Who is John Harrison Curtis (1778-1856)?

My research into aural surgery began accidentally when I was struggling to find a focus for my Fundamentals in the History of Medicine paper. Coming from a philosophy background, my first year as a graduate student was filled with struggles, extreme stress, and frustration, as I tried to stop writing “like a philosopher” and began training myself to be a “historian.” One of my major problems in writing history is that I didn’t know how to use my sources to present a precise narrative focus; in other words, I wrote very broadly about everything connected to the issue at hand, and failed to interpret the sources I used.

So came the fateful day I found myself at the “Old Catalogue” section at Gerstein Library, looking for a 19th century treatise on ear diseases. The one I needed (which by now, I cannot recall the title) was not on the shelves. Where that book should have been, was Curtis’ A Treatise on the Physiology and Diseases of the Ear, fourth edition, printed in 1826. Who was Curtis? I had no idea. I checked out the dusty book, absorbed the librarian’s warning to be careful with the fragile pages, and headed off home to read it.

My first impression? I was fascinated and yet bored. Bored, because I knew nothing of ear diseases or treatments, and had no idea whether what Curtis wrote about was accurate or not. Fascinated, because Curtis revealed such passion in his practice through his writing; some of his sentences were downright poetic, and shed a tiny light into ideas about deafness that I never paid attention to, such as the suffering of children housed at London’s asylums for the deaf and dumb.

Imagine my surprise when a search through secondary scholarship revealed Curtis to be a “quack.” But what did that mean, I had no clue. Why was he a quack? Was it because he lacked medical qualifications? Because he did not present an accurate account of ear diseases and treatments? Because he was considered a fraud, a deceiver, and a no-good-peddler? At that time, I had no idea, but was intrigued into what Curtis could reveal about the practice of medicine and the understanding of deafness—by both the medical practice and the wider social community—in nineteenth century London. And thus, my research project was born.

Who was John Harrison Curtis? Well, he was a self-styled and remarkably ambitious aurist who offered exclusive medical treatment for deafness and ear diseases in his practice at a time when little was available elsewhere. Trained as a naval surgeon, he ventured in aural surgery after observing at the Hospital in Halsar that deafness and ear diseases were little understood by the general practitioner and ineffectively treated. Between 1816 and 1845 he published numerous treatises that argued against conventional perceptions of deafness as incurable and medical measures for ear diseases as nothing but desperate and useless. His first work, A Treatise on the Physiology and Diseases of the Ear, first published in 1817, reached six editions in his lifetime and was translated into French and German.[1] The Treatise popularized the notion that deafness could be cured and with each reprint—in 1818, 1823, 1826, 1831, and 1836—we see the changing world of aural surgery, as Curtis added new developments and technology in his accounts of the history of the field. Each new edition also serves as a testimony on the growing resentment from licensed practitioners against Curtis’ prominence as an aurist, as well as Curtis’ desperate and frantic defences against the accusations of quackery against him; the 1831 edition, for example, is the only one with a modification in the title. A Treatise on the Physiology and Pathology of the Ear is a reflection of both the progress made in pathology of the ear, which Curtis did not include in his previous works, and of Curtis’ struggle to maintain his authority as an aurist.

Curtis was also an active participant in the social network of aurists and patrons. He was a member of the Medical Society of London, where he mingled with some of the greatest surgeons and physicians at the time. His marriage to Sophia Newman, a woman with aristocratic ties, allowed him to forge proper social connections among the nobility, and eventually secure patronage for the founding of the Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear, the first hospital in England offering specialized care for ear diseases. What was once a small practice aimed at introducing various modes of treatments for all kinds of ear diseases, the Dispensary grew to such a degree that a contemporary noted: “crowds of poor people, and rich ones too, flocked to the Dispensary…for advice and relief. With George IV and the duke and duchess of Gloucester as patients, the fame of the great aurist soon became not only metropolitan, but national.”[2] By 1820, King George IV became a patron and the institution became the Royal Dispensary for the Diseases of the Ear, securing Curtis’ position and reputation as a prominent aurist.[3] The success of the Dispensary and its long list of patrons and vice-presidents—including Cooper and Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850)— reveals more than just Curtis’ personal (and financial) reputation; it showcases how changing ideas about the curability of deafness deserved further recognition and exposure than what was at present available. Moreover, the Dispensary challenged assumptions held by educators of deaf asylums on the role of aurists in treating deaf individuals, and became a symbolic battleground for not only the tensions between educators and aurists, but also for the infuriation of licensed practitioners who saw the Dispensary as a representation of the triumph of the quack.

One of nineteenth century aural surgery’s most dominant and complex figures, Curtis was also the possessor of multiple identities: he was called “the great aurist” just as often as he was called a “quack;” a saviour of his art as much as its shame; an entrepreneur as much as a buffoon. For my research, an examination of his identities and professional as well as social connections reveals much into the means whereby practitioners of aural surgery sought to distance themselves from quacks while providing a medical cure for a social ill, namely, the problem of deafness. His work and career is also a key part of the story that traces the historical transition whereby reputable aurists sought to expose and eliminate quack aurists from aural surgery.

**Please note that Curtis’ biography still an ongoing project for me; I’m still digging through archival sources, analyzing related primary texts, and reading connecting secondary sources. If you find an error with whatever I am saying, can recommend useful texts, or can direct me to appropriate archives/sources, please feel free to leave me a comment. I promise to thank you when I publish my dissertation!



[1] Curtis also published other works on aural surgery, eye diseases, and the general health of the population, none of which received as much attention as the Treatise. His other works include: A Treatise on the Physiology and Diseases of the Eye (1833, 1836); Observations on the Preservation of Sight (1835, 1838, 1844);  The Present State of Ophthalmology (1841); Observations on the Preservation of Health in Infancy, Youth, Manhood and Age (1837, 1839, 1842); Simplicity of Living: Observations on the Preservation of Health (1838, 1839); and Advice on the Care of Health with Remarks on the Present State of Hygiology (1845).

[2] J.F. Clarke, “The Career of a Specialist: John Harrison Curtis, Aurist,” in Autobiographical Recollections of the Medical Profession (London: J&A Churchill, 1874), p.359.

[3] Neil Weir, “Curtis, John Harrison (1778–1860),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

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2 thoughts on “Who is John Harrison Curtis (1778-1856)?

  1. I was aware John Harrison Curtis was an aurist & George IV was one of his patients, but not the detail you write in. His background was Quaker & his father was a doctor there is also a family history of the use of England’s native plants some would call weeds. The Curtis Museum, High St, Alton, Hampshire GU34 1BA would have more information than I have.

    regards
    Margaret

    1. Dear Margaret,
      Thank you for your comment. I know of Curtis’ Quaker background as well as a brief history of his family (including his uncle who was a well-known botanist), but not of the museum. I will follow up on this excellent advice!
      Best,
      Jai

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