University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > History of Medicine Seminars > Fitting for health: steel-trusses in the enlightened economy of healthcare

Fitting for health: steel-trusses in the enlightened economy of healthcare

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On March 13, 1761, Monsieur de Bompré took his pen to write to William Blakey, a surgeon and locksmith, who had set a shop in Paris, rue des Prouvaires. He was writing on behalf of a friend, who had suffered from violent diarrhea for two months, caused by a bilious humor, and was eventually saved by ‘epiquagonera’, the American ipecacuanha. One night after his recovery, on his way back home, he slipped, which occasioned pain to the right hand side of the navel. Not noticing it at first, he then felt pain each time he blew his nose or touched his belly. As it seemed to grow, he called upon his physician and his surgeon, who equipped him with a truss. He was sent a steel brayer from Paris, which was dreadfully aching: the ball applied to the hernia was too big and the steel-belt fitted so tightly that when he coughed, the navel on the left hand side was nearly opened. As a consequence, he resumed wearing his truss. On his behalf, M. de Bompré enquired:

how are the trusses you make, if they can be put on by oneself, if they do not incommode breeches as trusses do, and if they have steel-belt. I am fairly sure that their belts could be made out of cotton, so that one could attach them by himself. At last, please tell me how are made those you advertised, so that my friend can go to Paris, or order them if he thinks he can have use of them, put them on and take them out by himself.

Bompré, one of Blakey’s fifty corresponding customers during the period 1761-71, was actively seeking information on new body technologies to contain his friend’s herniary problem. Like other patients, he had looked in the press and requested advice from surgeons; aware of the latest drugs available on the market to cure digestive problems, he also imagined designs or materials that would help improving instruments. He was, above all, an active consumer, making innovation happen.

Steel trusses, indeed, fit into the burgeoning ‘consumer society’, in which healthcare and medicine played a major part. From ore to skin, from Sheffield to Marennes on the French Atlantic coast or Gand, from nobility to the soldiers and the poor urban dwellers, steel trusses, processed along complex and intertwinned chains, exemplify the intricacies of Enligtenment worlds of manufacturing, trade and consumption. The paper will argue that, in a way not dissimilar the route followed by Boyle’s air pump (Shapin & Schaffer), the face of medicine changed with the early-modern use of instruments for therapeutics Steel trusses, accordingly, represent a lens through which one can uncover not only refashioning of medical care, but also the manufacturing and innovation processes, the marketing and trade, as well as the consumption of an eighteenth-century technology.

This talk is part of the History of Medicine Seminars series.

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