My research focuses on the history of nineteenth-century British aural surgery, a branch of medical practice focusing on ear diseases and deafness. My dissertation, “‘From the hands of quacks:’ Aural Surgery, Deafness, and the Making of a Surgical Specialty in Nineteenth-Century London” explores the paradoxical and ambiguous nature of a field that was criticized for its charlatanistic nature, perceived as a barrier to deaf education, and publicized as a fashionable and social good.
Intersecting the history of medicine, the history of technology, and the history of deafness, I trace how the fluid and nuanced structure of aural surgery was often defined by the practitioners (“aurists”) who reconstructed new standards for practice in their claims for specialization. In particular, I argue specialization was not a homogeneous phenomenon, but rather, a complex, multi-leveled development made of a number of components, particularly credibility, legitimacy, and jurisdictional boundaries.
The practice of boundary maintenance and discontent among aurists led them to articulate various identities throughout the 1810s and 1850s to differentiate themselves from itinerant “quack aurists.” In their quest to shed the cloak of charlatanism, aurists articulated perceptions of themselves accordingly to how the question of the deaf should be “cared” for: as objects of philosophical discourse, revealing insight into (sign-) language and communication; as objects of charity confined into educational asylums; or as individuals with psychological and physiological defects.
Each dissertation chapter showcases the varied ways in which aurists constructed their identity and shaped their claims to legitimacy as a specialized profession, from publicly disputing rules against medical intervention at deaf asylums, creating specialty hospitals, increasing publications of aural treatises, and developing newer diagnostic, therapeutic, and assistive instruments.
The dissertation has been primarily funded by a SSHRC CGS Fellowship. It has been submitted and is currently undergoing revisions, with an anticipated defense date for Winter/Spring 2014.