History of Medicine, ...

History of Medicine, History of Material Culture, History of Technology

Rory Du Plessis, Mara Mills

The approach applied in this group went beyond social history, seeking to bring together political and epistemological points of view by investigating the use of rhetoric, medical fashions, and technologies.

Rory du Plessis investigated the photographs taken at the Grahamstown Lunatic Asylum, South Africa, during the superintendency of Dr Thomas Duncan Greenlees, 1890 to 1907. The photographs provide the most comprehensive record of asylum visual culture from South Africa during the nineteenth century. A remarkable aspect of the photographs is that none of the patients depicted show any of the stereotypical icons of madness. Instead of visualizing madness, Greenlees sought to lay emphasis on the normalcy and civility of the patients depicted. Accordingly, the photographs present a challenge to the traditional purposes intended for psychiatric photography (the physiognomic paradigm) and is at odds with the reigning myths and iconography of madness (visualising madness as "difference"). Du Plessis looked into how Greenlees’ departure from the traditional tropes of madness performed a crucial role in constructing a restorative and recuperative image of the asylum which was to appeal and persuade the public of the asylum’s suitability in caring for patients.

During her time at the MPIWG, Jai Virdi investigated how the rhetoric of scientific medicine was applied to the construction and use of the artificial tympanum, drawing on histories of technology and material cultures. She analyzed various depictions of the device in nineteenth-century print media, setting its development in the context of aural surgeons’ quest for professional legitimacy and the Victorian cultural emphasis on self-presentation. Nineteenth-century textbooks on aural surgery reveal how aural surgeons attempted to increase the functionality of the device through the use of more appropriate materials and applications: they experimented with India rubber, cotton wool, and silver wire, for example. Virdi also examined depictions of the artificial tympanum in surgical trade catalogues and classified advertisements, observing how it was marketed to the deaf. These sources show that the artificial tympanum had a dual identity: it was a prosthetic used by surgeons to “cure” a type of deafness, but it was also a hearing aid that could cosmetically conceal the deaf person’s “defect.”

Mara Mills, Assistant Professor at New York University, joined us for three months as a DAAD fellow while working on a book on the history of “communication engineering,” a concept and set of practices that emerged in the telephone industry in the early twentieth century. Mills is working on the history of hearing measurement in Germany, the UK, and the US in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She examined the technical methods used to measure hearing acuity—from watch ticks to electronic tones—as well as the different graphical means by which this information was recorded. She is particularly interested in the history of population statistics related to hearing and in the creation of normal curves against which individuals' abilities were compared.