The “Popular Prejudice”

Throughout my research of nineteenth century works on aural surgery, as well as works on deafness and education for the deaf, I’ve come across the phrase “popular prejudice” often enough to warrant some analysis. The phrase reflects two crucial aspects of how deafness was perceived as a social image:

Firstly, deaf-mutes were constructed as social tragedies, isolated from society by their dumbness and denied the word of God by their deafness. The prejudice in this sense refers to the isolation, which could be helped only through benevolent charity and religious endeavors to release deaf-mutes form their “mental and moral imprisonment.” Seclusion in educational asylums that provided sign-language and speech instruction were deemed the best means for defeating this prejudice.

Secondly, and partly as a consequence of the first aspect, deafness was subjected to a prejudice regarding the medical and surgical impracticability of curing aural diseases. As Sir Astley Cooper (1768-1851) explained in 1801, following the success of his procedure of tympanic membrane perforation, “[a] prejudice has prevailed, that the ear is too delicate an organ to be operated upon, or, as it is commonly expressed, tampered with; and thousands have thus remained deaf…who might have been restored to hearing, had proper assistance been easily applied.”[1] Likewise, John Harrison Curtis wrote in his An Essay on the Deaf and Dumb (1829):

Though in very old cases cures may be performed, yet it is to recent ones chiefly that the aurist is to look for success; but, owing to popular prejudice, the malady is too often slighted or temporized with; and hence it is generally in confirmed cases on that he is consulted; for, in the early period of the disease when relief may be obtained, it is commonly neglected, until, tired out with the fruitless expectation of nature curing herself, the patient has at last recourse to advice.

I don’t yet have a solid historical analysis of this phrase, but I believe it’s worth emphasizing the value of it as a means for understanding the tensions between educators of asylums for the deaf and medical practitioners edging for patients. I’ll report more as I figure this out; in the meantime, your thoughts, Dear Reader, are more than welcome.


[1] Astley Cooper, “Farther Observations on the Effects which take place from the destruction of the membrana tympani of the ear,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in London 91 (1801): 35-450; 449.

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