10 Extreme 19th Century “Cures” for Deafness

The nineteenth-century introduced a tremendous number of treatments boasting cures for irremediable deafness. Some of these cures were advised by aurists (specialists of the ear); others were tested home remedies or marketed as proprietary nostrums. Below is a list of some of the most extreme measures that were once popular treatments:


L0058828 Packet of mercurous chloride tablets, Kassel, Germany, 1914-
Packet of mercurous chloride tablets, Kassel, Germany, 1914

The use of mercury for medical applications has been dated to the ancient Greeks, reaching its height in popularity in the 15th century. It was used for nearly every kind of ailment, from syphilis, to lung disorders, stomach complaints, and of course, deafness. It’s one of the most dangerous substances used in medicine; mercury poisoning includes symptoms such as psychotic reactions, violent muscle spasms, heart and lung issues, and explosive bowel movements!

As a “catch-all” cure, mercury was believed to be one of the most powerful remedies available for aurists–even the famed John Cunningham Saunders, founder of the London Infirmary for Diseases of the Eye and Ear (later Moorsfield Eye Hospital), favored mercury when surgical treatments were ineffective.

Compounds of mercury, such as calomel (mercurous chloride) were also prescribed in the form of a pill. They were, however, believed to be less harmful than mercury even though they slowly poisoned those who used it.

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Source: Daniel Bennett St. John Roosa, A Practical Treatise on Diseases of the Ear (London: W. Wood, 1878).

Okay, this one is not that bad—or at least compared to others on the list. Syringing was done to remove excess wax out of the ear, which was explained as causing a blockage in the auditory canal, thus diminishing hearing. However, some practitioners actually used syringes filled with all sorts of medicaments (e.g. eucalyptus, water, oil, nitrate solutions) and inserted the fluid into the ears. After a period of time for letting the solution “settle,” the practitioner would then syringe out the fluid. Imagine the dizziness all that excess fluid caused!



Yes, you read that right. All sorts of organic things were inserted into the ear to either enhance hearing or to extract their powers. Animal parts were additionally used as ingredients in medical recipes. Elk’s claw, pig’s bladder, fish bone, oil of earthworms, fat of eel, wood lice, ant eggs, cow’s feet, fox lungs, fowl grease have appeared a a cure or part of a cure for deafness.


Example of an air press & catheter set-up. From: William Wilde, Practical Observations on Aural Surgery (London, 1853).
Example of an air press & catheter set-up. From: William Wilde, Practical Observations on Aural Surgery (London, 1853).

Appearing in various forms since 1755, this was the process of inserting a catheter up the nostrils or through the mouth, in order to cure deafness through the Eustachian tubes (which connects the ear to the nose). 19th century French surgeons argued catheterization, followed with an injection of fluid through the nose, was the best means for restoring hearing. Other combinations included the use of smoke, coffee grounds, water, or even ether, in conjunction with catheterization. Yet, some French and British aurists insisted patients were better able to tolerate catheterization when it was combined with an air pump. 


Example of early 20th century plaster used for blistering. Hunterian Museum Collection.
Example of early 20th century plaster used for blistering. Hunterian Museum Collection.

Blistering was another very popular remedy for deafness. A caustic plaster made of fat or wax, was applied behind the ear (sometimes cut into a certain size) in order to raise a blister.  Any pus forming from the blister was highly desirable, as it was believed to be evident of toxins escaping from the body–in certain cases, the blister was cut, and re-cut, in order to bring forth pus. Or, further corrosive substances were applied to irritate the blister (e.g. to grow in size).

Speaking of irritating, another similar method was the use of setons, a thread placed underneath the skin behind the ear. The site was further inflamed in order to induce beneficial pus. Aurists believed blistering and setons were the best remedy for deafness arising out of the mastoid cells (hollowed out spaces in the ear’s temporal bone).

Use of a seton on the neck behind the ear. From Johannes Scultetus, Armamentarium Chirurgicum (1655)
Use of a seton on the neck behind the ear. From Johannes Scultetus, Armamentarium Chirurgicum (1655)


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Also known as “silver nitrate,” this was used as a cauterizing agent to remove blockages in the ear impeding hearing. For instance, an abnormal growth, irregular auditory canal, or herpes warts, were treated with an application of lunar caustic. It was also used for treating ulcers in the ear. And then there were the stranger applications… In the 1820s, the aurists John Stevenson recommended touching the tonsils with a solution of lunar caustic in order to treat deafness arising out of the Eustachian tubes.


Davis & Kidder's patented Magneto-Electric Machine, c.1880.
Davis & Kidder’s patented Magneto-Electric Machine, c.1880.

As electricity became a part of everyday lives in the nineteenth-century, practitioners became excited about its applications for medical ailments. Some aurists recommended a course of electrotherapy aided by weak solutions of iodine of zinc to simulate discharge. Other aurists applied electric currents directly into sites of ulcers in the ear to produce a rapid growth of healthy granulations and thus restore hearing. It was believed that electricity could correct deafness caused by paralysis of the auditory nerves, which prevented sound vibrations from being transmitted properly to the eardrum.

The powerful benefits of electric currency were certainly applied into all sorts of devices, especially at the end of the nineteenth-century although some aurists were critical of its useFor instance, Martin Kroger invented an Ear Bath, which applied electricity to the ear with stable electrodes soaked in warm water and medicinal properties!


VIbration for ear disease using a tissue oscillator, 1920.
VIbration for ear disease using a tissue oscillator, 1920.

Vibration was another fashionable medical option during the nineteenth-century. It was particularly used to treat cases of dry middle ear catarrh (buildup of calcium in the small bones in the ear) by supplying small amounts of current to break up the calcification and restore sound waves.  All sorts of technologies and treatments were developed making use of the power of vibratory force, such as the phonograph or Lambert Synder Health Vibrator.

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An antique violet ray machine, 20th century.
20th century violet ray machine

Ultraviolet therapy arose during the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth century to compliment the growing use of electrotherapy by using high-frequency electric current. For deafness, it was believed to be beneficial in destroying bacterial growth, enhancing blood flow to the ear, and reducing any abnormal growths in the auditory canal. Violet ray devices included an electrode that shone a bright glow when energized; the ray was believed to cure anything. They were also quite popular as patent medicine and quack cures.


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Speaking of patent medicine and quack cures, no remedy for deafness was more notorious in the late 1800s as artificial eardrums. These were tiny devices that were inserted in the ear in order to resonate sounds throughout the auditory canal and eardrum. However, they had immense financial potential for proprietary practitioners: numerous companies sprung up in the United States, offering mail-order service for artificial eardrums. These eardrums were made of all sorts of materials, but the most dangerous (and also most popular ones) were made of metal–painful when inserted in the ear, but also argued to be superior in resonating sound. In the 1920s,the US Propaganda Department deemed artificial eardrums as the worst of all quack cures available to the public.

Of course, you always had the option to avoid deafness in the first place…

An Active Interest in Otology

In September 1876, the first International Congress of Otology was held New York. The Congress was organized by aural surgeons Daniel Bennett St. John Roosa (1838-1908), Clarence J. Blake (1843-1919), Jakob Hermann Knapp (1832-1911), and J. Orne Greene. These surgeons were all members of the American Otological Society, which was formed in 1868.Urban Pritchard (1845-1925), demonstrator of practical physiology at King’s College, London, was the British representative on the organizational committee.

As outlined in the invitation, the Congress was organized to bring together a “number of gentlemen who take an active interest in Otology,” and who were already gathering for the Centennial Anniversary of United States Independence, the International Exposition in Philadelphia, the International Medical Congress in Philadelphia, and the International Ophthalmological Congress in New York.

Papers presented highlighted several interesting cases in anatomy and physiology of the ear, though with little discussion. For instance, Blake presented a paper on a new German instrument for determining hearing power through bone conduction, constructed with “a series of metal tongues set in vibration by means of pins arranged upon a metal barrel, after the fashion of a music box.” Other papers provided case studies of perforation of the tympanic membrane, syphilis of cochlea, and diseases of the mastoid, demonstrating a clear exchange of ideas, observations, and surgical procedures across international boundaries.

Though the American aurists formed a society in 1868, and the Germans in 1881, the first British society, Pritchard and Arthur H. Cheatle (1866-1929) did not establish the Otological Society of Great Britain until 1899. Seven years later the Society would become the Section of Otology of the Royal Society of Medicine. Sir William Bartlett Dalby (1840-1918) was the first President of the Society; Pritchard, Thomas Barr and George served as vice-presidents, Alphonso Elkin Cumberbatch as treasurer, Edward Creswell Baber as librarian, Charles Alfred Balance and Cheatle as secretaries. T. Mark Hovell, Peter McBride, Victor Horsley, William Milligan, Edward Law, and Arthur Sandford served as the Council. Adam Politzer, for his remarkable contributions to the field and for encouraging a new generation of otologists, was made honorary member.

The Rules and Regulations of the Society outlined that the objectives of the society were:

  1. The exhibition and demonstration of patients, models, drawings, and/or specimens illustrating various perspectives of the anatomy, physiology, pathology, or therapeutics of the ear
  2. Reading of papers to encourage new discussions in otology
  3. Investigations by the committee on matters of public importance relating to otology and new methods of observation or treatment in the disease of the ear—i.e. keeping check in “quack” treatments
  4. Formal elections of members based on contributions to otology, special opportunities for advancing otology, and professional eminence.

The Society emphasized that members could be expelled if their “conduct or mode of practice is considered unworthy of the Society.”

Sir William Bartlett Dalby. Photograph by G. Jerrard, 1881,
Sir William Bartlett Dalby. Photograph by G. Jerrard, 1881,

The intolerance for any forms of professional jealously, rivalry, or “unscientific” treatments was expressed in Dalby’s Presidential Address at the first ordinary meeting on 5 February 1900, which outlined the importance of unified speciality:

I venture to predict that this Society has a great future before it. Since that it comprises amongst its members all the aural surgeons attached to the Metropolitan Hospitals and very nearly all of the Provincial Hospitals, as well as that of Scotland and Ireland, it cannot fail to succeed and exercise a very important influence on the progress of British Aural Surgery; for it will represent year by year the work of the aural surgeons, and will record it.

Dalby also emphasized the drastic transformation of the field since the 1870s, when only a handful of aural surgeons were appointed to London hospitals and the “public had not learned to apply for aural surgery, except at one well-known institution [the Royal Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear]; the bulk of patients went for treatment and cures to those who professed to treat and cure, and confined themselves to professing, for there was nothing beyond.” He encouraged aural surgeons to rest their “feeling of jealously” and to increase the opinions of their field.

Galvanism & Deafness

Galvanism is a medical treatment that involves the application of electric currents to body tissues in order to stimulate the contraction of muscles. First experimented in the late eighteenth-century by Luigi Galvani (1737-1798) who investigated frog legs twitching once sparked by an electric current, galvanism was believed to be a miraculous application of scientific prowess and capable of curing all sorts of medical disorders. It even had the capacity for animating a corpse, as narrated in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein!

Aurists certainly saw the benefits of galvanism in cases of deafness they diagnosed as caused by paralysis of the auditory nerves. The paralysis prevented sound vibrations from being transmitted properly through the tympanic membrane (eardrum). Several nineteenth-century treatises on aural surgery discussed how galvanism could cure deafness by stimulating muscular action necessary for restoring the auditory nerves to function in the transmission of sound.

In his Elements of Galvanism, in Theory and Practice (1804), Charles Henry Wilkson outlined an apparatus for safely applying an electric current to cure deafness.


Regarding his apparatus, Wikson wrote:

When it is ascertained hat the deafness is of that particular nature, in which galvanism may be usefully employed, p…two conducting wires, A & B, at end of each which is a small plate of ivory, about one inch & half in diameter. Through center of the plates is passed a silver wire, with a small ball at its extremity. To be insulated, silver wires are about an inch in length, enclosed, with each of them in an ivory tube. Inside of right ear moistened with water, and ball is introduced the ear, with the ivory plate preventing the wire from penetrating too far. Similar procedure on left ear. Once inserted, completion of the circuit is conducted by bringing the end of the conducting wires into occasional contact with the trough (the plates between A and B).

He warned that great care should be taken when using the apparatus for the first time on a patient. The physician should use gentle power through a small number of plates, and not exceed seven or eight plates. Power can be increased by adding plates, but it depended on the sensations experienced by the patient: “Some persons scarcely feel the power of twenty plates; while others experience from such a proportion of the fluid a very distressing giddiness.”

The merits of galvanism were discussed by aurists in numerous publicatons, assessing the benefits of the procedure, or criticizing its miraculous applications. The aurist John P. Pennefather, for instance, wrote in his Deafness and Diseases of the Ear (1873):

I allude to this vaunted remedy from the specious character it presents, and the conquest frequency with which persons suffering from deafness are tempted to give it a trial, in many cases a prolonged one, to find themselves in the end but disappointed dupes. The error which the majority of people fall into with regard to the cause of their deafness is, that some defect exists in the nerve of audition, and therefore galvanism cannot fail to cure, and this popular error is taken advantage of by quacks to cry up its application as a specific for all cases of deafness.

Galvanic current, Pennefather asserted, “cannot have the slightest remedial influence; on the contrary, is more likely to exercise an injurious tendency.” He further explained that he was not decrying the valuable agency of medical galvanism, nor contending that it was not beneficial for particular cases of deafness. Rather, he warned its application should only be ascertained by a proper diagnosis and undertaken by skilled and trained aurists. It was not, nor should be, a catch-all cure for all sorts of deafness.

Boastful Pretensions

In 1908, V. Walbram Chapnnam wrote to John McKinna, secretary for the Metropolitan Ear, Nose, and Throat Hospital on 64 Grafton St., London. In his correspondence, Chapnnam encloses a copy of a letter dated 6th April, from a person calling himself Herbert Clifton who styled himself as a “Aural Specialist.” The copy included an advertisement of testimonies for Clifton’s medical skills, as well as a pamphlet advertising his book, Deafness, Noises, and Giddiness of the Head. The pamphlet, as Chapnnam points out, was entitled “Deafness” and headed with the Royal Arms; the signature was typewritten.

Clifton was perceived by many aural surgeons of his day as being an unscrupulous charlatan whose claims of “miraculous” self-cure for deafness and tinnitus were dubious. Chapnnman writes:

It strikes me that the pamphlet is a tissue of boastful pretensions to medical skill, & is written & published by a person who has not any qualifications in law, to practise in any way, as a Surgeon or Physician in the United Kingdom; and that his power to practice may result in much physical suffering & injury, besides a serious waste of money, to numbers of ignorant people, little fitted by the circumstances of their life, to protect themselves from persons of this kind.

To protect the public from Clifton, Chapnnam advised McKinna that “it would be a good thing to take this power away from him,” perhaps through legislation, or of legal process.

Letter from London Metropolitan Archives, Correspondence of Metropolitan Ear, Nose & Throat Hospital 

A Word, Aurist.

The word—or rather, the identity of—“aurist” has an incomplete history. Even right now, as I typed the word, Microsoft Word automatically corrected it to “aorist,” as if questioning my word choice. A quick dictionary search turns up a definition of “an ear specialist” or even “former name for audiologist.” The former is true. The latter false. An audiologist studies hearing (or lack of) and measures degree of hearing losses, and the tem did not emerge until the late 1940s. An otologist, however—or the more modern otolaryngologists, or Ear/Nose/Throat doctors—studies the normal and pathological anatomy and physiology of the ear, as well as diseases, diagnosis, and treatment of various defects in the ear.

Let me inspect your ears... From: David Hayes Agnew, The principles and practice of surgery : being a treatise on surgical diseases and injuries (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & co., 1878-83)
Let me inspect your ears…
From: David Hayes Agnew, The principles and practice of surgery : being a treatise on surgical diseases and injuries (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & co., 1878-83)

“Aurist” is more fitting as an ancestor of “otology,” but the transformation of usage and identity formation was not an easy one. In my dissertation on nineteenth century British aural surgery, one of the major themes I address is the making of a speciality: how did practitioners of ear diseases, who chose to specialize and claim legitimacy for their field, identify themselves as specialists? The ways in which “aurist” or “aural surgeon” suggests the very ambiguous characterization of the word, even by those who asserted themselves as ear specialists. Looking through newspapers, correspondences, and publications, it’s clear that “aurist” was a panoramic term used to describe all practitioners who provided treatments for aural diseases, especially during the first half of the nineteenth-century. The earliest reference to “aurist” I found dates to a practitioner’s newspaper advert in 1775 and there’s a remarkable jump in the word’s usage starting in the nineteenth-century.

But the word was more than a reference to a practitioner treating the ear. It was a term of abuse against proprietors of such medical nostrums as “Dr. Taylor’s Celebrated Remedy,” “Dr. Dunbar’s Bonatical Snuff,” or “Collin’s Coridial Cephalic Snuff,” who boasted their potions could cure incurable deafness. It was a word to condemn the nefarious itinerant whose fallacious promises could scarcely cloak his sheer quackery. These were the men (and yes, they were all men), who, as The Gentleman’s Magazine reported in 1828, were “bad, dangerous, and ignorant practitioner[s].”

At the same time, “aurist” was used to refer to a distinctive surgical identity, the specialist practitioner who also called himself an “aural surgeon,” whose knowledge of physiology and diseases of the ear enabled him to develop newer techniques for diagnosis and treatment. These were the practitioners who crafted their surgical authority by publishing widely on the anatomy, physiology, and diseases of the ear. They also called themselves “surgeon-aurists.” To use the word “surgeon” as part of a self-imposed identity was clearly to construct (in)visible ties to the tripartite hierarchy of elite medicine in nineteenth century Britain, which was composed of physicians, surgeons and apothecaries aligned in degrees of authority, while at the same time, distinguishing the specialist.

Yet, much to this historian’s confusion, these practitioners also used the word “aurist” and “aural surgeon” interchangeably, dismissing the notion that the former was strictly an idiom of abuse. And even more confusingly—all practitioners of aural surgery were at one time or another, or even in the entire duration of their career, denounced as quacks, from John Harrison Curtis the “nefarious” aurist who attended to the royal family, to Joseph Toynbee, the pathologist who was the first to be appointed as Aural Surgeon at St. Mary’s Hospital. The whole story is so complicated that even at nearly 300 pages, I’m still not finished writing this story of the aurists and on aural surgery.

So when did “aurist” fade away? It’s hard to determine, but words don’t really drop out of fashion all of a sudden. William Wright published a journal called The Aurist in 1825, but this was short lived, with a print run of only 3 issues.  “Otology” started showing up in the second half of the nineteenth century. The German journal Archiv für Ohrenheilkunde (Archives of Otolarynology) was established in 1864 by Anton von Tröltsch (1829-1890), Hermann Schwartze (1837-1900) and Adam Politzer (1835-1920), with print runs in both German and English. The first British journal of otology, the Journal of Larynology and Otology founded in 1887 by Morel Mackenzie and Norris Wolfden—it was originally the Journal of Larynology and Rhinology and Otology was later added in 1892 after changes in editorship.

Thanks to H.Stiles for the scan!
Thanks to H.Stiles for the scan!

In 1868, the American Otological Society was established, with no doubt due to Politzer’s influence, as evident from an 1879 letter from his student Clarence Blake (1843-1919):

We have every reason to be encouraged as to the standing of otology in America in the future and the cordial good feeling which exists among aurists in this country will do much to advance our branch of science. The aurists here seem always ready to acknowledge each others good work and to help each other in study and in experiment…” (quoted in Weir, p.184). 

Blake held the first Professorship at Harvard in 1870 and was also appointed Lecturer in Otology and Aural Surgeon to the Massachusetts Eye and Ear infirmary, clearing showing that “otologist” did not immediately replace “aurist” or “aural surgeon.” In England, Urban Pritchard (1856-1926) founded the department of aural surgery at King’s College Hospital in 1876 and was created Professor of Aural Surgery in 1886—the only chair of its kind in all of England. Pritchard was also the British representative on the committee of organization for the International Congress of Otology, which held its first meeting in 1876; he would become president of the society in 1899. The Germans did not establish a society for otology until 1881, the British in 1900 with the Otological Section of the United Kingdom; seven years later the society would become the Section of Otology of Royal Society of Medicine.

There’s still more work to be done, of course. This is but the beginning!

For an overview of the history of otolaryngology, see: Neil Weir, Otolaryngology: An Illustrated History (London: Butterworths, 1990).