Deaf World/Hearing World

As some of you may have gathered from my Tweets, my paper has been selected for the Deaf World/Hearing World: Spaces, Techniques, and Things in Culture and History Conference to take place on December 10-11 in Berlin. The conference is sponsored by the Max Planck Institute and Project Biocultures at the University of Chicago.

The history of deafness presents an exemplary model of a community’s mobilization for the recognition of a cultural identity. It is also an unequaled history of divisions across a broad range of pedagogy, techniques, and scientific inventions. Across the last four centuries at least, constructions of deafness as a cultural identity and/or as a disability have lead to opposite claims. Deafness became a focal point for arguments over citizenship, eugenics, language, theories of the mind, and the like. A different set of categories was produced to give voice to these claims and the dialogue between their supporters has been extremely difficult for lack of a common stake. Depending on the approach, one can say such a heated debate has given the question of deafness a very specific place among human variations. Sign language, in particular, has lead many to question the relationship between mind, body, and language. Topics include the use of objects and techniques for creating a space of encounter, conceptions of the relationship between humans and language, language and thought, or language and society across time and space. We are seeking explorations of the dialectic between hearing and silence, deaf and hearing as well as the technologies and ideologies that intervene between the deaf world and the hearing world, the deaf person and the hearing person.

My paper abstract:

Institutional Boundaries: The Early Years of the Royal Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear (est.1816)

The issue of medicalizing the deaf has been a primary source of conflict between the D/deaf community who regard medical treatments as an infringement to their culture, and medical practitioners who impose their paternalistic authority through medical and surgical treatments. The source of the tensions, however, goes beyond technological cures and is embodied in the historical role and conflict between medical and social efforts to cultivate “isolated” deaf individuals for social integration. This paper establishes roots in this historical picture by illustrating the early history of the Royal Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear (RDDE), founded in 1816 by the aurist-surgeon John Harrison Curtis (1784-1852) as the first nationally-recognized institution in Britain providing specialized care for deafness. In particular, this paper will demonstrate that the RDDE occupies a central place within the history of nineteenth century aural surgery, for it provides an interesting historical insight into the dialectic of spaces for deafness and hearing, as the objectives of the institution blur the boundaries between duty and philanthropy, as well as medicine and technology.

Founded at 38 Carlisle Street, London, near Soho Square, the RDDE was founded upon two main objectives: to expand on benevolent charity for a class of sufferers often neglected by society and medicine, and to provide a base whereby aural surgery could establish itself as a specialty, provide proper training to interested practitioners, and experiment with less invasive procedures for treating deafness. It was thus a space where the deaf population could go for medical advice, receive free or inexpensive hearing devices (e.g. trumpets, ear cornets), and even participate in a community conditioned largely by charity. In the first year of its establishment, 364 patients were admitted, 89 of which were cured, and 75 “relieved” of their maladies. By the end of 1820, the RDDE admitted 1,863 patients. As London society congratulated Curtis for rescuing a neglected class of diseases from ignorance and empiricism, the institution’s reputation grew more prominent; Royal patronage secured the reputation of the institution and it relocated to larger grounds at 10 Dean St., Soho, where it remained until 1876. By examining the discrepancies between the two objectives, a close history of the RDDE reveals the extent to which deafness was taken seriously as a medical and social ill and to which a cure was desperately sought within institutional boundaries.

Super excited!

“that deaf stupid man!”

In 1839, a deaf man, G.H. Bosanquet, published a pamphlet entitled The Sorrows of Deafness, explaining in the preface that his aims for publication were derived from his “having suffered misery…from the privations of deafness.” Writing on behalf of his “fellow-sufferers,” Bosanquet remarks “[t]here is no class of sufferers whose feelings, as far as the results of my own bitter experience teach me, are so little understood as that of deaf patients.” He thus condemns those in society who pity “that deaf stupid man!” and especially those, who despite their charitable intentions and sympathy, misunderstand the experiences of thedeaf man and fail to bestow compassion towards him:

But, “the most unkindest cut of all” is, the wonder, the not concealed dislike of relations at your want of energy;–

“The pitying friend,

With shoulder shrugged and sorry.”

To hear them talk one would suppose deafness a possession to be coveted, as an excuse for idleness, instead of thegreatest source wherewitn the Almighty ever afflicted and tried the faith of an educated being.

Bosanquet’s pamphlet is reflective of relatively common perceptions of the deaf: they were  social outcasts deprived from communication and left as objects of charity.

Philadelphia Bound!

Like hundreds of other scholars, I’m headed to Philadelphia for The Three Societies meeting: a joint meeting of the  History of Science SocietyBritish Society for the History of Science and Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Science. It takes place every four years, so I’m excited for my first ever participation in this meeting. And of course, to visit Philadelphia!

I’m in a session titled “Novelty in Medicine,” taking place on Thursday July 12 at 4pm. Here’s the full list of the panelists:


Michael Finn, University of Leeds
“Constructing a Diseased Mind: Testing Animals,Studying Patients, and Mapping Brains in a Victorian Asylum”

Jonathan Simon, University of Lyon
“Serotherapy in Lyon: The Local Reception of Innovation”

Jaipreet Virdi, University of Toronto
“Inquests into a Surgical Procedure: Creating Public and Professional Trust in Aural Surgery, 1830-1845”

Daniele Cozzoli, Universitat Pompeu Fabra
“Ranyard West’s Research on the Effect of Curare in the Central Nervous System Diseases”

Chair: Nola Semczyszyn, Franklin & Marshall College

My paper will narrate some of the public and professional responses to the coroner’s inquest into the death of two patients within a few days, at the practice of one Dr. Alexander Turnbull. Some of the responses questioned the very nature of aural surgery’s surgical authority and their lack of consensus regarding Eustachian Tube Catheterization. I’ve given a different version of this paper at the 2010 Annual CSHPS meeting before, though not in much detail as this presentation.

See you soon!

Atomic Age Artifacts

A group of history students at the University of Ottawa prepared a Prezi based on their research in the collections at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, under the supervision of David Pantalony.

This is an excellent way to integrate artifacts into the study of history, encouraging group work and fun at the same time!

Visit the flickr group for more Atomic postings.

History Carnival: People, Places, and Points in Time

So pleased to host an edition of the History Carnival! Thank you to everyone who submitted nominations as well as promoted the tweet asking for nominations. And I also apologize if this is being posted quite late in the day—I failed to realize December 1st fell on a Wednesday, which is my busiest day of the week.

Without further ado—enjoy this month’s History Carnival, a collection of fantastic posts from November: People, Places, and Points in Time!


Let’s start with This Day in History, as History Traven tells it: It was December 1, 1955 when seamstress Rosa Park refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white person. Her courageous defiance sparked a 381-day boycott of the busing system, led by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. We should all remember that acts of civil disobedience are sometimes necessary to stand up to injustice.

On that note, let’s also tribute to the Danish pianist and humorist Victor Borge:

And now, in honour of the 150th anniversary of Beethoven’s death, I would like to play “Clear the Saloon”, er, “Clair de Lune”, by Debussy. I don’t play Beethoven so well, but I play Debussy very badly, and Beethoven would have liked that.

Another significance on this date in 1539: Don Carlos Ometochtzin, an Aztec heretic was burned at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition for reverting to the pre-Columbian indigenous religion.

Science, as we know, is full of competing ideas. Thony C. describes how Galileo bluffed about the battle of the ‘two world systems’ of Ptolemy and Copernicus, when in fact there were seven different theories fighting for the “cosmic championship:” Copernican heliocentricity, Ptolemaic geocentricity, Gilbertian geocentricity with diurnal rotation, Tychonic geo-heliocentricity, Ursian geo- heliocentricity with diurnal rotation, the Heracleidian model and last but anything but least Kepler’s elliptical heliocentricity. All of these models had their own supporters during the 17th century.

Michael Robinson reviews a post by explorer Mikael Strandberg about Academics vs. Explorers :

The post described some of the tensions that exist between explorers and university professors on issues related to exploration.  I think that many of Mikael’s points ring true: academics are less than comfortable at times collaborating with travelers and explorers on matters of geography, science, anthropology, and exploration.

Rethinking Newton Again?  Rebekah Higgitt questions how popular media interest in Newton has narrowed its focus to Newton’s dabbling in alchemy and prophecy, revealing these interests as a “surprising and novel revelation.” The real issue, she remarks, is not about Newton’s involvement with alchemy,

but the on-going efforts at transcribing Newton’s archive, which demonstrates just how much and for how long alchemy/chymistry was among Newton’s major activities, and the scholarship of Newman and others, which has shown jthat it was part of the intellectual scenery of the time. The news is that although Newton is a familiar name and a hero of modern science, the world he lived in and the ways he – and his contemporaries – thought are, by and large, very unfamiliar to us today…

…I don’t blame Newman and other scholars for using the media to their advantage. But what does our apparent inability to take on board Newton’s so-called ‘dark secrets’ – and to move on from the apparently constant need to re-reveal Newton’s interest in alchemy – say about us?

A letter from US Sgt Sam Avery, written from the new AEF training center at Neufchateau, France offers a glimpse of life while preparing to enter the lines on the Western Front during the Great War.

J.S. Plaskett (1865-1941) was a Canadian astronomer known for his design of the 72-inch long reflecting telescope (since dubbed the “Plaskett Telescope”) at the Victoria Dominion Astronomical Observatory, in Victoria, BC. But he also designed other “lowly” instruments, including a resistance box.

And finally, in 1641, London physician Thomas Sherwood wrote a book of cures for the plague. One such cure he suggested was “the puppy cure:”

If any that are ancient or weak shall be infected with the pestilence, it shall not be necessary to give them any purge, vomit, or sweat, or to let them bleed; because they cannot bare the loss of so many spirits as are spent by such evacuations. Therefore you may lay upon the pit of the stomach of the sick a young live puppy, and if the sick can but sleep the space of three or four hours, they shall recover presently, and the dog shall die of the plague. This I have known approved; and I do believe that it will be a cure for all lean, spare, and weak bodies both young and old: provided, that the dog be younger then the sick.

Poor puppies!


The 7 Most Advanced Ancient Civilizations in the World: this post offers an overview of some of the most incredible advances of the ancient world including medical knowledge and gender equality in ancient Egypt, sophisticated transportation from the Incas and and trail-blazing inventions in ancient China.

A town that went mad: Pont St. Esprit is a small town in southern France and in 1951 it became famous as the site of one of the most mysterious medical outbreaks of modern times.

Speaking some more about madness, Broadmoor Hospital (est. 1863) still maintains a celebrity status as the Victorian asylum for “criminal lunatics.” The institution can boast housing Edward Oxford, attempted assassinator of Queen Victoria, William Chester Minor, US army surgeon and murderer (and contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary), and Peter Sutcliffe, aka the “Yorkshire Ripper.”

Equindia, or a history of the trade of horses in India.

On the moon: Lunar Lost and Found, or the rediscovery of the rover and its retroreflector and how it will improve the precision of laser ranging experiments.


Today is also world AIDS day. The Wellcome Library published a selection of AIDS posters, based on its collection of AIDS posters, the fourth largest in the world. The posters range from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. Emphasizing the power of images, these posters

contain many of the highly recognisable visual symbols that we have come to associate with the battle against AIDS: the red ribbon, the AIDS Quilt, and the imagery of HIV-positive artist Keith Haring, as well as reminders that the fight against AIDS has also often involved controversy.

Romeo Vitelli writes a great post on the Battle of Solferino on July 24, 1859, which became largely unexpected and chaotic and spread over fifteen kilometers. An eyewitness described the battle:

the unending combat rages incessantly and in every place with fury.  Nothing stops, nothing interrupts the butchery.  They are killing one another by the hundreds… A rain of cannon balls is sending death to the distant reserves of Austria.  Their ranks are ceaselessly reforming….The French cavalry flings itself on the Austrian cavalry…The rage is so great that in some places after the exhaustion of the cartridges and the breaking of the muskets, they fight with fists and beat one another with stones

An humorous article examining the Industrial Revolution from a gamer’s point of view.

General history gives us two posts, one on the British Intelligent Services and another on the American Civil War.

Also, there’s a great series of posts on heraldry and chivalry in the Middle Ages.

Where does the history of agriculture fit in our historical discourse? Will Thomas gives us a survey on the literature on Agricultural Research to 1945.

Finally, I would like to end this carnival with two thought-provoking posts from The Bubble Chamber on how the history and philosophy of science can engage with more modern debates on the role of science and policy making. In his post “On the Shop Floor,” Matthew Wallace writes:

One could even argue that the raison d’être of modern science policy lies in the realization that science itself does not operate as an isolated endeavour—it’s too important to be run only by practicing scientists. But can we say something more specific about what ties the history of science and science policy in the making? I hope to put forth a few partial suggestions to help answer this question or, at the very least, provide some food for thought.

He contends that there has been little thought or discussion given to how knowledge and skills from the history of science can be directly transferred to science policy, stating that

there is also much to be gained from both a better sociological or historical understanding of the science policy process, as well as a more comprehensive understanding of how the history of science as a discipline can be used on the policy “shop floor”.

And Curtis Forbes asks us to wonder whatever happened to the Science Wars? Once a great battle over boundary lines in interdisciplinary studies, has the war merely died out? Or did it migrate and evolve into newer forms of scientific explanation, even propaganda?

So thank you, Dear Reader! I hope you enjoyed this edition of History Carnival! Keep an eye out on the carnival website for announcements about 2011 hosts. In the meantime, feel free to submit nominations to the carnival using the nomination form on the website.

Happy reading!