The Dudgeon Sphygmograph

The pulse has been regarded as the basic sign of life across most times and cultures, and feeling the pulse is a standard part of all the great medical traditions. The search for a more standardised method of determining and visually displaying the movement of the blood around the body led to the development, from the 1860s, of sphygmographs, sphygmomanometers and the less successful sphygmometers.

The first sphygmograph was invented by French physician Étienne-Jules Marey in 1863 as a reliable way of tracing the vital signs of life without harming the test subject. In 1881 the English physician and homeopath, Robert Ellis Dudgeon introduced a new, highly portable Sphygmograph. Dudgeon’s Sphygmograph was strapped to the wrist. The pulse at the wrist caused a metal strip to move a stylus, transmitting a record of the pulse onto smoked paper. Dudgeon’s instrument quickly became popular since it was compact and easy to use. It also became the first mass-manufactured device and was used as a standard tool by the US army.

The sphygmograph is also the ancestor of the polygraph and was used by a number of asylum researchers in the late nineteenth century in an attempt to better understand mental disease.

Dudgeon’s monograph on his device contains a most remarkable comment in his introductory review of the history of the sphygmograph. Referring to the Greek vivisector Herophilus he states: “from a vivisectionist point of view it is perhaps disappointing to think that the only physiological discovery Herophilus made, from all these hundreds of human vivisections, was that arteries pulsated, but he did not ascertain what the arteries contained. {…} Every unprejudiced mind must allow that the discovery that human beings possess a pulse was cheaply purchased at the cost of six hundred human vivisections, for this discovery has been of incalculable use to the medical profession; though some critics might object that it might have been equally well made by applying the finger to the wrist; but then there are always unreasonable people to find fault with the methods of men of science”.

The idea that mental disease could be explained by structural anomalies within the body gained ground in the latter part of the nineteenth century, evidenced in the increasing interest of asylum doctors in pathological and physiological research. In the drive to make the interior state of the body visible, new medical technologies and graphical methods were central in gaining access to psychophysiological phenomena. Much of this new technology was concerned with processes within the body that lent themselves to graphical or statistical narratives. And blood flow and pulse were both processes that lent themselves perfectly to this new science.

In the nineteenth century, blood, as a substance flowing through the body and touching upon all organs, was a charismatic scientific object that captured the imagination of researchers keen to investigate the relationship between body and mind. The desire to “coax narratives of madness from blood” manifested itself in microscopical and serological investigation of the blood of asylum patients. Many absurd (by today’s standards) theories were formulated, such as the fact that the blood of asylum patients was sluggish, or that the heart of asylum patients was not developed enough to bring blood to the brain. The suggestion that the organs of the body depended on a healthy blood supply raised the possibility that mental diseases were simply the consequence of impaired circulation.

Beautiful theories, put today to shame by the rapid evolution of science.

Dudgeon Sphygmograph, Estimated Date: 1896, Manufacturer: Thakray, Leeds

Description: A classic nickel-plated Dudgeon sphygmograph with intact clockwork mechanism in a square housing, ivory inset tension knob, black ribbon strap and pressure sensor and recorder for pulse on smoked paper. Contained in a black-leathered box, 6 x 4 x 6cm. Pressure gauge is marked in troy oz. from I to V.

Discover the Dudgeon Sphygmograph, and other wonderful historic devices for blood pressure on www.bloodpressurehistory.com

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© 2019, Uwe Diegel