The Deaf & Dumb in Manchester

Back in May, I stopped by Manchester, UK, for two days, to see some friends before heading to Cambridge and London. Many scholars of history of science were in the city for the 24th International Congress of History, Science, Technology, and Medicine, including some of my friends, who were presenting papers at the Congress. After dinner, we decided to head to The Deaf Institute for some drinks. Blame it on jetlag, but it didn’t occur to me until we were actually standing in front of the bar, the historical significance of the building. It was formerly the Manchester Adult Deaf and Dumb Institute, founded in 1877. Located on Grosvenor Street, and designed by John Lowe, the elegant gothic building was built at a cost of about £6000, opening its doors on June 8th, 1878.

The Deaf Institute, Manchester, with 19th century signage still visible. Photo by Jai Virdi
The Deaf Institute, Manchester, with 19th century signage still visible. Photo by Jai Virdi

Just the previous month, I was doing some research at the Wellcome Library and came across a diary of James Patterson (b.1832), who was a teacher at the Manchester Institute for the Deaf and Dumb (est. 1824). James was the nephew of Andrew Patterson, who spent nearly 50 years teaching deaf students. Beginning his career as a schoolmaster in Devonshire, Andrew Patterson later worked as assistant master at the Manchester Institute, at the urging of his friend, H.B. Bingham, then the headmaster. Patterson left after five years of service to establish the Newcastle Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Schools. In 1832, Patterson returned to Manchester to take up the headmaster position upon Bingham’s retirement; he held the post until 1883.

James’ diary is particularly revealing in regards to the day-to-day life of teachers. He writes of his daily excursions, his interests in painting, his experiences in London over Christmas break—and, most notably, how important it was for the children to learn the “School of Art.” Some days, James encouraged the children to draw for 2 hours daily in conjunction to their lessons in arithmetic and letters. He also made note of his own talents (and struggles) in drawing.

Page from James Patterson's diary, Christmas 1858 detailing his travels in London.
Page from James Patterson’s diary, Christmas 1858 detailing his travels in London.

Some of the passages also tell us about how hearing teachers and perceived sign language as a method of instruction. In extraordinary passage, dated November 8, 1858, James writes:

I have been very much annoyed with Cordingley this morning, he was signing to the girls & I told him not to do so & he had the impudence to tell me that I did the same.

In another, dated May 14, 1858, James outlines a conversation he had with Mr. Goodwin, another teacher employed at the Institute:

After supper Mr Goodwin  and I had a long chat about different subjects. He gave me an Account of how he became deaf and dumb it was brought on by fever one evening he thought his ears were burning and he begun to scream and all of a sudden his earring (sic) and speech were gone; he was only 4 years old then he said that before he came here to School he thought the Moon was God & he used to kneel down & worship it & when his parents saw him they were angry with him & would make him get up. when he saw the moon he always behaved himself well, but when he could not see it he used to make all sort of fun & make people laugh who saw him that was one of our chief things what we talked about.


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).

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.

Leigh’s New Picture of London

On the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb (est. 1792):

By this excellent institution, extensive and successful arrangements are made to teach even the deaf and dumb! So long ago as 1653, the celebrated Dr. Wallis first laid down the principles by which the deaf and dumb might be instructed, (Vide the Philosophical Transactions for 1666); and when it is considered how long the art of instructing these objects had been known, both upon the continent and in this country, it must excite astonishment that no effectual attempt was before made to extend the required assistance. It is painful to reflect, how many must have lived in misery, and died in ignorance, who might have been materially benefited, had there existed a charity of this character! The visitors of this institution will “find those who were once dumb and ignorant as the beasts of the field,” receiving a course of moral and religious instruction, and enabled to speak, read, write, cipher, and comprehend the meaning and grammatical arrangement of words. What will not perseverance accomplish,—what cannot science effect?

Leigh’s New Picture of London. Printed for Samuel Leigh, 18, Strand;
by W. Clowes, Northumberland Court. 1819

From comme les monstres to hommes de la nature

The afternoon of 1799, drew attention to the Théâtre de la République, where just five weeks after Napoleon’s seizure of power, the dramatist Jean-Nicolas Bouilly (1763-1842) was showcasing his new play, L’Abbé de l’Épée.

Jean-Nicolas Bouilly

A comedy in five acts, the play dramatized a fictionalized version of the case of the Comte de Solar, a young deaf-mute who was found wandering in the Paris countryside, seen as a ragged savage and assumed to be abandoned by his poor peasant parents. Found by Abbé de l’Épée and taken under his care, the boy is taught to communicate through sign-language, upon which he uses to unfold his chilling tale: he is really an aristocrat, left to die, in a conspiracy to prevent him from receiving his inheritance.

Stirred with the scene of clemency and moved by the Abbé de l’Épée’s devotion to his pupils, the audience during the second performance stood up, shouted, and demanded the immediate release of Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard (1742-1822), the Director of the Institution Nationale des Sourdes-Mutes who was imprisoned in 1796 for the dissemination of illegal religious tracts.[1] Following a persistent campaign led by the deaf teacher Jean Massieu (1772-1846), Sicard was eventually granted amnesty by Napoleon in 1800.

As Jonathan Rée writes, the

[p]ublic agitation about the case brought to light dozens of other deaf and dumb children, abused, exposed, or confined, or exploited as meek and unprotesting chimney-sweeps, and the Abbé found himself converted into a public symbol of enlightened good works: the genial champion of poor little voiceless children, heralding an epoch where they would at last be able to enjoy their natural birthright.[2]

More significantly, the play raised questions about the relationship between language and the pre-lingustic homme de la nature.”[3]Deafness was associated in various ways: with madness, clairvoyance, illiteracy, savagery, supernatural insight, possession by the devil, and even with Christian benevolence and humility. To claim otherwise was to invoke all sorts of philosophical speculation that raised wider questions of French Enlightenment thought, particularly the images of the deaf as another aspect of the Rousseau and Condillac’s ‘noble savage.’ Even legal cases of deaf men on trial tended to leans towards the “philosophical” and offered “concerned parties an especially prime opportunity to grapple with the political implications of some of the most radical claims of Enlightenment epistemology and moral theory.”[4]

Like Rousseau, l’Épée felt there was a primordial human language that was innocent from its social constraints and able to express emotion more directly and purely. He argued that instead of being categorized with other “outsiders”—the aged, the indigent—whose social status and economic condition depended on the attitudes of “knowledgeable leaders” who defined the terms of their social integration, the deaf were better off understood in a class of their own.[5] They were not comme les monstres, he insisted, incapable of experiencing reason, memory, or judgement and thought to be no better than savages, but rather more as homme de la nature: representations of our primordial ancestors as Condillac and Rousseau argued.[6]


[1] Jonathan Rée, I See a Voice: Deafness, Language and the Senses—A Philosophical History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999), 182.

[2] Rée, I See a Voice, 150.

[3] Rosenfeld, “Deaf Men on Trial,” 166.

[4] Rosenfeld, “Deaf Men on Trial,” 158. For instance, the Caulier case—Parisan avocats argued he should not be held responsible for his crimes using an unusual line of argument: that the defendant was not violating any natural laws and that he did not know of societal laws. I.e. “that the duty of the prelinguistic individual was only to the prelinguistic law of nature.”

[5] Anne T. Quartararo, “The Perils of assimilation in Modern France: The Deaf Community, Social Status, and Educational Opportunity, 1815-1870,” Journal of Social History, vol.29, no.1 (Autumn 1995): 5-23; 5.

[6] Sophia Rosenfeld, “Deaf Men on Trial: Language and Deviancy in Late Eighteenth-Century France,” Eighteenth-Century Life vol.21, no.2 (1997): 157-175.