Four Days in Paris

I had the great pleasure to participate in the “Fitting for Health: The Economy of Medical Technology in Europe and its Colonies, 1600-1850” conference, held in Paris at the École normale supérieure and the Académie nationale de médecine. The aim of the conference was to bring together a variety of scholars working in various historical periods and geographical areas to explore and discuss the history medical technologies.

As outlined in the mission statement, the conference was to address two major issues:

The medical “life of things”
What was considered instrumental to medicine ? Patients and practitioners have used a wide variety of tools – trusses, plasters, forceps, cutting knives, herniary bandaging, electrical devices, baths, orthopaedic machines, models, tools for diagnosis, up to plants transformed into medical commodities or “medicines”. Some were similar to devices that are still in use today ; others have fallen into oblivion, thus challenging medical museums’ curators who wish to present them before the public. What were the technologies of the early modern patient and practitioner – surgeons, midwives, barbers, nurses, etc. ? To what extent did the early modern medical equipment contribute to the management of health, by patients and/or practitioners and to the redefining of medical knowledge and know-how ? What type of medical trades did they help to set up or to challenge ? How did tools and commodities help redefining medical work ? How did they get into use, and how did they circulate among the medical community ?

Medical technologies, industry and commerce.
How were the products conceived and marketed ? How was the production of medical instrumentation organized ? To what extent had the trade recourse to patenting, the expert evaluation of academies, such as the Académie royale de chirurgie ? Which industrial trades and production sectors did it bring together ? How was it funded ? Did medical instruments’ makers exploit new channels for the retailing of their instruments — such as nineteenth-century French industrial fairs — or use old ones ? What were the routes of medical instruments to individual practitioners, public charities, national armies or to the colonies ?

Over the course of two days, speakers presented and discussed topics on: the supplies of the medical trades; the social context of medical instrumentation; medical marketing; and the consumption and production of medical technologies. The central focus of these papers was based upon the metaphor of the medical marketplace, and each speaker presented an interesting case study attempting to understand the medical economy and management of healthcare. For instance, by examining the case study of a particular drug—whether it’s Peruvaian bark, coca leaves, or quinquina in general—we end up taking about a kind of historical geography of the transference of medical ideas and products across colonies. Botanical expeditions, as narrated by Samir Boumedine (École normale supérieure Lettres et sciences humaines (Lyon)), affected the material conditions of the use of drugs, as did their availability, as outlined in Grégory Bériet’s (CRHIA, Universités de Nantes/ La Rochelle) presentation on how quinine shortage affected and encouraged applied research in naval medicine.

The issue of space was also a theme addressed in the presentations. Claire Jones (University of Leeds) discussed how the close proximity of pharmaceutical companies and surgical instrument-makers to London hospitals declined by 1880, in part to changes to the world economy and national trade; the transformation of these relations had a profound effect on the making of trade catalogues. In a different sense of space, François Zanetti’s (Université de Paris 10-Nanterre) presentation on “electric baths” raises wider questions on the nature of public and private interest in medical technologies; for instance, these baths were often quite large, and needed rearranging of household furniture, rearranging private space and making it public as neighbors visited to use or inspect the baths.

Materials and innovations, common to the history of technology scholarship, were also raised—Chris Evans and Alun Whitey (University of Glanmorgan) discussed steel-using artisans and examined the design of instruments, their manufacturing and marketing. I discussed the intentions of aurists in their making of auriscopes and other aural instruments, taking into consideration how authority and identity played a pivotal part in the presentation of their instruments. Other papers also examined the marketing strategies, creating discourse on how economical and commercial aspects of medicine reconfigured the promotion and adaptation of technologies. Several important issues—such as the “branding” of medical instruments, or the place of quackery, were also raised and discussed.

The conference was housed the first day at the École normale supérieure and the second day at the breathtaking Académie nationale de médecine. I forgot my camera the first day but remembered it the second, and managed to take some shots:

Session Room
Laennec's Stethoscope, displayed in the Reception Hall
Display of Surgical Instruments
A few "toy soldiers"

After the conference, participants were invited to take a tour of an anatomy theatre; but alas, since I had an early flight, I didn’t attend. Oh well, maybe next time. The highlight of the conference for me? Meeting and chatting with Colin Jones, whose “le Grand Thomas” paper has long been my favorite piece of historical writing!

Charitable Agenda for the Deaf

In Britain, efforts to medicalize the deaf have a long-standing history that can be traced back to the Evangelical Revival of the late eighteenth century as medical men sought for a place within institutions for the deaf that were strictly devoted for instruction. In contrast to the l’esprit philosophique of late-eighteenth century France which precipitated a flurry of complex intellectual theories rooted within a rationalistic and empirical spirit, the British approach to education and treatment of the deaf was strongly driven by a basic utilitarian philosophy. Educators for the deaf maintained an overarching devotion to religious zealotry, political conservationism, and a stereotypical social philosophy that left no room for medicine.[1] Despite sporadic efforts to teach the deaf variations of artificial speech, finger-spelling, signs, or lip-reading, the deaf were mainly perceived as curiosities, whose “mental and moral nature [was] imprisoned.”[2] While much of the educational efforts were directed to deaf children of the wealthy and aristocratic, the poor deaf and dumb suffered uncomprehending brutality at the hands of an ignorant society that viewed deafness only through the effects it produced upon the mental and moral character of the deaf.

The secular agenda of British charity aimed to elevate the deaf from a dreary state of ignorance and place them in active participation and employment in society. The agenda emphasized the importance of all men’s duties towards God and man. Several charitable ventures also emerged, drawing attention to the need for the deaf to withdraw from isolation. The Reverend Thomas Beck, for instance, wrote a poem—The Cause of the Dumb Pleaded (1792)—which drew attention to both Reverend John Townsend’s claim for educating the poor deaf and dumb, as well as the social distinction between the world of the deaf and the world of the hearing:

Like you, he views the busy tribes around,
Like you, he hates where crowds admiring throng;
But lost to him the choir’s enliv’ning sound,
And dumb to him the statesman’s fluent tongue

The peopled world he sees on ev’ry side,
And pants to shew and share a friend’s esteem,
But social pleasures are to him deny’d
And all the world are deaf and dumb to him.

This emotional plea stressed the importance of morally uplifting the deaf from his isolation and allowing him to “converse with his God.” This connection with religion and charity was not lost among the public who were growing to become sympathetic towards the plight of the poor deaf and dumb. Much of the sympathy was tied to the realization that if something could be done to relieve the misery of the deaf, then something should be done.


[1] Jules Paul Seigel, “The Enlightenment and the Evolution of a Language of Signs in France and England,” Journal of the History of Ideas 30 (1969): p.96.

[2] W.R. Scott, The Deaf and Dumb, their Education and Social Position, 2nd Ed. (London: Bell & Daldy, 1870), p.63.

Deafness as Discourse

In Enforcing Normalcy, Lennard Davis makes the claim that Europe “became deaf” in the 18th century—that is, before the late 17th century, the deaf were not constructed as a group. The reason for this discursive nonexistence, Davis argues, is that most deaf individuals were born into hearing families and isolated in their deafness, viewed mainly as isolated deviations from a norm. As social and medical treatments for deafness became a subject of discourse, deafness became “visible” and the body of the deaf individual became the site of powerful social and political controls and managements.

Scientific and pedagogical interest in deafness has a long-standing history. While the deaf generally remained as social outcasts until the 18th century, the earliest British efforts to educate and integrate the deaf into normal society can be traced to the work of several members of the Royal Society in London. John Bulwer’s (1608-1656) 1648 publication of

John Bulwer

the first English treatise on finger-spelling, Philocopus, or the Deaf and Dumbe Man’s Friend, contended to the view that the uneducated deaf “were denied the means to express their humanity” and thus required an alternative, manual system useful for communication. Bulwer’s treatise sparked a flurry of activity within the Royal Society to discover the origins of language, speech, and

the lack thereof in the deaf.  The experiments of John Wallis (1616-1703), William Holder (1616-1698) and George Dalgaro (1626-1687) to illustrate new theories of language were applied to instruct several deaf people the structural elements necessary to acquire speech. However, the Royal Society ceased to consider human speech worthy of their study; despite these groundbreaking works and the use of Bulwer’s treatise to privately instruct deaf children, efforts to improve the state of the indigent deaf and dumb through speech and signs gradually tapered off by the eighteenth century.

John Wallis

As the events of the French Revolution “heightened the charitable and evangelical fervour” of British society, men of good will conformed to the view that it was their divine duty to elevate the spiritual state of the poor and disabled populations. Based on the “doctrinal culture” of Protestant England which placed increased value on hearing in relation to other senses, these men emphasized the necessity to “hear the word of God;” deafness was thus viewed as a social tragedy. An anonymous pamphlet circulating during the early 1800s captures the necessity of Protestant beneficence:

for a social being to be deprived of all the consolations of social intercourse; this alone would  be a state of privation, calculated to call forth in his behalf the warmest sympathies of benevolence. And none can surely comprehend better than the intelligent and kind-hearted, how lonely, how cheerless, how desolate the lot—what a wilderness of faces, and solitude of hearts, must this world to be, to a deaf mute uneducated…A being endowed with an immortal soul, a responsible creature, is living without God in the world.[1]

Yet up until the late eighteenth century, the education of the deaf was mainly a private enterprise catered to the children of the wealthy and aristocratic. It was not until 1762 when the first school specializing in instruction for the deaf was founded by Thomas Braidwood (1715-1806) in Edinburgh. Initially persuaded by a wealthy local merchant to instruct his 10-year-old son how to read and write, Braidwood transformed his mathematical academy, abandoned his aspirations for teaching mathematics, and dedicated his life to teaching deaf children. Using a mixture of speech, finger-spelling and signs, Braidwood’s success with the boy led an increasing number of pupils by 1780. Eventually moving the Edinburgh school to London in 1783 and opening up subsequent ones in the area, Braidwood and his family represented deaf education for nearly half a century.

Despite the fact Braidwood kept his methods of instruction a secret to forestall competition and attended only to wealthy families, his teaching ability spread word that the deaf were capable and worthy of education. Braidwood’s success and the promotion of social responsibility by the Evangelical Revival led to the realization that the deaf could be improved by a system of education and integration through special sympathy and understanding.


[1] Quoted in John Townsend, Memoirs of the Rev. John Townsend, founder of the Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb and of the Congregational School (1st American Edition; Boston: Crocker & Brewster, 1831), p.45.