22 Sept. 2023 — 12:00 noon — GAR 4.100

Alyssa Peterson (UT)

“‘To be Discovered or Distinguisht by the Taste’: Taste as Expertise in Eighteenth-Century Science”

When it comes to the sense of taste, the current historiography focuses on the place of food within the field. Historians use taste as a placeholder for food, eating, and experiencing food. It has been used in the historiography of food to understand how different populations developed unique palates, consumption patterns, and traditions. However, taste is rarely used as an analytical category itself and using the term “taste” in this way ignores the possibility of using the physical, biological sense to understand the environment outside of ingestion and sustenance. There are other ways to “taste” the environment besides through the food it produces. For many eighteenth-century chemists and physicians, sense of taste was a marker of expertise in their field. These two groups used taste to analyze and understand substances, elements of compounds, possible medicinal uses of ingredients, and diagnostics. While others may be able to identify the bitterness of tree bark or the acidity of a salt solution, only those trained in medicine or chemistry could utilize this information to make informed decisions on their components and possible uses. Unlike most of the work on the history of taste, this paper focuses on sensations in the mouth not based upon food. By examining how chemists and physicians described their environment’s new and different tastes, I hope to push the history of taste (and the senses) outside its comfort zone by using taste as its most straightforward physiological meaning: a sensation perceived in the mouth after contact with a substance.

Alyssa Peterson is a graduate student in the UT History Department and is now completing her dissertation on ideas about connections between earthquakes and health in the 18th century British Caribbean.