History of Physical Examination

A doctor examines an elderly patientIn the 18th century, physicians relied largely on the patient's own testimony to make their diagnoses and seldom laid their hands directly on their patient's bodies. In many circumstances, doctors' behaviour, within the consultation encounter, was constrained by the same manner as normal interaction between non-intimates. The aim of the project is to understand how doctors developed the techniques of physical examination and how patients came to accept physical examination and trust the doctor to undertake intimate procedures. How did the doctor become the licensed examiner of the bodies of strangers?

Understanding the history of physical examination is important for several reasons. The development of diagnostic techniques has had a formative influence on the character of the consultative encounter between doctor and patient and on the basis of the trust between the two. In a context in which more and more diagnoses are accomplished by laboratory testing or by impersonal imaging technologies, it is necessary to emphasis the role that direct human contact plays in the humane practice of medicine.


Recent publications

Malcolm Nicolson, 'James Young Simpson and the development of physical diagnosis', in R. Mander and A. Nuttall (eds) James Young Simpson: A Lad o’ Pairts , Scottish History Press (2011), 57-75.

 Malcolm Nicolson, 'Examining the Body: after 1750', in K. Fisher and S. Toulalan (eds) The Routledge History of Sex and the Body in the West, 1500 to the Present, Routledge (2013) 106-120.


Not currently grant funded, but research originally funded by the Wellcome Trust.


More than a decade.