Research Frustrations! RDDE and Lost Records

In 1817, John Harrison Curtis founded 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.”

Royal Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear: Painting at Royal National Throat, Nose, and Ear Hospital (London, UK)

By 1820, King George IV became a patron and the institution became the Royal Dispensary for the Diseases of the Ear (RDDE), securing Curtis’ position and reputation as a prominent aurist. The success of the Dispensary and its long list of patrons and vice-presidents—including Sir Astley Cooper (1768-1841) 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.

In 1819, around the time patronage for the Dispensary was secured, a formal Board of Governors was created to oversee the affairs of the hospital. Curtis remained Director and Aural Surgeon. John Jeffreys Pratt (1759-1840), the first Marquess Camden, became President. Twenty-one men became vice-presidents, including the physician William Babington (1756-1833), the surgeon Henry Cline (1750-1827), and, very briefly, Sir Walter Farquhar (1738-1819). Granshaw has contended that it was characteristic of early-nineteenth century hospitals that practitioners spent little time in the hospital, a characteristic that was also reflective of the Dispensary. John Sims (1749-1831) was the first consulting physician, a position that would later be filled by Sir Henry Halford (1766-1844) and Sir Matthew John Tierney (1776-1845). What is clear here is that through Curtis’ efforts to increase the prestige of the Dispensary by securing patronage as well as providing care from respectable physicians and surgeons, the Dispensary became integral in connecting various aspects of London’s society and highlighted the importance of aural surgery.

I’ve been having difficulty tracking down historical records and archives of the Dispensary, particularly patient records or correspondence between the Board of Governors. As far as I know, the Dispensary eventually became the Royal Ear Hospital sometime in the late 1800s-1920s and was eventually swallowed by University College London. The modern-day Royal National Throat, Nose, and Ear Hospital has no administrative ties to UCL, which makes it more difficult to track down archives. Furthermore, after contacting the archivist at UCL, I’ve been told that there are no records—as far as we know—of the Dispensary prior to 1920 at UCL.

Aargh, the frustrations of historical research! To make matters even more difficult, archiving of patient records is an extremely complicated area and heavily controlled in England. The weirdest thing of all things: two summers ago I believed I found my “eureaka!” moment—a citation of Sir Robert Peel’s papers held jointly at the Wellcome Library and the British Library, some briefly describing correspondence with Sir Astley Cooper over the Royal Dispensary. So last summer, during my nearly two months travel/research trip in Europe, I spent nearly a week at the British library trying to find this supposedly “lost” record. Nothing. Nobody seemed to have any what I was talking about (even though I had a print-out of the record) and nobody could find any collection of Peel’s papers with Cooper. My “eureaka!’ moment nearly shattered me as I left totally disappointed.

That’s just one of many disappointing stories in my restless attempt to uncover historical evidence for my research. Do you have any to share?

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