Until the 1850s, “deafness” was an umbrella term that encompassed a wide spectrum of aural conditions, including temporary hearing loss, pre-lingual deafness, and congenital deafness. As the auditory basis of deaf persons varied, so too did their lives and experiences, and the extent to which they selected amongst and/or experimented with medical therapeutics and technological “cures” for hearing loss. As medical options for bodily afflictions have long been intertwined with our understanding and governance of health and illness, my research examines how the history of deafness cures can reflect particular cultural expectations of “normalcy.” I focus on how the invisible feature of deafness can help us to think about the commercialization of medical goods for hearing loss and how consumerism can provide a window for investigating the cultural constructions of deafness during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Central to my research agenda is the importance of contextualizing the role deaf users played in the construction, design, and functionality of technological “cures” for hearing loss. How do individual choices to adapt technological prostheses or devices result in constructions of personal identity? How do individual modifications to technologies inspire or guide newer innovations for hearing loss? My current project on the cultural history of artificial eardrums examines how advertisements for artificial eardrums offered the deaf with a semblance of “normalcy” in order to participate in the hearing, speaking English culture. Patent applications for artificial eardrums additionally reveals how hearing devices posed tremendous financial incentives as proprietary medicine.
My current project is directed towards a long-term goal of understanding how technologies can provide insight into the history of medical, and cultural, deafness. Investigating the role of users as shapers, collaborators, and manipulators of their own technologies provides us with myriad approaches for creating new historical knowledge about the lived experiences of deaf individuals and how interactions with technologies affected their everyday lives. Understanding user interactions will also provide a platform for exploring why some technologies were more favorable, popular, and successful than others, as well the extent of which medical and non-medical practice influenced the creation or modification of these technologies. Historicizing various types of medico-technological devices for hearing loss and their evolving designs from 1900 to the present will allow for research conclusions about how deaf persons selected or modified these objects to enhance their experiences with, and/or identification as, disabled persons. These conclusions will create a platform for scholarly and public discourses on contemporary issues of citizenship, disability, and access.
“From the Hands of Quacks:” Aural Surgery, Deafness, and the Making of a Surgical Specialty in Nineteenth-Century London. University of Toronto, 2014
Tracing the efforts of a particular group of London-based aural practitioners (“aurists”) and their visions of a specialist identity, From the Hands of Quacks explores how medical legitimacy was founded within a field constantly battling professional and social accusations of charlatanry. Historical accounts of aural surgery suggest its early practitioners were all quacks and frauds. This perspective is challenged by demonstrating that between 1810 and 1860, aurists struggled to claim the legitimacy of their specialty by counteracting against claims of medicine’s ineffectiveness to cure deafness. Analyzing the nature of specialty-building, this dissertation looks at various challenges these practitioners (called “aurists”) faced in their quest for surgical authority: from educators for the deaf who resisted surgical and medical intervention for pupils; intra-professional strife and rivalries; accusations of quackery from the broader medical market; and the general difficulty of observing and diagnosing ear diseases. A primary analysis concentrates on technologies as an integral to the formation of surgical authority and identity. As aurists fiercely competed with each other for positions, status, and patients, accusations of quackery weakened their attempts to forge authority as skilled surgical experts. Bringing into light new materials, I examine the concept of quackery and professional legitimacy in aural surgery, addressing how “quack” was a highly ambiguous term generally used to disqualify an adversary or competitor, or to dismiss a particular medical procedure or technology.
Research support was generously provided for by: a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canadian Graduate Scholarship; Pre-Doctoral Fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science; University of Toronto School of Graduate Studies Conference Grants; Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology Stillman Drake Travel Grants; and several society awards and grants.