Touch

Sensory histories of medicine often focus on touch, in part because the doctor-patient relationship has long been based on this sensory interaction. Despite the Foucauldian claim that the medical ‘gaze’ has come to replace touch in modern medicine, touch remains a crucial part of diagnosis and of the patient experience. Technologies have changed the nature of this touch, but have not replaced it entirely. The touch of another person (or the exchange of touch) has always shaped people’s experience of being in hospitals – whether as patient, staff, or visitor – as part not only of diagnosis and treatment, but also of the emotional dimensions of illness and recovery.

Less commonly addressed within historiography – and hospital design literature more generally – is how touch relates to design. Textures and touch have rarely seemed to be the focus of hospital aesthetic improvements, and have always been associated more with humans than with material culture. However, on closer inspection, there is a spatial history of touch. Taking Maggie’s Centres as an example, a Guardian article recently noted when reporting on a new Centre:

If you’re lucky enough not to have had chemotherapy, you may not know much about one of its side-effects, neutropenia. Among other things, it can make it unpleasant to touch the cold surfaces common in hospitals or the standard grab rails and handles, in thick white tubes of steel or plastic, which are ubiquitous in disabled lavatories … Unless you are in the new Maggie’s cancer centre in Oldham, where the architects dRMM have found a way to make these small necessities out of wood.

While Maggie’s Centres are an exceptional example, this quote indicates the importance of design to the tactile experiences of patients, staff and visitors. The material culture of the hospital changes how it feels: physically and emotionally. We need a closer historical study not only of hospital design, but also of example what materials make up this design, how these have changed over time, and how these feel.

The history of comfort is a key part of this picture. It has always been a goal of medicine, particularly in terms of pain reduction and patient-centred care. It also incorporates a range of questions related to materiality, interior design and architecture, from temperature control to bedding materials. While perhaps not ‘touch’ in the conventional sense, these are all part of histories of embodied sensations. The work of Jonathan Reinarz also draws our attention to the importance of skin in sensory histories of touch and tactility.  Skin is no more universal than eyesight; when somebody has burns, for example, their relationship with touch changes. Like the eyes, the skin also receives and interprets in line with context and a person’s knowledge, understanding, or experience of what they are feeling. For a history of touch that is as critical as our histories of sight, we must acknowledge its cultural and social dimensions as well as its medical and physiological ones.

Victoria Bates.

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