Popular Remedies for Deafness

The aurist William Wright (1773-1860) published a journal in 1825, The Aurist. In the third volume, 31 May 1825, he prints the first of series of articles to be devoted to discussing the merits of some popular remedies advertised and recommended by aurists and “quacks” in London. Unfortunately, the third volume was the last one, but we are left with some interesting insights into how Wright assesses some of these “popular” remedies.

On insects being inserted into the ear:

We do not believe that these insects or eggs, ever assisted to relieve one case of deafness, but we do believe that some simple cases may have been benefited by the application of the oil [of earthworms] alone, which is directed to be used in the preparation of these other remedies.

For instance, ants, when boiled or distilled, give off formic acid, which can be used to drain out wax from the ear.

On the use of Nitrone Oxide Gas:

As experimented with some professionals for deafness, we think, if administered with due caution, it is worthy the experiment, because as it does stimulate the muscular powers so forcibly, without leaving any of that debility, which is the usual consequence of all other stimuli; in moderate but frequent doses, and under proper management, it might permanently increase the tone of the organ of hearing.”

The gas was often used by aurists for Eustachian tube catheterization.

Also used for catheterization, Aether:

We are trying the effects of the vapour of aether in a few cases to which every other method of treatment has previously been applied, and failed of affording relief. The patients who are having it applied, are persons of an extreme nervous temperament, and they are satisfied that they have already desired benefit from the application. At present we do not think the fact is sufficiently established, to enable us to speak decidedly upon the subject, but we hope to be able to do so in the course of the succeeding numbers, when we shall explain the manner of using the ether.

As discussed earlier with the case of Joseph Hall, catheterization with an air douche can be dangerous, and even more so when applied with aether; it was thus recommended by many aurists only the skilled and well-trained of the brethren should apply it on patients.

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William Wright & Miss Hannah Thatcher

William Wright (1773-1860), whose professional career began in Bristol, England in 1796, moved to London and acquired a large practice in aural surgery that included the Duke of Wellington and other members of the nobility as patients. Eventually he became one of John Harrison Curtis’ fiercest and most outspoken rivals, rallying against the prevalence of quackery in aural surgery. Part of his early career included teaching deaf-mutes the elements of speech, an approach that was scarcely offered by other aurists of the day.

Continue reading William Wright & Miss Hannah Thatcher

On Pretended and Itinerant Aurists

As focused as I’ve been on John Harrison Curtis, my current research focus has branched out, exploring a seeming network of aurists that also practiced in London during Curtis’ time.

William Wright (1773-1860), as I’ve mentioned previously, was one of Curtis’ contemporaries, and perhaps his most fierce and prominent competitor. Wright had a very long career–nearly 50 years–and published as many treatises on deafness and ear diseases as Curtis did. While his early work concentrated on warning the public against the dangers of using mercury as a treatment for deafness, much of his later work commented on various types of treatments described by other aurists at his time.

In fact, Wright’s writing actually serves as a commentary on the state of aural surgery during the early 19th century: his early publications remarks on the lack of expertise in the field, then he writes about the various treatments offered by aurists of his day, and during the latter part of his career, he scorns the level of quackery in the field and commends the newer generation of anatomists (like Joseph Toynbee) for taking a more “scientific” interest in the field. Pretty much every aurist during the period is mentioned in one or more of Wright’s publications!

I’ll write a longer essay in the near future examining the evolution or transformation of Wright’s perceptions of aural surgery. In the meantime, here’s one of Wright’s comments on “pretended and itinerant aurists”:

It is high time that some legislative enactment should put a stop to these nefarious practices, and to the evils which these impostors inflict through want of skill, upon many families among the poor. But it is almost hopeless to expect any change, whilst government receive so much from the advertisements issued by these empirics, and whilst the country newspapers are so materially benefited from the same source. Even Royalty itself has been imposed upon more than once, and made a medium for promulgating the names of some of the most notorious quacks to the world; which circumstances must be fresh in the recollection of the public.

Wright, Plain Advice for all classes of Deaf Persons, the Deaf and Dumb, and those having Diseases of the Ears (London, 1826)

“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.