Deaf: Cultures and Communication, 1600 to the Present

Medical Culture

deafness and the corresponding failure of many treatments undermined the authority and professional unity of aurists, doctors specializing in the ear. Many so-called “quacks” also peddled their own treatments and cures for hearing loss.

The past 150 years, however, have brought research on more specific causes and types of hearing loss, with treatments customized accordingly. This professionalization has profoundly impacted our understanding of deafness and has also generated controversy. Some members of the Deaf community fear that the unity and survival of Deaf culture is vulnerable to this powerful medical culture, in which physicians may see deafness as a potentially curable medical condition rather than a positive identity.


This battery-powered otoscope was used to examine patients’ ears.  

 DIY stamp

Click here to turn your iPhone into an otoscope.

Ear Specula

These silver-plated ear specula are small, cone-shaped attachments that fit inside the ear canal.





Traite des maladies de l'oreille et de l'audition

Jean Marc Garspard Itard was one of the most famous aurists of the nineteenth century. As a physician at the National Institute for the Deaf in Paris, he conducted a number of harrowing experiments on children. Itard is recognized for inventing the Eustachian catheter, used to probe, clear, or flush the Eustachian tubes. This plate also illustrates his acoumètre, a pendulum dropped from a specific angle to produce a sound of a consistent volume, which allowed Itard to measure relative hearing ability.

An Essay on the Deaf and Dumb

Acknowledgement: Jaipreet Virdi-Dhesi
(see "Sources" section)

The aurist John Curtis founded the Dispensary for Diseases of the Ear in 1816. Worried that his field was dominated by quacks, he developed the cephaloscope, an auscultatory tool held over the patient’s ear, to improve diagnosis and determine whether a particular case of deafness could be cured. Although the tool never caught on, scholars have argued that this work was meant to produce a more orderly system for identifying causes and treatments for deafness, and ultimately improve the status of aural surgery.



Contributions to Aural Surgery

Like his colleague John Curtis, James Yearsley (1805-69) was unhappy with what he saw as a plague of disreputable aurists, and he condemned repeated and unsuccessful treatments by “blisters, irritating ointments, purgatives, acoustic oils, stimulating ear-drops, acrid injections, emetics, gargles, &c &c.” He was a strong proponent of Eustachian tube catheterization and developed an “Apparatus used in the Diagnosis and Treatment of Deafness,” shown here, which included reservoirs, tubes, and catheters for injecting air, water, or medicated fluids into the ear. In 1848, Yearsley also introduced an artificial tympanum made of cotton wool, inspired by a patient who covered his own ruptured eardrum with a small piece of moistened paper.


Diseases of the Ear

Joseph Toynbee was a popular aural surgeon at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. He noticed that people with perforated or ruptured eardrums could hear better if a bubble of water formed over the damaged part. In 1850, he presented his plan for a tympanum of gutta percha or rubber, with a silver wire for easy insertion and removal. Toynbee had an ongoing rivalry with fellow aural surgeon James Yearsley, who had invented his own device for perforated eardrums, made of moistened cotton wool, about a decade earlier. 

Acknowledgement: Jaipreet Virdi-Dhesi
(see "Sources" section)