By Helen Gavaghan, Leeds, UK.


"... And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea."
An extract from Little Gidding by T.S.Eliot.

5th October, 2019.
IT IS IN POETRY AND PERSONAL LETTERS that historians have found most insight so far into the experience of going deaf, as it was felt among the Victorians. There is a sense of mourning and loosing connection. Otherwise, said Karen Sayer, professor of social and cultural studies at Leeds Trinity University, it is family members rather than the person going through hearing loss who write about what is happening. Sayer was speaking this morning at The Thackray Museum of Medicine in Leeds. She and Graeme Gooday, a professor at the University of Leeds, gave talks about aspects of hearing loss and deafness before the NHS was established. Much of what they said was based on their 2017 book, "Managing the Experience of Hearing Loss in Britain, 1830-1930" (Published by Palgrave).

In poetry, Sayer said it was loss of childrens' voices and birdsong the person with the condition often noted. That is connected to the tendency when aging to lose the ability to hear high frequencies, though middle and/or some low frequencies can be lost too. The experience is personal to the individual. One woman writing in the late nineteenth century of what she was going through signed her letters "Out in the cold".

Both Gooday and Sayer portrayed deafness during the Victorian era as a multi-layered social and cultural experience. The first prominent scientist to talk at any length in the UK about the subject was William Wollaston (1766-1828), president of the Royal Society in 1820. As he lost his hearing Wollaston noted that others speaking louder did not help matters. During the nineteenth century awareness of deafness grew. Slowly it was noted that hearing loss can be different in each ear. It is known now that volume, intensity, background noise and frequency impact, among other factors, the severity of experience of deafness or hearing impairment. Sometimes, said Gooday, one can hear a nearby conversation but not what is being said by the person one is speaking with. In Victorian times scientists, physicians and engineers began to develop hearing tests ranging from ticking clocks and tuning forks to whispering. It was hard to establish norms, but some reductionist efforts were made to test the extent of deafness. For example, groups of men were exposed to sound and a "norm" established for the distance at which they could hear. Some workers in loud industrial environments were found to have only 9 percent of normal hearing compared with that norm. Such tests became important in the late nineteenth Century when governments began to lay down laws to compensate workers' injuries. Some workers with severe hearing loss resulting from their employment were not compensated despite it being work which had caused their disability. The argument was that they did not need to be able to hear to do their job.

The Thackray Museum had laid out exhibits for those at the talk to examine. These included a conversation tube, hearing trumpets and ancient hearing aids. The conversation tube links a hearing trumpet at one end to a receptacle to speak into at the other end. There was a faux mother of pearl ear trumpet and disguised hearing aids. The physical properties of the hearing aid impacted the users' experience of what they heard in tone and completeness. For the elegant Victorian keen to disguise his or her impairment there were gendered items, such as hearing trumpets looking like a lady's fan or a man's walking stick. Not everyone wanted to spend money disguising their hearing devices, said Sayers. Some would flaunt their aids.

Advent of the telephone presented a new challenge to those with hearing impairment. This was the first time, said Gooday, that people needed to be able to hear without any visual clues. He recalled that one of his own grandparents had not wanted to use the telephone. Then when talkies replaced silent films access to entertainment became less varied for those with limited hearing.

In modern times it is known hearing can sometimes be a result a neural inability to process some sounds rather than an issue with the ear itself, or that a person may have different hearing profiles in each ear.

Small errors of mistyping corrected 17.10.2019. Item published for Issue 4 (Oct.-Dec) of Science, People & Politics.

For Issue 4 (Oct. - Dec.) 2019 of Science, People & Politics ISSN 1751-598X (online)

Published first online at 18.30, 5.10.2019.
Grammatical error corrected 14.10.2019. Typing errors corrected 17.10.2019.