Birth and Death Dates…

I’m currently conducting my research through the 19th Century British Library Newspapers Database. I found this:

Liverpool Mercury etc , Tuesday, November 30, 1852; Issue 2454.

So if Curtis died in 1852 at age 68, that would mean he was born in 1784, not 1778 as most secondary accounts note. I also have another source from the archives stating he died in 1852; most accounts list his date of death between 1858-1860.

Interesting…or irrelevant?

“Who shall decide when aurists disagree?”

As aural surgery became a “fashionable” trend amongst aristocratic households and several aurists increased in prosperity, conflict between aurists became characteristic of the field. Aurists fiercely competed with each other for positions, status, and patients, and accused each other of being quacks. “Quack” seemed to be less than an accusatory term than a label thrown around by irregular and regular practitioners alike as aurists constantly bickered with each other. The situation heightened to such an extent during the first half of the nineteenth century that the editors of The London Literary Gazette (1834) remarked

[w]ho should decide when aurists disagree? We shall not try, for we are so sick of the quackery practiced, almost beyond all branches, in this branch of surgical practice, that we must turn a deaf ear to them all.

One feature of the conflict among aurists resided in the increase in publications on ear diseases between 1810 and 1860. The majority of these publications were ridiculed in literary and medical periodicals for their obvious plagiarism and for their dishonesty attempts at providing the public with an effect cure. The Dublin aurist and surgeon William Wilde (1815-1879) was perhaps the most outspoken of all critics against what he regarded as quackery in aural surgery.

William Wilde Drawing by J.H. MacGuire, 1847

In his Contributions to Aural Surgery (1844), he writes:

Why is that the empyric and the pretender, either licensed, or unlicensed—for those days there are many and as impudent quacks with, as without diplomas—why is it, we are often asked, that the charlatan frequently succeeds in practice better than the honest practitioner? (p.15).

Wilde described many works in aural surgery as being too “similar in substance and composition” and “flagrant in plagiarism” (p.24). One reviewer even commented the plagiarism in aural surgery “indeed proves so clearly the low ebb at which the science of the aurist is in this country.” It was usual of these works, Wilde continued, “to preface whatever they had to offer to public notice as a cure for deafness by a lengthened description of the structure and physiology of the ear, copied form some of the general or special works upon anatomy” (p.24). Moreover, competition between aurists to become the first to find a “cure for deafness” became the root cause of conflicts, and left aural surgery as “an opprobrium to medicine” (p.5). Wilde concluded the competition and “empiricism” of many aurists threatened the credibility of the field and served “to bias the public mind against the treatment of aural diseases,” counteracting any scientific progress made by prominent and professional medical men.

Aurists also constantly attacked each other’s merits and their treatments. Wilde remarked that William Wright’s (1773-1860) New Observations on the Diseases of the Eye and Ear (1817) was simply recomposed the words of John Harrison Curtis’ Treatise and “as for new ideas, there were none, nor old ones to add them to.”[1] Wright and Curtis often bickered in periodicals and in their treatises, accusing the other of failing to properly treat their patients, or over-exaggerating their respective success. Curtis was also rumoured to have employed several ghostwriters for his Treatise; a more consistent criticism against him was that the chapter on diseases of the tympanum in his Treatise was copied entirely from the eminent eye and ear surgeon John Cunningham Saunders’ (11773-1818) Anatomy of the Human Ear (1806). Responding to the criticisms against him, Curtis explained that

a great hinderance [sic] to the progress of medical science is the jealously and rivalry of some of its members, which prevents many men of talents from entering the profession.[2]

Furthermore, while Wilde blamed aurists’ “empiricism” as weakening the reputation of aural surgery, Curtis claimed that the unharmonious unity among aurists was the source of conflicts, for how could they unify if they could barely agree on a classification of ear diseases, or even the methods for treating them? What was needed, he argued, was a sense of identity among aurists, based on a “science of medicine” and a social responsibility towards the deaf. Wright also contended that although he bore no hostility to any aurist, “the opinions or practices of public men are the property of society of society generally;” a “clear, dispassionate account” of aural surgery was needed, he emphasized, one which could avoid endangering the patients.[3]


[1] Wilde, Practical Observations on Aural Surgery (London, 1853), p.23.

[2] Curtis, Advice to the Deaf (5th ed., London, 1845), p.9.

[3] Wright, A Few Minutes Advice (London, 1839), p.5.

Sound the Trumpets

Curtis’ Dispensary aimed to not only provide treatment for the poor and destitute populations, but also to supply acoustic instruments to those with severe hearing loss irremediable by medical treatments. Curtis was prolific in instrument design; taking into account new theories on sound and his own understanding of the physiology of the ear, he invented two modified trumpets. The first, a typical hearing-trumpet distinguished “chiefly for its great length, a circumstance that gives it a high degree of power and renders it much more serviceable.” It’s basically a typical hearing trumpet, which Curtis only modifies in length and added two apertures: one inserted into the ear, the other to the mouth, so the user is able to make use of sounds produced both in the ear and Eustachian tube:

Curtis' Hearing Trumpet SOURCE: John Harrison Curtis, Treatise on the Physiology and Diseases of the Ear, 6th Ed. (London: Sherwood, Neely & Jones, 1836)

The second, a conical trumpet, was modeled after a telescope such that it was able to fold together and fit easily into the pocket. These trumpets were well-received by the public, who commended Curtis for servicing the needs of the deaf. One source even remarks that Curtis’ conical trumpet is “well known to answer the purpose of extending the impression of sound, [and] seems entitled to a preference over all others.” The instrument is also interesting for another reason: in the first few editions of his Treatise, Curtis wrote that this instrument was built for the deaf individual’s convenience. In the sixth edition published in 1836, however, he remarks how he used this particular trumpet to examine his patients. Here we can catch an early glimpse into Curtis’ transition from marketing instruments to aid the deaf to instruments to diagnose deafness. Moreover, this was one of Curtis’ most popular trumpets, which he remarked was also available for purchase through the instrument makers J&S Maw.

Curtis' Conical Trumpet SOURCE: John Harrison Curtis, Treatise on the Physiology and Diseases of the Ear, 6th Ed. (London: Sherwood, Neely & Jones, 1836)

It was Curtis’ Acoustic Chair, however, which earned him national status as an innovator, as mentioned in my previous post. He also invented other instruments, such as a “keraphonite,” which he presented to a meeting of the Royal Society in 1838, and a “soniferous coronal,” an acoustic instrument which goes over the head, where sound is collected, and is conveyed by small tubes into the ear. I have yet to find an engraving of this image, but based on the descriptions, I imagine it to look something like this:

Trumpet Headband by F. C. Rein, England (c.1850). SOURCE: Deafness in Disguise Exhibit

The Dispensary also introduced new surgical and medical instruments for treating deafness, mainly variations of aural spectrums Curtis collected during his trips to France and Germany. He also employed a surgical-instrument maker for the Dispensary; although there is a lack of evidence outlining how many instrument makers he employed over the years, a Mr. Edward Einsle was employed during Curtis’ last years at the Dispensary in the 1830s. Curtis also made the cephaloscope a permanent fixture in his examinations in the Dispensary.

Mr. Curtis’ Acoustic Chair

First introduced and described in the fourth edition of his Treatise on the Physiology and Diseases of the Ear (1831), John Harrison Curtis’ acoustic chair earned him national recognition as an inventor during the first half of the nineteenth century. The chair is a large library chair affixed with a trumpet alongside the chair such that the user is able to hear sounds from the adjoining room.

The chair is intended for the benefit and use of the incurable deaf…one of the great advantages possessed by my Chair [is that] the person sitting in it hears at the opposite side from that at which he is addressed; thus avoiding the unpleasant and injurious practice of the speaker coming so close as to render his breath offensive and at the same time detrimental to the organ of hearing, by causing a relaxation of the membrane of the tympanum.

An engraving of the chair was published in the frontispiece of The Mechanics’ Magazine in 1837, praising the beauty of such an ingenious innovation. A model of the chair was eventually placed at the Royal Polytechnic Institution and at Adelaide-Street Gallery.

Self-Image

J.F. Clarke (1874) on Curtis’ particular self-image: 

His hours for consultation were between 11 and 2. He would not see a patient five minutes before 11 or five minutes after 2; and this practice he carried on even to the last—to a time, indeed, when he literally “wanted a guinea.” He never allowed a servant to hand him a letter or card except on a silver salver. He always saw his patients in full dress, temp. George IV. His make-up was perfect. His hair was curled; his coat blue, with bright Wellington buttons; a white waistcoat, and black continuations, silk stockings and pumps.