Lunchtime seminar series – 14th April: Coreen Anne McGuire (University of Leeds)

CHSTMSeminar Coreen McGuire

Trauma, telephones and treatment: changing attitudes to hearing loss after World War One.

The 1876 invention of the telephone was allegedly the result of Alexander Graham Bell’s attempt to create a device to help the deaf.  Yet the result of such purely aural technology was to alienate those with a hearing loss that may previously have gone unnoticed. In so doing, the telephone was used to delineate levels of hearing loss, most notably through the Audiometer. The experiences of adults with hearing loss prior to World War One has been overlooked, especially in comparison to the vast literature exploring the education of deaf children. One way to recover the experiences of deaf adults in the Victorian period is by examining the variety of cunningly disguised acoustic hearing aids and early examples of ear protection.  In this paper I explore changes in attitudes to hearing loss and hearing protection by examining objects taken from the collection of hearing aids held at the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds, in conjunction with my work on their latest exhibition, ‘Recovery? From Flanders to Afghanistan.’

I argue that these changes were precipitated by World War One, which catalysed transformations in the perception, treatment and technology used to treat hearing loss. For soldiers in darkened trenches, hearing was essential for survival yet the auditory  impact of shells and artillery fire deafened many soldiers and  led to what the British Medical Journal described as a national crisis of hearing loss, exacerbated by the ‘hysterical deafness’ that was symptomatic of shell shock. My paper reveals how the deafening of many of the nation’s soldiers precipitated new explorations of the causes and treatments of deafness and resulted in changing attitudes and provisions for the deafened; including hearing aid clinics, electronic hearing aids, lip reading classes and the development of amplified telephones.

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