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.