By Yijie Huang
I received a gift from my supervisor this spring, a vial of “POSITIVITY Pulse Point Oil” from ESPA. As a historian of pulse diagnosis in early modern medicine, I am fascinated by it–not so much by the joyful fragrance, but by what “pulse” indicates in its label. It reminds me of the popular tip to wear perfume on one’s wrists, said to help the scent to spread over the whole body and to last longer. It also reminds me of a story about Robert Boyle (1627-91), a leading natural philosopher and one of the founders of the Royal Society. Among his many accomplishments, Boyle contributed significantly to the corpuscularian philosophy: that matter is made up of numerous invisible corpuscles whose quality determines its overall properties. He was particularly interested in explaining the efficacy of recipes at the corpuscularian level–which shaped his understanding of the pulse.
Boyle was immersed in a diagnostic tradition, extending from antiquity into the early modern period, in which people took assessed the pulse’s quality (magnitude, speed, strength, hardness) to assess the bodily state, especially the heart. In his Essays of Effluviums (1673), Boyle recounted a seemingly absurd anecdote from German physician Daniel Sennert (1572-1637). Some Nicolaus of Florence reported that a Lombard in the city had burned a big black spider upon a nearby flame, then soon after fell into a faint. Although the Lombard’s heart was severely affected, with his pulse scarcely perceivable overnight, he was eventually cured. In the Essays, Boyle discussed how objects release effluvia–that is, streams of minute constituent particles–to cause effects upon the human body. It was by the means of effluvia, he claimed, that ambrosial objects like ambers could perfume the body even one does not wear them next to the skin. Yet effluvia might also bring dreadful threats across distance. Contagious patients carrying them could infect others without physical contact. Poisonous effluvia could kill people in a scarcely noticeable manner. The poor Lombard’s weak pulse warned of such danger. According to Boyle, the vapour of the lit spider was inhaled into the Lombard’s body, resulting in a contactless poison.
While this spider interrupted the pulse indirectly, another spider might be placed exactly there as a cure. Boyle referred to the ancient Greek pharmacologist Dioscorides (c. 40-c. 90) and the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) who described individuals sealing a spider inside an empty nutshell and binding it to certain bodily parts. The amulet was to prevent ague, as spider–especially its oil–was believed remarkably efficacious in curing agues and quartans (Works, vol. 13, 248).
Nonetheless, Boyle doubted the validity of this type of spider remedy. He discussed a case in which a gentleman wore at his wrist a half of a walnut shell, within which was sealed a great, living spider. He was trying to prevent a coming fit of ague, but (ironically) died from it. Why did the spider kill the man despite being kept separate from his body by the walnut shell? Some physicians’ judgements echoed Boyle’s ideas about effluvia: the spider permeated its malignant steam into the veins near the pulse. Through the circulation of the blood, it finally reached and destroyed the heart.
Boyle paralleled this deadly spider at the wrist with many other noxious amulets, arguing that they probably influence the human body in a similar way. His argument gestures at the invisible fluidity of materials across the skin. Everything penetrates everything, thus toxics applied “outside” the body could have detrimental effects deeply “inside”. This made the pulse more than a site of diagnosis. With poisonous objects attached to it, the pulse could became a fatal portal into the body, potentially allowing the poison to flow to the heart at the centre.
Yet the portal of death may also be the portal of life: what if things put at the pulse were healthful, not toxic? Boyle was aware of this potential method of healing, which he put into practice by tying many herbal, mineral and animal ingredients to the wrist. He referred to them as pericarpia, wrist remedies (in Greek, peri means around, karpos means wrist). Recommending them as incredible cures to a range of diseases from agues to eye ailments, Boyle shared his own experience of a wrist remedy. Once he suffered from a violent quotidian fever, and no normal therapies had proved effective. Eventually, a physician applied to his wrists “a mixture of two handfuls of Bay-Salt, two handfuls of the freshest English Hops, and a quarter of a Pound of blew Currants very diligently beaten into a brittle Mass” and successfully cured him (Works, vol. 3, 420). This remedy should have been prescribed many times; Boyle reported that despite occasional failures, it showed “great Effects” on quotidian, tertian agues and continual fevers.
The underlying concept of the body has proven resilient. Under microscopes we observe the porosity of skin under microscopes; by X-rays and infrared photography, we see the deep landscape of the body and its material exchange with the outside environment. Such corporeal facts, many may assume, can only be excavated with the help of advanced visual technologies belonging to our age. But Boyle’s pulse-related discussions are testimony to the provocative insights into the openness and fluidity of the body which far predate our rediscovery of it (Murphy). Early modern people approached these facts using their distinct technologies, including the spider at the pulse. But it is that spider at the pulse that can serve as symbol of how early modern people imagined–and experienced–medical interventions that worked beyond, across, and beneath the skin.
The spiders at the pulse, Boyle’s wrist remedies, and the ESPA aromatherapy substantiate a probably coherent historical lineage of the pulse as a therapeutic locus. Medical activities we engage in today seldom preserve this notion, as most of us view the pulse simply as the synonym of pulsebeat. In such fashion, pulse becomes nothing but a numerical result, told by counting and clocks, not touch. However, our wrists anointed by fragrances remind that we still enjoy the legacy of the pre-modern recognition of the pulse not only as a means to assess the body, but one to manipulate it.
Boyle, Robert. Essays of Effluviums. London, 1673.
Boyle, Robert. The Works of Robert Boyle, Electronic Edition, Vols. 3 and 13: Unpublished Writings, 1645-c. 1670, ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis. Brookfield, Vt.: Pickering and Chatto, 2000.
Murphy, Hannah. “Skin and Disease in Early Modern Medicine: Jan Jessen’s De cute, et cutaneis affectibus (1601).” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 94, 2 (2020): 179-214.