon, but less so for the university-trained physician. While touch, and massage more specifically, were central to Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, they were less important than the other senses, especially vision. In the late 1700s the importance of vision in the Western medical examination only increased. The visual nature of medicine is perhaps best highlighted by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who described the rise of the doctor’s gaze in the hospitals of revolutionary Paris. The development of certain medical technologies in the 1800s, including X-rays, further reduced the need for doctors to touch patients. Relying ever more heavily on technology, the modern doctor has grown more distant from the patient.

In many ways, though touch was relied on less by Western physicians and surgeons in the 1800s and 1900s, it became more common for hospitalised patients to be touched. For example, from the mid-1800s most hospital patients were bathed on admission. Surgical cases, which involved cutting and bandaging, grew as a percentage of hospital cases and outnumbered medical cases by the late 1800s. Though remaining in hospital for shorter durations compared to medical cases, many surgical cases also required physiotherapy. In the 1900s massage therapy was introduced in many hospitals to aid rehabilitation. Originally carried out by specially appointed masseurs, these skills were acquired by nurses. The numbers of such cases in all hospitals only climbed throughout the 1900s.

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Related links


N Calvert, The History of Massage: an Illustrated History from Around the World (Rochester, Healing Arts Press, 2002)

J Reiser, ‘Technology and the use of the senses in twentieth-century medicine’, in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds), Medicine and the Five Senses (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)