My PhD project Blood, Sweat & Tears studies bodily fluids in medical contexts. I analyse how the development of new scientific instruments and chemical laboratories in 18th-century Dutch Republic changed the way physicians perceived the nature and functions of fluids in physiology and pathology. Simultaneously, however, the specific properties of these fluids enabled or restricted the possibilities of new research. Urine was easily obtainable and could be measured, mixed and distilled. Yet sweat’s volatility was far more difficult for early modern physicians to grasp.
For this research, I examine how Dutch physicians like Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738) and his students studied and discussed the bodily fluid of blood, sweat, and other fluids. By analysing textbooks, student lecture notes, and correspondences, I show that these physicians extensively elaborated on, for example, semen. They agreed that this whitish liquid was the “most perfect and important” and “most elaborate” fluid in comparison to the others. By combining the anatomy of the testes and the chemistry of semen, new physiological theories of secretion were developed.
Being sensitive to the materiality of liquids can lead to a more integrated history of cultural, social, medical and scientific understandings of the body.