A Census of the Deaf

Sir William Robert Wilde (1815-1876) was one of the most notable aural surgeons during the second half of the nineteenth-century. He made numerous to aural surgery, including tables on the hereditary basis of deafness and newer hearing tests to determine degrees of hearing loss. Wilde also made extensive use of statistics in his writing, using numbers to support his analysis. As such, some of his work provides remarkable insight into how deafness—and the deaf—were perceived by the medical profession, categorized, and even treated. His statistical work, particularly his Report upon the Tables of Death (1843), which outlined mortality rates in Ireland, as analyzed from the 1841 Irish general civil registration.

William Wilde, c.1870s (from Wikipedia Commons)
William Wilde, c.1870s (from Wikipedia Commons)

In 1850, Wilde was commissioned as Assistant Medical Census Commissioner, a position he would hold for the remainder of his life.[1] As part of his position, Wilde undertook a special study of the deaf, attempting to table not only the number of deaf individuals in Ireland, but also the number of families with deaf relations, the causes of their deafness, the length of their hearing loss, etc. In short, Wilde aimed to provide the first systematic and comprehensive data record of deafness in Ireland. Only 1 family refused to give informed consent (to which they would have been subjected to a fine). Wilde recorded there were 4,747 “true deaf and dumb” in a population of 6,553,386 (or 1 per 1,380).[2]

The data was formerly published as part of the census reports, in Part III: Report of the Status of Disease, Accounts and Papers (Ireland) 1854. Wilde also published his results in On the Physical, Moral, and Social Condition of the Deaf and Dumb (1854), a short pamphlet outlining the data as well as his own analysis as an aurist. In the beginning of the pamphlet, he notes that in undertaking an inquiry into the condition of the deaf and dumb, there are two “great objects present—a physiological and a social:”

Under the former the deaf mute may be classed among those afflicted with permanent disease, either congenital or acquired, and as such, demands the careful investigation of the statistician; and all the causes and phenomena of the affection solicit attention equally with those circumstances attendant upon lunacy, idiocy, blindness, or any of the other persistent maladies which affect certain portions of the community in all countries. Under the latter head the deaf mute claims the special attention of the philanthropist, and the protection of the State…

The pamphlet also lists the questions that were employed in the data collection, including “Whether the person was born deaf and dumb, or became so afterwards?” “Whether the person is educated, and if so, where and by what means such education is acquired?” “The mute person’s position in the family, whether first, second, or third child, in a family of so many, both living and dead?”[3] The questions served to collect as much data as possible, particularly on hereditary deafness, an interesting connotation to later data-collections of the deaf in the United States by the Eugenics Record Office.

Table of Causes of Mutism, from Wilde's On the Physical, Moral, and Social Condition of the Deaf and Dumb (1854)
Table of Causes of Mutism, from Wilde’s On the Physical, Moral, and Social Condition of the Deaf and Dumb (1854)

[1] Robert J. Ruben, “William Wildes Census of the Deaf: A 19th Century Report as a Model for the 21st Century,” Otology & Neurotology 31 (2010): 352-359; 354.

[2] Ruben, 356.

[3] William R. Wilde, On the Physical, Moral, and Social Condition of the Deaf and Dumb (London: John Churchill, 1854).


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