April 3 2016

Curing deafness!

Searching the term “deaf” on the British Newspapers Online during the eighteenth century reveal 11,848 results, 4,666 of which are classified adverts mainly advertising “cures” for deafness, suggesting that the eighteenth century view towards deafness was that it was an illness/disorder to be cured. There are several references to “The Great and Famous Cephalic Liquid Snuff” which has allegedly “performed wonderful cures upon several persons that had been deaf for many years.” Cephalic snuff proved to be popular and was believed to be a cure for deafness throughout the century. There are also references to “angelick snuff”, labelled as “the most noble composition in the world perfectly curing deafness…”

Several hundred newspaper articles praise the work of physicians who are believed to have found these “cures” such as the Grub Street Journal on 6 October 1737 noting “the famous Dr Ward” who cured several deaf people by prescribing a pill. Earlier in the century a Richard Ducketh claim to have found a medicine to cure deafness in 1717 and apparently cured several hundred who had been deaf since infancy. Later in the eighteenth century we come across a Dr Raynes, a doctor held in high regard for the work he undertook treating and curing illnesses and disabilities, mainly blindness and deafness. Dr Raynes received a lot of media coverage during his time, mainly in reports of success stories. For example, a Mr George Bird who had been deaf over twenty years informs the public of the “extraordinary relief” which he had obtained in his hearing by Doctor Raynes and a Mrs Elizabeth Nedriff who had “the inexpressible pleasure to acquaint the public of her being perfectly and happily cured of her deafness by Dr Raynes, which she had been afflicted with for fifty years, or ever since she was born…” These are just some names in a very long list of those who had been restored to their hearing after being deaf a considerable number of years and deemed incurable.

What is interesting is the number of people reporting their successful experiences of being cured of deafness which sent out a message that it was easily done, leading the public to seek such treatments. It is not clear why so many talk about successful cures and put themselves forward as “evidence” of successful medicine. Were those success stories genuine? On a cynical note, it can be suggested that those who were cured were not really deaf in the medical sense. Modern medicine cannot cure deafness by the use of medicine, so it is very likely those who had been cured were suffering from simple ailments. Further research into medicine in the eighteenth century is necessary in order seek further insight.

There does not appear to be any mention (so far) of incidents where treatment failed. This lack of information has made it difficult to gain a balanced overview of this topic. However, further articles have raised a question mark over the success of such treatments. Later in the century, we see adverts for hearing trumpets to “assist” deaf people, suggesting that cures were not as successful as the public were led to believe. Interestingly, the Gazetteer on 28 July 1762 prints a testimony by a John Alderton, a surgeon who tries to persuade those who are deaf that he has practised curing deafness, with great success, from the year 1738 till the year 1759. What is interesting is how he goes further to explain that he knows of the “…disreputation that attends advertisements of this sort and that too often they have no other meaning or intention but puss, fraud and deceit, to get money from the ignorant and unwary.” He then claims that this art or secret of curing deafness has been in his family for 150 years so he does not take the credit of being the author of it, but as he was the only survivor of the family, he believes he was the only person in England capable of curing deafness. If Alderton considered it necessary to convince the public that his cure was the only one that was genuine suggests it was common for such cures to “fail” and for people to question its authenticity. However, his success is also questioned when in 1799, we read about a Dr Wallis’ oil and balsamic cordial to be the “first remedy in the world for the cure of deafness”

When reading about curing deafness, most cases appear to be in the form of medication but there have been some extreme measures, even torture, in an attempt to cure carry out these cures. On 6 July 1727, the Daily Journal talks about the 9 year old daughter of a captain who was born deaf and dumb and in an attempt to cure her a doctor “cut the string of her tongue, and applied afterwards some remedies to her head.” After having suffered torture for some days, she apparently recovered her hearing very well and then she had learnt how to speak. It is difficult to believe such extreme methods actually led to “positive results” but it does show how much importance some people placed on “hearing”.

One area to explore after searching these articles is whether there was a link between class status and treatment of deafness, as such treatments would not have been free and likely to cost a considerable sum. The previous example was the daughter of a captain, so clearly someone of high status. The London Daily Post on 22 February 1735 talks about three children of a Noble Lord who born deaf and dumb were brought to their hearing by taking the “Pill and Drop of the famous Restorer of Health”. Another example is a master of a workhouse, who was “restored to hearing after being fourteen years deaf.” Not all success stories report the individuals’ status though, so whether we will come to an adequate conclusion is questionable.