Histories of Deaf Histories

One of the agendas of my dissertation is to build a steady bridge between scholarship from the history of medicine and scholarship from Deaf and Disability Studies. Granted, as part of my education at IHPST, my research has been lopsided, for I’ve concentrated more on the history of medicine and technologies (especially relating to medical professionalism and quackery) and not so much on Deaf Culture. That’s why I’m so excited to be here at Leeds, emerging myself into a different and unfamiliar scholarship in the hopes of writing a remarkably interdisciplinary dissertation. I’ll have a report from the conference once it’s finished.

On the top of histories of Deaf histories, Lennard Davis has emphasized the deaf person has historically served as an icon for complex intersections of subject, class, and the body.[1] This construction and awareness of the connection to language relied on deafness becoming visible for the first time as an articulation in a set of practices. According to Davis, prior to the mid-seventeenth century, the deaf were rarely constructed as a group; while we may come across a historical record of a deaf individual, he points out that there is no significant discourse constructed on deafness. “The reason for this discursive nonexistence,” he explains,

is that, then as now, most deaf people were born to hearing families, and were therefore isolated in their deafness. Without a sense of group solidarity and without a social category of disability, they were mainly seen as isolated deviations of the norm, as we might now consider, for example, people who are missing an arm. For these deaf, there were no schools, no teachers, no discourse, in effect, no deafness.[2]

Davis continues, somewhat ambiguously, to explain that though deafness did not exist, authors who wrote on deafness did so within a set of practices whereby deafness could be evaluated. In short, deafness and mutism became tied with theories of language and intellect, evaluated and adopted into pedagogical efforts to instruct and educate the deaf.

This stance is interesting for it suggests that marganlized groups themselves have a history that is culturally and socially constructed (which other historians of deformity, insanity, etc., have already discussed). Margaret Winzer also notes that attitudes towards the deaf in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were based on defining economic and social conditions; the changing social climate—particularly in France—were thus manifested in the formation of schooling and general attitudes about education towards the deaf. She argues that while the educators recognized the importance of deaf education, the plight of the deaf as a group drew meager public attention, but this does not mean that deafness did not exist as a discourse.[3]

However, the experiences of the deaf were not only closely tied with pedagogical and philosophical examinations, but also with charitable influences as well as medical prospects. While the works of most historians of Deaf Histories have examined the tensions between the deaf body in related to the social body (Winzer, Padden & Humphries), particularly in terms of sign language and communication, others have focused on the concept of deafness as a cultural construction as well as a physical phenomenon (Baynton, Branson & Miller, Davis). These authors argue that as social and medical treatments for deafness became a subject of discourse, deafness thus became “visible” and the body of the deaf individual became a site of Foucaultdian power and social management. Branson and Miller argue that deafness was not merely a condition but a site for social transformation, which became firmly identified with “progress.”[4] In transforming the deaf from a site of philosophical and pedagogical experiments towards a site of the pathological, the deaf became “a measure of humanity’s control over its own destiny, a measure of the power of the scientific method.”[5] The deaf, to put it simply, became the mark of the triumph of medicine, as treatments of the deaf body revealing of the power and control of physicians and surgeons.


[2] Davis, Enforcing Normalcy, 51.

[3] Margaret Winzer, The History of Special Education .

[4] Branson and Miller, Damned for their Difference, 88.

[5] Branson and Miller, Damned for their Difference, 88.



In this blog post, I want to share one of the projects I’ve been involved with: The University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection (UTSIC), a volunteer project at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, to catalogue, collect, and maintain all of the university’s scientific instruments collection.

Several graduate students who are involved with UTSIC, myself included, participated in the “Reading Artifacts” workshop at the Canada Science and Technology Museum last August (which I’ve detailed in a previous post). There, we were taught how to “read” artifacts. By inspecting and examining artifacts such as a 1950s Hoover vacuum, a radiosnode, and an anatomy model, it became clear that an evaluation of an artifact, combined by a study of its textual and visual representations, can create an enriched three-dimensional model of an abstract historical idea.

For artifacts to gain their prominence as historical sources in their own right, universities need to consider the importance of permanent university-wide collections for scientific instruments. Over many years of distinguished scientific research, the University of Toronto’s science departments have accumulated large numbers of historically significant scientific instruments, some even dating back to the early nineteenth century. Besides being historically valuable, these instruments are vital to both the institutional history of the University, as well as to history of science.

Since the late 1970s, attempts have been made to organize a university-wide collection at the University of Toronto. To date, many of these attempts have either passed or failed over time. As a result, while certain instruments are very well displayed and cared for within particular departments, others are all but forgotten and very poorly stored. Sadly, many have been discarded or lost over the years.

The Galvanometer Case, "Toronto Electrical Exhibition!"
The Galvanometer Case, "Toronto Electrical Exhibition!" (Photo from UTSIC collection)

UTSIC brings in a new initiative for encouraging a collective link between departments to establish a university-wide collection. Founded by several graduate students and interested faculty at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, UTSIC is largely a collective effort to catalogue and preserve University of Toronto’s instrument collection. The goal is to build a stable interdisciplinary community at the university dedicated to ensuring that these instruments are made available for study and teaching.

UTSIC has proved to be a promising initiative, having succeeded with numerous projects in its first year. The central focus of UTSIC has remained to produce a “living collection” through the creation of an online catalogue containing current, up-to-date information of all scientific instruments at the university. The catalogue is in its final phases and will be ready to go live by fall. We also hope to build an interactive blog to connect with other researchers and students to engage in fostering dialogue on collections and instrumentation.

Close-up of the Medical Electricity Case. Left: High-Frequency Electro-Medical Apparatus (Wappler Electric Co. Inc.) Right: Home Medical Apparatus with Dry Cell Battery and Coil (Manhattan Electrical Supply Company - MESCO) (Photo from UTSIC collection)

Cataloguing is only one of our goals. We have also applied some of the skills learned at the “Reading Artifacts” workshop on displaying and exhibiting, creating not one, but two (!) museum-style exhibits during the year. The first, titled “Through the Looking Glass: Observing and Experimenting in Practice” coincided with IHPST’s celebratory conference on Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in November 2009. Optical instruments of all sorts were displayed on the third floor of Victoria College during the duration of the conference. The second, “The Toronto Electrical Exhibition!” included numerous turn-of-the-century electrical instruments and is still currently displayed. During May 2010, the exhibit was showcased during the 6th Annual Graduate Conference at IHPST and the 4th Annual Models and Stimulations Philosophy Conference.

The Lighting Case: Light Bulb attached to Variable Resistance Coil, Bulbs in Parallel Circuit (Photo from UTSIC collection)

I’m sure the second year of UTSIC will be just as amazing. To get involved with the project, drop us a line at utsic@utoronto.ca, or follow us on twitter: @utsic.

The complete photo collection of the “Toronto Electrical Exhibition!” exhibit is available on Picasa.

Who is John Harrison Curtis (1778-1856)?

My research into aural surgery began accidentally when I was struggling to find a focus for my Fundamentals in the History of Medicine paper. Coming from a philosophy background, my first year as a graduate student was filled with struggles, extreme stress, and frustration, as I tried to stop writing “like a philosopher” and began training myself to be a “historian.” One of my major problems in writing history is that I didn’t know how to use my sources to present a precise narrative focus; in other words, I wrote very broadly about everything connected to the issue at hand, and failed to interpret the sources I used.

So came the fateful day I found myself at the “Old Catalogue” section at Gerstein Library, looking for a 19th century treatise on ear diseases. The one I needed (which by now, I cannot recall the title) was not on the shelves. Where that book should have been, was Curtis’ A Treatise on the Physiology and Diseases of the Ear, fourth edition, printed in 1826. Who was Curtis? I had no idea. I checked out the dusty book, absorbed the librarian’s warning to be careful with the fragile pages, and headed off home to read it.

My first impression? I was fascinated and yet bored. Bored, because I knew nothing of ear diseases or treatments, and had no idea whether what Curtis wrote about was accurate or not. Fascinated, because Curtis revealed such passion in his practice through his writing; some of his sentences were downright poetic, and shed a tiny light into ideas about deafness that I never paid attention to, such as the suffering of children housed at London’s asylums for the deaf and dumb.

Imagine my surprise when a search through secondary scholarship revealed Curtis to be a “quack.” But what did that mean, I had no clue. Why was he a quack? Was it because he lacked medical qualifications? Because he did not present an accurate account of ear diseases and treatments? Because he was considered a fraud, a deceiver, and a no-good-peddler? At that time, I had no idea, but was intrigued into what Curtis could reveal about the practice of medicine and the understanding of deafness—by both the medical practice and the wider social community—in nineteenth century London. And thus, my research project was born.

Who was John Harrison Curtis? Well, he was a self-styled and remarkably ambitious aurist who offered exclusive medical treatment for deafness and ear diseases in his practice at a time when little was available elsewhere. Trained as a naval surgeon, he ventured in aural surgery after observing at the Hospital in Halsar that deafness and ear diseases were little understood by the general practitioner and ineffectively treated. Between 1816 and 1845 he published numerous treatises that argued against conventional perceptions of deafness as incurable and medical measures for ear diseases as nothing but desperate and useless. His first work, A Treatise on the Physiology and Diseases of the Ear, first published in 1817, reached six editions in his lifetime and was translated into French and German.[1] The Treatise popularized the notion that deafness could be cured and with each reprint—in 1818, 1823, 1826, 1831, and 1836—we see the changing world of aural surgery, as Curtis added new developments and technology in his accounts of the history of the field. Each new edition also serves as a testimony on the growing resentment from licensed practitioners against Curtis’ prominence as an aurist, as well as Curtis’ desperate and frantic defences against the accusations of quackery against him; the 1831 edition, for example, is the only one with a modification in the title. A Treatise on the Physiology and Pathology of the Ear is a reflection of both the progress made in pathology of the ear, which Curtis did not include in his previous works, and of Curtis’ struggle to maintain his authority as an aurist.

Curtis was also an active participant in the social network of aurists and patrons. He was a member of the Medical Society of London, where he mingled with some of the greatest surgeons and physicians at the time. His marriage to Sophia Newman, a woman with aristocratic ties, allowed him to forge proper social connections among the nobility, and eventually secure patronage for the founding of the Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear, the first hospital in England offering specialized care for ear diseases. What was once a small practice aimed at introducing various modes of treatments for all kinds of ear diseases, the Dispensary grew to such a degree that a contemporary noted: “crowds of poor people, and rich ones too, flocked to the Dispensary…for advice and relief. With George IV and the duke and duchess of Gloucester as patients, the fame of the great aurist soon became not only metropolitan, but national.”[2] By 1820, King George IV became a patron and the institution became the Royal Dispensary for the Diseases of the Ear, securing Curtis’ position and reputation as a prominent aurist.[3] The success of the Dispensary and its long list of patrons and vice-presidents—including Cooper and Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850)— reveals more than just Curtis’ personal (and financial) reputation; it showcases how changing ideas about the curability of deafness deserved further recognition and exposure than what was at present available. Moreover, the Dispensary challenged assumptions held by educators of deaf asylums on the role of aurists in treating deaf individuals, and became a symbolic battleground for not only the tensions between educators and aurists, but also for the infuriation of licensed practitioners who saw the Dispensary as a representation of the triumph of the quack.

One of nineteenth century aural surgery’s most dominant and complex figures, Curtis was also the possessor of multiple identities: he was called “the great aurist” just as often as he was called a “quack;” a saviour of his art as much as its shame; an entrepreneur as much as a buffoon. For my research, an examination of his identities and professional as well as social connections reveals much into the means whereby practitioners of aural surgery sought to distance themselves from quacks while providing a medical cure for a social ill, namely, the problem of deafness. His work and career is also a key part of the story that traces the historical transition whereby reputable aurists sought to expose and eliminate quack aurists from aural surgery.

**Please note that Curtis’ biography still an ongoing project for me; I’m still digging through archival sources, analyzing related primary texts, and reading connecting secondary sources. If you find an error with whatever I am saying, can recommend useful texts, or can direct me to appropriate archives/sources, please feel free to leave me a comment. I promise to thank you when I publish my dissertation!

[1] Curtis also published other works on aural surgery, eye diseases, and the general health of the population, none of which received as much attention as the Treatise. His other works include: A Treatise on the Physiology and Diseases of the Eye (1833, 1836); Observations on the Preservation of Sight (1835, 1838, 1844);  The Present State of Ophthalmology (1841); Observations on the Preservation of Health in Infancy, Youth, Manhood and Age (1837, 1839, 1842); Simplicity of Living: Observations on the Preservation of Health (1838, 1839); and Advice on the Care of Health with Remarks on the Present State of Hygiology (1845).

[2] J.F. Clarke, “The Career of a Specialist: John Harrison Curtis, Aurist,” in Autobiographical Recollections of the Medical Profession (London: J&A Churchill, 1874), p.359.

[3] Neil Weir, “Curtis, John Harrison (1778–1860),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

DIY: Critical Making and Social Media

If you know me very, very well, you know that I enjoy conference-organizing. Here is yet another one I’m working on. I’m not familiar with the academic exploration of social media or “critical making” but I imagine it should be especially interesting, since the call for paper encourages submissions consisting different types of media. I’m all about what my sister calls “up-to-dateness” and I strongly believe this is one grand conference you don’t want to miss. Check out the CFP:

DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media
Centre for the Study of the United States, Munk School of Global Affairs
University of Toronto
Nov 12-14, 2010


Call for papers/presentations: due May 20, 2010

Plenary speakers include: Anne Balsalmo, Suzanne de Castell, Ron Deibert, Paul Dourish, Henry Jenkins, Jennifer Jenson, Natalie Jeremijenko, Steve Mann, Trebor Scholz.

Conference Organizers: Prof. Megan Boler, Associate Chair, Department of Theory and Policy Studies in Education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto; Prof. Matthew Ratto Assistant Professor, Faculty of Information, University of Toronto; Director, Critical Making Lab, University of Toronto

A renewed emphasis on participatory forms of digitally-mediated production is transforming our social landscape. Making has become the dominant metaphor for a variety of digital and digitally-mediated practices. The web is exploding with independently produced digital content such as video diaries, conversations, stories, software, music, video games ”all of which are further transformed and morphed by modders,hackers, artists and activists who redeploy and repurpose corporately-produced content. Equally, communities of self-organized crafters, hackers, and enthusiasts are increasingly to be found online exchanging sewing and knitting patterns, technical guides, circuit layouts, detailed electronics tutorials and other forms of instruction and support. Many of these individuals and collaborators understand their work to be socially interventionist. Through practices of design, development, and exchange they challenge traditional divides between production and consumption and to redress the power differentials built into technologically-mediated societies.

DIY Citizenship invokes the participatory nature of these diverse do-it-yourself modes of engagement, community, networks, and tools”all of which arguably replace traditional with remediated notions of citizenship. The term critical making refers to the increasing role making plays in critical forms of social reflection and engagement.

This interactive conference seeks to extend conversations about new modes of engaged DIY citizenship and politics evidenced by the exponential increase of DIY media,user-generators , prosumers, hacktivists, tactical media interventionists, and other maker identities. We invite scholars, activists, artists, designers, programmers and others interested in the social and participatory dimensions of digitally-mediated practices, to engage in dialogue across disciplinary and professional divides. All methodological and theoretical approaches are welcomed. Submissions may include paper proposals, works of art and/or design, short video or audio segments, performances, video games, digital media, or other genres and forms. Potential topics include: the relation between social media and the making of new forms of citizenship engagement”thus, for example, making movements; making community; making news; making play; making bodies; making health; making public; making education; making networks.

For the full conference call, see:


I am a guest blogger for ActiveHistory.ca, a website directed to connecting historians with the public, policy makers and the media. My first contribution is an extended version of my Petition to Save the Wellcome Center post. You can read my guest post HERE.

The ActiveHistory.ca website was developed out of the ideas from a two-day symposium in 2008 at Glendon College, “Active History: History for the Future.” Designed to bring together university-based and community-based historians, the conference aimed to facilitate the role of historians in the wider public and explore how history can branch out from the ivory tower and engage actively with the community.

The goal of the website, which was developed by graduate students at the history departments at York University and University of Toronto, is to expand on several key ideas from the conference. As the website explains,

We define active history variously as history that listens and is responsive; history that will make a tangible difference in people’s lives; history that makes an intervention and is transformative to both practitioners and communities. We seek a practice of history that emphasizes collegiality, builds community among active historians and other members of communities, and recognizes the public responsibilities of the historian.

If you are interested in history and public policy/communities, I strongly recommend you add the blog to your daily web reads. In addition to including a variety of historians and experts as guest bloggers, the blog also publishes extended pieces on topics that would interest the general public, media, and policy makers.