The Subject of Touch in the History of Science

In my last post I mentioned that I recently came across a series of entries dealing with the sense of touch.

Since 2000, this has been a rather uncommon topic. There were medically related works about such things as diagnostic touch and the healing power of touch but only about ten citations on the scientific study of touch or similar topics. (You can see the list in the PDF I’ve attached here.)

Elizabeth Harvey’s essay in the edited book Sensible Flesh (2003) was the first item chronologically. The rest of the articles and books followed a few years later. We find a Ph.D. dissertation, three books, two chapters, and four journal articles. They constitute a wide diversity of time periods and subject matter.

To go back further than 2000, one can do an Isis-specific keyword search in (more about this in a later post), which pulls up records going back to 1974. The list here shows sixty records, but only a few on our topic focus. The recent surge looks like something new.

Some senses are just easier to talk about than others. Vision, for example, has been a source of study for many years. Pictures like words leave a permanent record in the printed material we historians study. Over the years, historians have developed a large literature on visual perception and visual representation in science.

Hearing and sound are more ephemeral, but the literature has grown recently. Judging by entries in the bibliography, works about auditory perception and the sense of hearing in science now have a firm footing in the discipline. Sound studies, according to my colleague Suzanne Moon, editor of Technology and Culture, has established itself in the history of technology literature.

The other senses are gradually catching up, but taste, odor, and touch have been more difficult to deal with. Given the present surge of interest, however, I suspect that we’ll hear more about them from now on.

If any of you know of citations I ought to add, please let me know.

–Stephen P. Weldon, Editor of the Isis Bibliography

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