Switching On Hearing

Harold

It’s an iconic and powerful photo.

The face of a young child, born deaf, hearing sounds for the first time. Jack Bradley, photojournalist from the Peoria Journal Star, captured the exact moment a doctor fitted five year old Harold Whittles with an earpiece and turned on the hearing aid. First printed in the February 1974 issue of ReadersDigest, the photo has propped up in numerous “best-of” lists on the Internet. It is “shocking,” “miraculous,” “unbelievable,” “influential,” “heartbreaking,” “heart-warming,” “amazing,” and “evocative.” It has been circulated thousands of times on Facebook, where commentators have expressed their thoughts: the photo brings tears, it serves as a reminder of our humanity, it tells people to “count their blessings,” it resonates to personal experiences with deafness and hearing, and it triggers debates about language, culture, and technological achievements. For many individuals, the photo immortalizes more than Harold’s astonishment. It serves as a testament of the wonders of medicine and science, the abundance of hope, and provides us with a glimpse into the future.

Bradley’s photo is only one in a long list of sensationalized stories on deaf people hearing sounds. A search through YouTube lists about 72,800 results for videos on “hearing sound for the first time.” At least once a month, someone sends me a link to a new video, or to a post discussing the novelty of sharing stories like this.

I may not remember exactly what it was like when I first heard sounds again after losing my hearing, but I have a problem with the way these videos are promoted: they sensationalized the notion that hearing could be “switched on.” This is a misleading claim. Implants, whether they are cochlear, auditory, or the newer brainstem versions do not restore “normal” hearing but makes it easier for deaf individuals to distinguish sounds. It’s not like wearing these technologies miraculously provide the wearer an understanding of all the sounds in the world. I’ve had friends who’ve been fitted with cochlear implants describe how overwhelming the sound were, and how certain everyday noises, like wind hitting the trees or leaky faucets, created so much confusion.* Cochlear implants in particular, create a representation of sounds that serves to assist in understanding speech; because of this, speech can sound robotic, or filtered as if everyone was speaking underwater. I wear digital hearing aids and even I have trouble distinguishing certain noises or even pinpointing the source of sounds.

Once, while out dining with friends, I watched a restaurant worker remove the external part of her cochlear implant nearly every time she went behind the counter. But when she went towards the dining room to seat customers or bus tables, she had the device on. I imagine the cacophonic atmosphere of the dining room might have overwhelmed her–I know for me, it was so loud I ended up leaving the restaurant with a throbbing headache (I’m very sensitive to loud sounds, which often trigger migraines).

But for me, the larger problem with these videos is that they depict deafness as a defect, a problem that must be corrected, medically, surgically, technologically, and even culturally. This is a perspective that has long been criticized  by members of the Deaf community, who argue these devices are another instance of the historical oppression of Deaf culture and a tremendous threat against sign-language. I’m not going to go too much into this. There’s plenty of literature on the subject. I don’t identify myself as a member of the Deaf community and I do write about the medicalization of deafness, but I try to be sensitive to balancing the perspectives of both hearing and Deaf culture–even if at times, it’s so challenging to do so.

*This point reminds me of one of my favourite philosophical thought experiments: If Mary was born and raised in a black-and-white room and never seen color, but one day, is allowed to go outside, does Mary understand, or have any concept of, the color red?

On Sharing #histmed Images

For those who follow me on Twitter or the FTHOQ Facebook page, you already know I share a lot of images on the history of medicine. I’ve come across many of these images while browsing through online archives collection data for my research on experiences of hearing and hearing loss in twentieth-century America. I’m particularly interested in the cultural history of deafness from a medical standpoint and frequently find myself drawn to all sorts of representations of hearing, sound, and artefacts. Sometimes I come across a new digital archive by clicking on a link on the one I’m already looking through, and off I go, spending hours carefully scrolling through images and records.

I initially started sharing images on the history of medicine (#histmed on Twitter) as I conducted research in London on materials related to my dissertation. I expanded my postings when I started collecting materials for my course on the History of Medicine. I kept a file on my desktop of remarkable sources of images and objects I hoped one day to share with my students. There were many that never made the cut for lectures and I wanted a platform to share them—hence, I started posting on my Twitter account and later created the FTHOQ Facebook page to post additional details that went beyond the 140-character limit. I aim to post as much details on sources and archive repositories as I can, but sometimes I find great things on Google Images that have no additional data and I post the image in the hopes someone else can fill in the blanks.

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Sharing images has been a great way for me to participate in fruitful conversations about cultural frameworks of health and healing. At the back of my mind, I’m overly aware of the risks of decontextualizing these images and using them for “entertainment.” Daniel Goldberg drew my attention to a great post written by Richard Barnett for the WellcomeLibrary blog. Barnett discusses some of the ethical concerns he encountered while writing his book, The Sick Rose: Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration (2014), particularly on the implications of looking at pictures of people’s suffering and diseased bodies. Is it appropriate? Another form of entertainment? Barnett raises crucial issues that I think all historians should think about when we share images of bodies with an audience. I might say that I share these images—and some that even I find gruesome enough to warrant a “WARNING” or “SENSITIVE” prelude on my tweet—as a way to educate my audience on the horrors of medical practice, but even I cannot ignore the shock element that is clearly embedded in that tweet. Especially when it comes with a warning note.

Barnett expresses: “I might comfort myself with the thought that I am deepening my readers’ understanding of these images by setting them in context.” Too often, I’ve come across images that have been grossly misinterpreted or miscategorised. Many more do not identify the source or provide any context. Setting them in context almost provides merit for sharing them: I’m not just passing them around, but trying to address their historical place and value. The most interesting discussions and that arise from sharing these images come from my audience, whose inquisitive questions inspires me to ignore my to-do list for the day and dig up as much information I can about a particular image. But what happens when we don’t provide the context of a particular image? Have we stripped away its meaning? The popularity of twitter handles like The Retronaut or HistoryPics indicates that people love looking at the past; but too often errors are pointed out.

I haven’t kept a precise analysis of the images I’ve posted and how they were shared as an indicator of how people are “reading” the images and learning from them. My audience is not wide enough for that. But I have been aware of the thoughts that go behind my postings and how I’ve been aware not to offend, decontextualize, or even muddle the historical merit of these images. Last summer I kept a schedule based on particular themes I would post in relation to the research I intended to do. For instance, I would post images on epidemic diseases in India one week, prosthetic artifacts the next, and so forth. I had scheduled surgical amputations the same week the Boston Marathon bombings occurred. Of course none of these images were shared at that time; it seemed cruel, insensitive, and above all, opportunistic.

My favourite images to share are the ones that make us think twice about the authority of medicine. Products developed by “quack” doctors, illogical remedies, strange and outrageous technologies, and the theatre of surgery. These images reminds me how much medicine has changed, how the rules of practice has transformed, and how people in the past thought about their bodies, their health, and sought out explanations. These historical experiences with health and illness are captured in images, These images, as Barnett writes,

are, to borrow a phrase from Claude Lévi-Strauss, good to think with…They should shock us, move us, jolt us out of any sense of complacency over our individual or collective well-being; something would be wrong if they did not. They are a magnificent historical and aesthetic resource, and a record of human suffering and of attempts to understand and to relieve it. We would be all the poorer if they were concealed; equally, they should not become mere visual shorthand for a kitsch, knowing and emptily ironised attitude to sickness, suffering and death.

 I’m glad people like how I share images. The repositories I come across are wonderful and as a scholar, I’m thankful to all the individuals who have digitized these images, allowing me to get a better glimpse into the past.

 

 

Word of the Day: Quacksalver \KWAK-sal-ver\ (noun)

quacksalver \KWAK-sal-ver\, noun:
1. a charlatan.
2. a quack doctor.

And there was that quacksalver Mellowes again, with his pernicious theory that consumption was caused by an excess of oxygen.
— Patrick O’Brian, Desolation Island, 1978

Anon, we grow persuaded that he traded both eyes for hooks and beneath the roof of his friend, Prince of Hesse Cassel, this Quacksalver expired to the winding from a strange horn one overcast night at Sleswig — and doubt not that at the bar he lifted up both hands to please innocent!
— Evan S. Connell, The Alchymist’s Journal, 1991

Even more outlandish than she is, he thought. “We shall not have her degraded as some quacksalver’s drab.
— Ariana Franklin, Mistress of the Art of Death, 2007

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Quacksalver comes from an early Dutch word of the same spelling referring to someone who prescribes home remedies. It is the root of the more common word quack.

 

Friday Evening Discourse

18 Savile Row. Burlington Gardens. W | 10 Feb 1860

Dear Mr. Faraday,

Having been unsuccessful in my attempts to obtain a ticket for Mr. Huxley’s lecture* tonight I shall esteem it a favour if you can give me one.

Believe me yours sincerely & obliged,

Joseph Toynbee

*Thomas Henry Huxley’s Friday Evening Discourse of 10 February 1860

 

A Digital Reader

I was invited by Karen Bourrier, the project director of Nineteenth-Century Disability: A Digital Reader to write a post about a Victorian mourning ear trumpet. The digital reader is a remarkable project at the University of Western Ontario, an interdisciplinary approach to provide a collection of primary texts on physical and cognitive disability in the nineteenth century. It’s meant to be a free scholarly resource for incorporating disability studies into the classroom and teaching students how to work with primary sources (I absolutely love this!). The project has gotten started with a few wonderful posts, including on wooden legs, Thomas Edison’s talking books, ‘The Blind Beggar,’ and my own contribution on a Victorian mourning trumpet.

The project is still under construction, with an eventual goal of posting lesson plans on how to use primary sources, a timeline of disability in the nineteenth century, and a bibliography of secondary sources in nineteenth-century disability studies. Without a doubt, Nineteenth-Century Disability: A Digital Reader is a remarkable contribution to not only disability studies, but on all subjects that intersect with ideas about the body, science, technology, and medicine.

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