Experiences of a Deaf Man

From The Albion Magazine (1907):

When a man suddenly becomes deaf there is little or nothing he would shrink from if it afforded, or seemed to afford, the smallest chance that he would recover the enjoyment of a sense which he never properly valued until he lost it. About sixteen years ago, when well advanced in life, I suddenly lost my hearing, first in one ear and after a few days in the other; and so great was my desire for a cure, that in the course of the next twelve-month I had placed myself, consecutively, under no fewer than six medical men, most of them well-known specialists.


The writer then summarizes his treatments and remarks in a table:

Treatment 1: Politzer’s inflation and Eustachian Catheterism on both sides. Pilocarpine internally. Result: Deafness became absolute on both sides.

Treatment 2: Potassium Iodidum in heroic doses. Potassium Bromidum. Blisters behind Ears. Result: Depression to the verge of suicide.

Treatment 3: Phosphorus. Result: Exaltation to the verge of lunacy.

Treatment 4: Ferrum Perchloridum. Galvanic Chain. Stimulating Food, Wine. Result: none.

Treatment 5: Gaiffe’s Battery. Result: none.

Treatment 6: Nitro-Glycerine. Arsenic. Result: none.

Shock machine developed by Adolphe Gaiffe (1830-1903) for treating nervous diseases. (Gilai Collectibles)
Shock machine developed by Adolphe Gaiffe (1830-1903) for treating nervous diseases. (Gilai Collectibles)

Powell’s Electro-Vibratory Cure for Deafness

In 1905, Dr. Guy Clifford Powell, of Peoria, Illinois invented and marketed a device he called the “Electro-Vibratory Cure for Deafness.”

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The apparatus apparently cured a patient of deafness by pumping air through the ears via cotton-covered electrodes soaked in salt water. After pumping in air, a jolt of electricity generated by the solenoid coils is sent to the patient’s head. Two “Electro-Magneto Storage Cells” batteries were placed inside the top cover.

The Lindian Collection of Medical Devices has some incredible close-up photos of the device’s structures and an overview of the instruction manual.

The Electro-Vibratory apparatus was initially priced at $100 and promoted through mail-order marketing. Powell advertised himself as an “International Specialist,” even printing his image alongside his adverts for the device. Prospective clients would write in, request a trial, and the device would be sent to them once payment was received. Apparently as Powell risked being exposed as a fraud, he offered a hefty discount for clients—they only had to pay $15!

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After Powell died, his company was carried on by “Dr. L.C. Grains Company,” which operated out of Chicago instead of Peoria. The company added the Electro-Vibratory apparatus to its repository of deaf cures, including the “Read Clover Extract” and the “Curo Grains of Life.” However, all the advertising booklets, leaflets, and general paraphernalia issued by the L.C. Grains Company were identical to that of Powell’s—save for the portrait of the “Doctor!”

Testimonials and advertising ephemera from the Powell Company.
Testimonials and advertising ephemera from the Powell Company.

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 

Word of the Day: Quacksalver \KWAK-sal-ver\ (noun)

quacksalver \KWAK-sal-ver\, noun:
1. a charlatan.
2. a quack doctor.

And there was that quacksalver Mellowes again, with his pernicious theory that consumption was caused by an excess of oxygen.
— Patrick O’Brian, Desolation Island, 1978

Anon, we grow persuaded that he traded both eyes for hooks and beneath the roof of his friend, Prince of Hesse Cassel, this Quacksalver expired to the winding from a strange horn one overcast night at Sleswig — and doubt not that at the bar he lifted up both hands to please innocent!
— Evan S. Connell, The Alchymist’s Journal, 1991

Even more outlandish than she is, he thought. “We shall not have her degraded as some quacksalver’s drab.
— Ariana Franklin, Mistress of the Art of Death, 2007


Quacksalver comes from an early Dutch word of the same spelling referring to someone who prescribes home remedies. It is the root of the more common word quack.