Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History

The University of Chicago Press, May 2020 September 2020 (POSTPONED)

At the age of four, Jaipreet Virdi’s world went silent. A severe case of meningitis left her alive but deaf, suddenly treated differently by everyone. Her deafness downplayed by society and doctors, she struggled to “pass” as hearing for most of her life. Countless cures, treatments, and technologies led to dead ends. Never quite deaf enough for the Deaf community or quite hearing enough for the “normal” majority, Virdi was stuck in aural limbo for years. It wasn’t until her thirties, exasperated by problems with new digital hearing aids, that she began to actively assert her deafness and reexamine society’s—and her own—perception of life as a deaf person in America.

Through lyrical history and personal memoir, Hearing Happiness raises pivotal questions about deafness in American society and the endless quest for a cure. Taking us from the 1860s up to the present, Virdi combs archives and museums in order to understand the long history of curious cures: hearing trumpets, violet-ray apparatuses, pneumomassages, electrotherapy machines, airplane diving, bloodletting, skull hammering, and many more. Hundreds of procedures and products have promised grand miracles but always failed to deliver—a legacy that is still present in contemporary biomedicine.

Pre-Order Now! Hardcover and e-book available:
University of Chicago Press 
Barnes & Noble
Indigo (Canada) 

“Materializing User Identities & Digital Humanities”

In Bess Williamson and Elizabeth Guffey (eds.), Making Disability Modern: Design Histories (Bloomsbury, 2020)

This chapter “describes how new technologies are reshaping the practices of collecting,
exhibiting, and interpreting artifacts of disability history. Because disability is so
often hidden in the historical record, Virdi argues digital tools from social media, ranging
from hashtags to online exhibitions, are particularly useful for their ability to cut across institutional collecting practices. However, she also suggests the need for critical consideration of new online projects, as they may replicate existing biases. And perhaps this opens a newer chapter in our understanding of the design model of disability. Here, it may be argued, the role of users in shaping the meaning and form of “disability things” can be newly discovered. Historians and other digitally adept scholars can now link technological histories to the populations that they aimed to serve.”

Pre-Order Now! Hardcover, Paperback and e-Book available August 2020:
Barnes & Noble

Disability and the Victorians: Attitudes, Interventions, Legacies

Edited by Iain Hutchison, Martin Atherton & Jaipreet Virdi.
Manchester University Press, March 2020

Disability and the Victorians brings together in one collection a range of topics, perspectives and experiences from the Victorian era that present a unique overview of the development and impact of attitudes and interventions towards those with impairments during this time. The collection also considers how the legacies of these actions can be seen to have continued throughout the twentieth century right up to the present day. Subjects addressed include deafness, blindness, language delay, substance dependency, imperialism and the representation of disabled characters in popular fiction. These varied topics illustrate how common themes can be found in how Victorian philanthropists and administrators responded to those under their care. Often character, morality and the chance to be restored to productivity and usefulness overrode medical need and this both influenced and reflected wider societal views of impairment and inability.

Pre-Order Now! Hardcover, Hardcover and e-book available:
Manchester University Press
Barnes & Noble

Finger Surgery for Deafness: Rethinking Quackery in Medical History” 

Canadian Medical Association Journal 191.7 (19 February 2019): 192-194.

In 1923, American news dispatches announced that King Alfonso of Spain had summoned a famous New York osteopath to treat his 15-year-old son, Infante Don Jaime (1908–1975). Deaf and mute following a severe case of mastoiditis, Don Jaime was judged “incurable” after Spanish specialists unsuccessfully operated on him in 1912. According to court insiders, an osteopath took only 20 minutes to perform a bloodless and painless operation that miraculously cured the prince. Who was this osteopath who had succeeded where all others had failed? Reporters deduced that one man fit the bill: Brooklyn-based Dr. Curtis H. Muncie (1887–1963), who happened to be sailing on the Majestic, which was bound for Europe, to promote his “constructive bi-digital intra-aural” technique, otherwise known as the “Muncie Reconstruction Method” or simply “finger surgery.” The technique required Muncie to insert his fingers through a patient’s larynx to manipulate the Eustachian tube and manually correct aural defects causing deafness. Allegedly, it had a 90% success rate in incurable cases.

Painful Realities

A six-part serial for Wellcome Stories.

From adolescence I was told that pain is a normal part of growth. My pain was simply the pain of my body growing, a marker of my journey towards adulthood that began with menarche (the first occurrence of menstruation). Like many other girls, I was embarrassed, perhaps even frightened, by the first spots of blood. Whispered solutions and targeted advertising had instructed me what to do, and my mother’s realisation of this new change reassured me I was doing things correctly.

What is the nature of pain? How do we talk about pain and assess it seriously when the history of modern medicine is built on the transfer of authority from the patient’s subjective experiences to the physician’s objective diagnosis? This is not a broad, sweeping history. It’s a personal one. I am one of an estimated 200 million women worldwide whose body has experienced extreme pain and physical distress that has been routinely dismissed by physicians. It is only pain, I was repeatedly told, as the agony engulfed my life.

“Canada’s Shame: The Coerced Sterilization of Indigenous Women”

New Internationalist, 
30 November 2018

In 1972, the longest-running and most aggressive sexual sterilization law in Canada was finally repealed. Yet, policies of sterilization still persisted, revived under the guise of ‘family planning’ and targeting women and men declared incapable of responsible parenting. Sixty Indigenous women are currently filing a class action lawsuit alleging forced sterilization dating back 30 years in Saskatchewan. Some of the sterilizations occurred as late as 2017. They are each claiming seven million dollars (US $5.6 million) in damages. The women allege their fallopian tubes were tied without their consent, or that they were pressured into undergoing the procedure by doctors and told that it was reversible. Some were pushed into signing consent forms while they were in active labour or on operating tables. These women were told that they ‘could not leave until their tubes were tied, cut or cauterized,’ or that ‘they would not see their baby until they agreed’.

“Phyllis M. Tookey Kerridge and the Science of Audiometric Standardization in Britain

co-authored with Coreen McGuire
British Journal for the History of Science 51.1 (March 2018): 123-146.

The provision of standardized hearing aids is now considered to be a crucial part of the UK National Health Service. Yet this is only explicable through reference to the career of a woman who has, until now, been entirely forgotten. Dr Phyllis Margaret Tookey Kerridge (1901–1940) was an authoritative figure in a variety of fields: medicine, physiology, otology and the construction of scientific apparatus. The astounding breadth of her professional qualifications allowed her to combine features of these fields and, later in her career, to position herself as a specialist to shape the discipline of audiometry. Rather than framing Kerridge in the classic ‘heroic-woman’ narrative, in this article we draw out the complexities of her career by focusing on her pursuit of standardization of hearing tests. Collaboration afforded her the necessary networks to explore the intricacies of accuracy in the measurement of hearing acuity, but her influence was enhanced by her ownership of Britain’s first Western Electric (pure-tone) audiometer, which she placed in a specially designed and unique ‘silence room’. The room became the centre of Kerridge’s hearing aid clinic that, for the first time, allowed people to access free and impartial advice on hearing aid prescription. In becoming the guardian expert and advocate of the audiometer, Kerridge achieved an objectively quantified approach to hearing loss that eventually made the latter an object of technocratic intervention.

“Prevention & Conservation: Historicizing the Stigma of Hearing Loss, 1910-1940″

Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 45.4 (2017): 531-544.

During the 1920s, the American Society for the Hard of Hearing (ASHH), an advocate group with over 165 chapters across the United States, and its affiliate organization, the League for the Hard of Hearing, launched several public awareness campaigns. These campaigns focused primarily on encouraging the public to receive a hearing test and proper examination from an otologist, emphasizing that ninety percent of all hearing troubles were correctable if diagnosed and treated early enough. By the 1930s, the ASHH and League outlined a new direction for their organization, one that further strengthened bonds between otologists, public health agencies, and social welfare. Focused on the concept of “hearing conservation,” this network claimed that hearing was a finite sense that disintegrated over the course of an individual’s life. Through the conversation of hearing campaign, the League and ASHH transformed hearing loss from a physiological defect that isolated the deaf individual, to an issue at the national forefront, reinforcing the otologist’s claim that deafness was a public health concern.

“Between Cure and Prosthetic: ‘Good Fit’ in Artificial Eardrums”

In Claire L. Jones (Ed.), Rethinking Modern Prostheses in Anglo-American Commodity Cultures, 1820-1939
Manchester University Press, 2017.

Placing the history of artificial eardrums against the backdrop of medical consumerism and advertising culture, this chapter reveals how the commericalisation of assistive technologies can blur the boundaries between prosthetics and cures. Unlike assistive aids to hearing, artificial eardrums were initially constructed as a surgical prosthetic, a replacement of a damaged part to become integrated with a user’s body. By the 1880s, however, the device captured the imagination of British and American inventors and new manufacturing firms who distanced the surgical mark of the device while still adhering to standards of its design. As the device was invisible to both the observer and the wearer, their promotion as ‘cure’ rendered deafness as a sigma, a misery that required medico-technological intervention to integrate the deaf person into hearing society.

“The Hearing Aid’s Pursuit of Invisibility”

The Atlantic, 4 August 2016

That the hard of hearing should feel compelled to disguise their impairment with an invisible technology says a lot about how hearing loss is stigmatized. Invisibility is a popular selling point for hearing aids. At all costs, it seems, the technology must be contoured and fitted into the intricate parts of the ear rather than exposed for the world to see. The shame of mishearing, the embarrassment when the hearing aid “whistles,” the listening but not communicating—all of this threatens vanity, because deafness is still confused with understanding. “What are you, deaf?” dismisses hearing-impaired people as dumb, when we are only deaf. So we mask our hearing aids, and pass as hearing, believing we can magically eliminate our hearing loss. And this is a problem, because deafness is a difference, not an impairment.

“Curtis’s Cephaloscope: Deafness and the Making of Surgical Authority in London, 1815-1845”

Bulletin of the History of Medicine 87.3 (2013): 349-379.

Aural surgery is a branch of nineteenth-century medicine and surgery providing specialized treatment for ear diseases. During the 1830s, faced with a “popular prejudice” against the curability of deafness as well as intraprofessional rivalries and continuous accusations of quackery, aurists found their surgical authority questioned and their field’s value threatened. In an attempt to bolster aural surgery’s reputation, in 1841, the aurist John Harrison Curtis (1778–1856) introduced his new diagnostic instrument, the cephaloscope, which could not only improve diagnosis but also provide approaches for regulating aural knowledge, thus strengthening aural surgery’s authority. This article examines the motives underlying Curtis’s introduction of the cephaloscope and the meanings it held for the occupational group at large.