Repository logo

The Clock and the Hand: Taking the Pulse in English Medicine, 1650-1710



Change log


Huang, Yijie 


This thesis examines the knowledge and practice of pulse diagnosis in early modern England. An essential sign of the human body and its disease, the pulse had nonetheless been difficult to interpret since the earliest days of medicine. In the first decade of the eighteenth century, the Lichfield physician Sir John Floyer (1649-1734) introduced the method of measuring the pulse assisted by a “pulse watch” in his sphygmological treatise, The physician’s pulse-watch (2 vols, 1707 and 1710). Floyer’s new method is often explained within prevalent discourses on the monumental transformation of science and medicine from qualitative to quantitative and subjective to objective. Prompted by Floyer’s writings, this thesis instead argues that pulse diagnosis ought to be understood as part of the history of the sense of touch and as an artefact of multiple experiences of the body. Taking Floyer’s argumentation and equivocation as clues, it traces how the pulse was explained against natural philosophers’ conception of the clocklike human body, how it was expressed under various medical practitioners’ fingers, and how it was manipulated according to lay people’s repertoire of cure concerning the wrist. In doing so, this thesis traces how the pulse was variously perceived in the entangled, vibrant early modern medical world Floyer inhabited. Drawing on a wide range of sources from translations of Chinese medicine to exegeses of Greek and Latin classics, from anatomical experiments to medical manuals and recipe collections, it sits at the intersection of the histories of medicine, science, and the senses. Bringing the pulse watch back into the contexts of its emergence, it seeks to contribute to the historical reflections on the fruition and tension of knowing through sensory experience.





Kassell, Lauren


early modern period, history of knowledge, history of medicine, pulse, sensory studies


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
The Cambridge Trust China Scholarship Council Department of History and Philosophy of Science St Catharine's College