Jaipreet Virdi-Dhesi, “Cotton-Wool vs. Vulcanized Rubber: Expertise and the Artificial Tympanum Controversy,” Session Sa41: Making Hearing Aids: Diverse Motivations, Aesthetics, and Audiences, Adams (Mezzanine Level), Saturday, November 23, 3:45 – 5:45 PM
1. How did you come across this topic?
A few years ago, I was struggling with my essay assignment for a graduate course on the history of medicine. My professor advised me to concentrate on one textbook, so I headed off to the library–the first, random book I picked from the historical collection shelves was a 1816 treatise on diseases of the ear. Since then, I’ve been interested on the changing concepts of deafness and how these concepts influenced not only medical & surgical practice, but also the lives of the deaf in nineteenth century British society. My HSS presentation is an extract of one of my dissertation chapters.
2. What was the most interesting source you encountered in this project?
Probably the late-nineteenth century photographs of users inserting the artificial tympanum. They really show how small the device was and how little effort it was required by the user to wear the device.
3. What did you have to cut out of your paper that you wish you could have kept?
Anecdotes from patients on how the artificial tympanum transformed their every day lives. Since many of these anecdotes are published in surgical textbooks or accompanied by clinical case details, it’s hard to assess their validity from the “deaf perspective.”
4. What are you most looking forward to at HSS in Boston?
Besides presenting my paper? Seeing some good friends again! I also signed up with the mentorship program, so I’m looking forward to meeting my assigned mentor for the first time.
The artificial tympanum is a device used to remedy a perforation in the membrane of the eardrum that prevents it from functioning properly, by maintaining air
pressure and preventing excessive discharge. Throughout the centuries, various types of materials were proposed for constructing an artificial membrane, including pig’s bladder, lint, fishskin, egg membranes, and foil. These were mainly popular folk remedies that required little expertise in its construction beyond trial-and-error. In 1848, the aural surgeon James Yearsley published an article in The Lancet introducing his new technological marvel: an artificial tympanum made of cotton-wool and affixed with a silver wire stem. Yearsley’s innovation received modest attention until 1850, when the aural surgeon Joseph Toynbee presented his own artificial tympanum, made of vulcanized india rubber, at a meeting of the Provincial Medical Association, without making any reference to Yearsley.
In addition to debates about priority, Yearsley and Toynbee’s disagreements over the device raises questions about the issue of expertise, particularly in the selection of materials: Yearsley chose the cotton-wool based upon his case studies, whereas Toynbee went with vulcanized rubber after rigid anatomical investigations of the ear and experimenting with theories of bone conduction. Both practitioners boasted their selection of materials made for a more superior device in restoring hearing loss. This paper examines the debate between the two surgeons in the context of broader issues of legitimacy within medical and surgical practice, as well as the contesting boundary lines between what constituted as “scientific practice” in the making of early non-electric air conduction devices.