A Chamber of the Stillness of Death: Phyllis M.T. Kerridge’s Experiments in the Silence Room

I’m beginning a new project on the historical contributions of women to otology, many of whom have been overlooked in scholarship. My current article investigates the physiological work of Dr. Phyllis Margaret Tookey Kerridge, who died on June 22, 1940, the only daughter of Mr. William Alfred Tookey of Bromley, Kent. She was educated at the City of London School of Girls and at University College London; her graduate studies commenced at the latter institution, first in chemistry and then physiology, where she was also appointed as lecturer. She also held posts in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Marine Biological Association Laboratory at Plymouth, the Carlsberg Laboratories at Copenhagen, and at London Hospital. She received her M.D. from University College Hospital, in 1933 and became member of the Royal College of Physicians in 1937.[1]

During the 1930s, Kerridge conducted experiments to measure the residual hearing capacity of children in London County Council schools, as well as experiments in teaching with electronic hearing aids. Much of her research was on patients at the Royal Ear Hospital, who were tested in the hospital’s “Silence Room:” a 3,500 cubic room in the basement of the hospital’s new building on Huntley Street, with

“walls impenetrable to extraneous noises and which will never reflect, deflect nor refract sounds—a chamber of the stillness of death, where absolute accuracy and complete consistency in results will be obtained.”

The room was built so exact tests to measure degrees of deafness can be made in ideal and constant conditions. Such stillness in this room apparently allowed people to hear heartbeats and the “flick” of their eyelids! A small table and two chairs were placed in the room. There was a bell to call the Porter’s room and an electric fan affixed there as well.

The Committee of the Royal Ear Hospital occasionally granted permission to medical practitioners to use the Silence Room for their own research purposes. For instance, in 1929, they granted the otologist Dr. Charles Skinner Hallpike (1900-1979), a research scholar from Middlesex Hospital, to use the room free of charge. Hallpike is particularly known for his ground-breaking work on the causes of Meniere’s disease (a disorder that causes episodes of vertigo) and for the Dix-Hallpike test for diagnosing benign positional vertigo (sensation when everything is spinning around you).

The Western Electric 1-A Audiometer in clinical use at the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, c.1920s. Western Electric produced only about 25 of these audiometers, which retailed at about $1,500 in 1923. (Central Institute for the Deaf Collection)
The Western Electric 1-A Audiometer in clinical use at the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, c.1920s. Western Electric produced only about 25 of these audiometers, which retailed at about $1,500 in 1923. (Central Institute for the Deaf Collection)

The hospital’s 1938 Annual Reports reveals that Kerridge was appointed to research at the Silence Room, then renamed as the “Hearing Aid Clinic,” working alongside Mr. Myles Formby to conduct hearing test on the hospital’s patients. Though the Clinic was initially started on a 6-month trial period, Kerriddge’s work was so beneficial that the hospital Committee decided to let her continue her research work and audiometer tests, extending care to private patients as well. They provided her with two more rooms in the basement, one as a waiting room and the other as an office, as well as the services of Miss W.J. Waddge as an assistant. In 1939, Kerridge viewed 170 cases, and according to the reports, her work among deaf patients was successful in helping many of them to be fitted properly for hearing aids.

Wartime of course, changed the course of things. The clinic was abandoned during World War II, but the hospital still provided hearing tests with the audiometer to test the hearing of patients suffering from “bomb blast.”

NOTES

[1] Nature 146 (august 3, 1940).

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Switching On Hearing

Harold

It’s an iconic and powerful photo.

The face of a young child, born deaf, hearing sounds for the first time. Jack Bradley, photojournalist from the Peoria Journal Star, captured the exact moment a doctor fitted five year old Harold Whittles with an earpiece and turned on the hearing aid. First printed in the February 1974 issue of ReadersDigest, the photo has propped up in numerous “best-of” lists on the Internet. It is “shocking,” “miraculous,” “unbelievable,” “influential,” “heartbreaking,” “heart-warming,” “amazing,” and “evocative.” It has been circulated thousands of times on Facebook, where commentators have expressed their thoughts: the photo brings tears, it serves as a reminder of our humanity, it tells people to “count their blessings,” it resonates to personal experiences with deafness and hearing, and it triggers debates about language, culture, and technological achievements. For many individuals, the photo immortalizes more than Harold’s astonishment. It serves as a testament of the wonders of medicine and science, the abundance of hope, and provides us with a glimpse into the future.

Bradley’s photo is only one in a long list of sensationalized stories on deaf people hearing sounds. A search through YouTube lists about 72,800 results for videos on “hearing sound for the first time.” At least once a month, someone sends me a link to a new video, or to a post discussing the novelty of sharing stories like this.

I may not remember exactly what it was like when I first heard sounds again after losing my hearing, but I have a problem with the way these videos are promoted: they sensationalized the notion that hearing could be “switched on.” This is a misleading claim. Implants, whether they are cochlear, auditory, or the newer brainstem versions do not restore “normal” hearing but makes it easier for deaf individuals to distinguish sounds. It’s not like wearing these technologies miraculously provide the wearer an understanding of all the sounds in the world. I’ve had friends who’ve been fitted with cochlear implants describe how overwhelming the sound were, and how certain everyday noises, like wind hitting the trees or leaky faucets, created so much confusion.* Cochlear implants in particular, create a representation of sounds that serves to assist in understanding speech; because of this, speech can sound robotic, or filtered as if everyone was speaking underwater. I wear digital hearing aids and even I have trouble distinguishing certain noises or even pinpointing the source of sounds.

Once, while out dining with friends, I watched a restaurant worker remove the external part of her cochlear implant nearly every time she went behind the counter. But when she went towards the dining room to seat customers or bus tables, she had the device on. I imagine the cacophonic atmosphere of the dining room might have overwhelmed her–I know for me, it was so loud I ended up leaving the restaurant with a throbbing headache (I’m very sensitive to loud sounds, which often trigger migraines).

But for me, the larger problem with these videos is that they depict deafness as a defect, a problem that must be corrected, medically, surgically, technologically, and even culturally. This is a perspective that has long been criticized  by members of the Deaf community, who argue these devices are another instance of the historical oppression of Deaf culture and a tremendous threat against sign-language. I’m not going to go too much into this. There’s plenty of literature on the subject. I don’t identify myself as a member of the Deaf community and I do write about the medicalization of deafness, but I try to be sensitive to balancing the perspectives of both hearing and Deaf culture–even if at times, it’s so challenging to do so.

*This point reminds me of one of my favourite philosophical thought experiments: If Mary was born and raised in a black-and-white room and never seen color, but one day, is allowed to go outside, does Mary understand, or have any concept of, the color red?

The Pressures of Silence

I’ve been busy this month helping my mom organize the boxes of photographs and old documents at her house. The best part of this project? When I come across documents from my childhood that I’ve long forgotten about, but thanks to my mom, have been carefully preserved.

When I was 12, my English assignment was to write an autobiography of my life (so far) and make a diorama of some of my favourite hobbies. I misunderstood the assignment and ended up writing a biography–and forgot to make the diorama! This is one of the earliest expression of me ever sharing what it was like for me to get sick, to lose my hearing, and learn to navigate in a world while feeling ignored. I suppose this should rightly be part of the “Green Light” series, but oh well. Here are some extracts from the assignment.

Jaipreet lived a healthy life, till at the age of 4 1/2, on November 16, 1986, the day she got sick…

For the most part, Jaipreet was a healthy child, She had her share of colds and flus…But only one time the flu was serious…Of course everyone knows what having the flu’s like; feeling hot, throwing up, having high fevers…Jaipreet’s parents took her to the doctor. He checked her, and then told them to bring her back. They took Jaipreet back, hoping there would be good news. But, the doctor told Jaipreet’s parents that she had bacterial menengitis [sic], which was a disease that had something to do with the brain and spinal cord, and she had to be placed in Murbarank Hospital [in Kuwait] and had to be treated by anti-biotics (medicine) for two weeks. Some people died from menengitis [sic]. But, luckily, Jaipreet survived. But during the treatment, it did something to Jaipreet’s hearing that made her lose it.

Being in the hospital made Jaipreet the center of attention. Gifts and flowers came to her from her mother’s family. Visitors came to visit the child who sat on a hospital bed without hearing. Some nights, Jaipreet’s mother or father would sit in her hospital room to keep her company till she went to sleep.

After she was released from the hospital on the first week of October, Jaipreet’s parents did everything to make her better. They took her to doctors, hoping they would have something to help her hear better. One of these doctor [sic] gave her a [sic] instrument similar to phonic ears. To Jaipreet, they didn’t work very well. She had a hard time hearing with them.

When Jaipreet and her family moved to Canada, in 1988, Jaipreet got new hearing aids. After not being able to hear any sound [sic] for a long time, at last there was something that made her hear all the wonderful sounds around her.

Wearing hearing aids really helped her. Jaipreet could hear better with them than without them.

Following that paragraph, there’s a short section titled “Jaipreet on Sounds:”

Hearing aids are wonderful. They help me hearing better. Those kids, who need them, but don’t want them, don’t know what they’re missing. It’s be able to hear sounds, voices and music, and a lot of other things.

When you’re deaf, you can’t hear. Very loud sounds; you can hear. You can’t just forget silence. It has too much pressure. For example, you see people talking, but you can’t hear them, because you can’t hear. You just feel you want to shout, ‘Would you just speak up?’ You want to hear things, to be able to understand. That’s what hearing aids for the deaf are for. o hear, to not miss out any sound. To be able to understand.

None of the other deaf or hard-of-children I went to school with knew sign language, other than the alphabet, which we used as a secret code to spell out our names or pass notes in class. Our world was a world of sounds. Silence was pressure. All we ever wanted to be was understood.

Dieting Deafness Away

I’m sure some of you have heard of London-based undertaker William Banting (1797-1878), who was the first to popularize a low-carb diet that formed the basis of modern-day diets (think Atkins). Banting was an upper middle-class funeral director whose family held the Royal Warrant for burials for five generations, until 1928; George III, George IV, Prince Albert, and Queen Victoria were buried by the Banting family.

William Banting. (Wikipedia)
William Banting. (Wikipedia)

There’s plenty of commentaries on Banting’s diet floating around the Internet. A retired widower, he was obese, 5’5 and 202lbs at age 66, his heaviest weight. He wore a truss to hold in place an umbilical rupture. His weight—and the associated complications—was so bad he could not stop to tie his shoe, and had to go down the stairs backwards to limit the pain of weight on his knees and ankles. He tried various attempts to drop some pounds: “sea air and bathing in various localities, with much walking exercise; taken gallons of physic and liquor potassae, advisedly and abundantly; riding on horseback; the waters and climate of Leamington many times, as well as those of Cheltenham and Harrogate frequently…”[1] All of these were in vain.

In 1862, after finding his eyesight failing and his hearing greatly impaired, Banting consulted an aural surgeon, but was disappointed with the surgeon’s medical approach: He “made light of the case, looked into my ears, sponged them internally, and blistered the outside, without the slightest benefit, neither inquiring into any of my bodily ailments, which he probably thought unnecessary, nor affording me time to name them.”[2] After the surgeon went on holiday, Banting sought other assistance to relieve him from his ailments. He likely visited the Royal Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear (est. 1816), which in 1862, was directed by the aural surgeon William Harvey (1805/6-1876/9).

Harvey was a well-known aurist in London and had a steady career as a surgeon. He was educated at Guy’s Hospital and practiced general surgery for a few years before establishing himself as an aural specialist and publishing The Ear in Health and Disease in 1854. In addition to his post at the Royal Dispensary, Harvey was also aural surgeon to the Freemason’s Asylum for Female Children and the Great Northern Hospital. As he repeated often, he bore no relation to the physician William Harvey who experimented with blood circulation.

Upon examining Banting’s ears and assessing his obese stature, Harvey explained that the deafness was symptom of fat deposits in the Eustachian tubes. He advised Banting to overhaul his diet to lose weight, explaining that as the pounds came off, his hearing would be improved. Banting was advised to abstain from bread, butter, milk, sugar, beer, and potatoes, which had “been the main…elements of [his] existence.”[3] Instead, he was to eat four meals a day composed of meat, greens, fruit, and dry wine. The diet worked: Banting lost 46 pounds in a few months. He was so astounded by the results he gave Harvey an extra £50 to his usual fees, to be distributed amongst his favourite hospitals. In addition, Banting published a pamphlet in the form of an open testimonial, Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public (1863).

Photo: University of Buffalo Libraries
Photo: University of Buffalo Libraries

The first edition was self-published at his own expense, but became so popular that he sold it; later editions were published by Harrison, London. The pamphlet and Banting’s dietary success became so well-known that “Do you bant?” became a referred to fashionable way of asking whether people were trying to drop a few pound.

Where did an aurist get the idea for dietary management as a way to improve hearing? According to Harvey, in 1856, while he was out for a walk in Paris, he came across an announcement for a lecture by Claude Bernard at the Paris School of Medicine. Through Bernard’s lectures, Harvey learned how starch could affect the body negatively and played a role in the production of insulin. Diabetics management in particular, could be handled with a proper diet—and of course, assist in losing weight.

Unfortunately for Harvey, false rumours spread in London that the diet had ruined Banting’s health, and that Harvey was to blame. Furthermore, his practice suffered as he was constantly ridiculed for being unable to explain why the diet worked; medical practitioners criticized the diet as “unscientific” and Harvey’s application of diet management as a process that could not be replicated under similar variables.

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In 1872, Harvey published his own account of the diet, On Corpulence in Relation to Disease as a way to address some of the critique against him. In particular, he outlined how his treatment was misapplied in many cases, applied rashly and indiscreetly without proper medical advice. And of course, he points out, it “was…natural to expect that a pamphlet on a dietary for the cure of Corpulence, coming from a lay source, would not have found much favour with the profession, and that it would receive some severe criticism.”[4]The book is technically detailed, with information on the physiology and anatomy of the body, how fat deposits affect tissues and muscles, and symptoms of illness that arise from obesity. He also provides an explanation of how fatty deposits can enter the Eustachian tubes and result in temporary deafness through the mucus membranes.

 

NOTES:

[1] William Banting, Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public (1863), 12.

[2] Ibid, 16.

[3] Ibid, 17.

[4] William Harvey, On Corpulence in Relation to Disease (1872), vi.

Green Light: Mr D.

This is the fifth installment of my autobiographical series on my experiences with hearing loss. You can view earlier posts: PrologueChapter 1: Seeing SoundsChapter 2: Fearless LeaderChapter 3: The Black Box. Posts appear every other Friday. 

Sometime when I was six or seven, I was sent to a new school. It was far from our residence, which meant waking up at 7am to frantically get dressed, eat, and take the elevator down to the lobby of our apartment building. There was a fireplace in the lobby, where I would sit awkwardly and keep watch for the bus through sleepy eyes. Every school morning was the same. The bus would pick me up, then Z, and two other kids who went to different schools. Z and I were in the same class and remained friends for the longest time. S would join us on the bus a year or two later. These were the happiest bus trips for us, as we would gossip, share homework, play kids games, or just talk. There were days we didn’t need to talk, as silent understanding gave way to gazing out of the window and daydreaming. It was this way for seven years.

My new classroom was small. Only five students at the start, I believe, though the number never went higher than eight. I don’t recall the first days, or how different it was from my previous school. I remember the sadness—everyone else in the class knew each other, could talk to each other, and I was the outsider. They were friends and I was the intruder. Miss K. was a kind, gentle soul with an incredible sense of humor. She had long dirty blond hair and a twinkle in her eye that never went away—I saw her years later with her newborn daughter, and the twinkle was still there, even as she was exhausted from motherhood.

The first year was a blur but some things stay with you. I recall laughing hysterically when Miss K. banged her knee at a table; I didn’t think it was funny, but I thought it was a time to laugh. I missed so many other jokes and took my cues from others who were laughing, wanting to fit in, wanting to understand what was so funny, wanting to bond with Miss K. like the others could. Everyone looked at me like I was a mean soul, for daring to laugh when I shouldn’t, and Miss K. scolded me. I didn’t understand why I was in trouble or what I did wrong, or why everyone else wasn’t laughing when they did at other times. My face turned red and the tears flowed. They would flow so many times.

Then there was another time we had watched A Little Mermaid and were told to draw our own stories. I had an imagination, but no stories to tell. So I recreated in drawing, the story we had watched, from memory. There was never a purer sense of joy as realizing how amazed Miss K was with my drawing skills. My Sebastian was the same one as we saw on the television. Eager classmates asked how I did that; with an immense sense of pride, I showed them how to recreate their own Sebastian. Pretty soon, that’s all what we did that afternoon.

There are stories of friendships, of fights, of first loves, of mean rumours, and of disobedience that I’ll share later. This was the school where my life began, where I learned lessons that I would carry with me for the rest of my life.

But, despite how much I’ve tried to forget, and how much has faded away through the years, nothing sticks to my memory from this time more than Mr. D, my speech teacher. He came maybe daily, maybe three times a week, and I dreaded my sessions with him. When I first met him, I used to think he was so cruel. So mean in the way he spoke so sternly, the way he grasped my cheeks to force me to utter sounds I’ve barely heard, to trace his fingers on my throat so I know how to recognize vocal movements. These were terrible sessions for me, and for others—nothing made us so uncomfortable, so sure of our own stupidity, so wanting of escape. Some of us finished sessions crying, me included.

It’s a very difficult thing to learn how to pronounce words that you’ve never heard before. None of us in that classroom were born deaf, we all lost our hearing sometime or another after acquiring language. Thus, according to the rule book, it was supposed to be easy to teach us how to restore our speaking ability, to teach us how to hear and speak like we were supposed to. It wasn’t easy. Not for us, those who had to meet with Mr D. The constant forcing of our tongue, of our lips, our throats, our jaws, being told to move it this way or that way, and certainly not in that way, was a daily reminder of our limitations. Buh-buh-buh. Say “B.” “sssszzzz” Say “S.” Say “Th.” Have your tongue bounce your teeth. “She sells seashells by the seashore.” Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat until you get “Sh” correct. Repeat until this becomes your mantra. Repeat until you learn. Repeat until you understand. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

I saw Mr D. for years as “Sh” and “Th” sounds were difficult for me and I had a terrible stutter, especially when I got nervous. One of my teachers thought the best way for me to get over my stutter was for me to enter the debate team. Public speaking, she believed, would force me to get over my insecurity and just say the words. I used to beg Mr D. for clues to pronounce words I knew only on paper. I used to ask my mom or sisters how to say words, then memorize them as not to make a fool of myself on stage. “Sh” and “Th” sounds could destroy confidence that I spent years building. How do you say words you know only on paper, how do you know the silent “a” or “n” or “s”? Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Mr D. was good at his job, kind and compassionate. We hated him because we hated what he had to make us do. But he had to teach us to speak, to learn, to understand. I thought of him often after I left that school, wondered what happened to him. One day I ran into him at my new high school, and an immense sense of dread washed over me. Was he there for me, I wondered? I was long past the years I required speech therapy, and didn’t want to do it again. I didn’t need him, I was just fine on my own, I didn’t need a hand to guide me through high school. He wasn’t there for me. He was attending another student at my school, who only then, I realized was also hard-of-hearing. Mr D. asked me if I wanted him to visit me too, to help make sure I was on the right track. “No speech therapy,” he said. “I’ll be a friend, a guidance counsellor so if you need assistance, I can help.” Standing outside the office window, we negotiated terms. I would see him once a week for 30 minutes after his meeting with the other student. If I didn’t want to come, he couldn’t get upset. He agreed as did I.

For the first year of high school, I saw Mr D. We talked, I shared some of the struggles I was having as a student, how much I missed my friends from my other school. He provided advice for increasing my grades, for thinking about what universities I wanted to apply, what career I wanted to make for myself. A few months down the line, he asked me if I wanted speech therapy again. I said no. I couldn’t put myself through that again. He nodded and told me he understood. He told me I didn’t really need it, but if I wanted to drop my Kuwait/deaf accent, I would have to devote to speech therapy for the rest of my life. “When you stop,” he told me, “you’ll have the accent again. So unless you care about that, it doesn’t seem like you need therapy anymore. It’s up to you. I’m here if you want me to come.” I repeated, no.

The last time I saw Mr D, I was 17. I ran into him at a mall and we sat on the bench, chatting like old friends. He scolded me for skipping school. I laughed and told him about my plans for becoming a writer and what universities I was applying for. He told me about his children and shopping for birthday presents. He wore the same black leather jacket I’ve always seen him wear. We hugged goodbye.