History of Medicine, ...
History of Medicine, History of Material Culture, History of Technology
The approach applied in the group to the history of medicine goes 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 investigates 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 aims to
discuss 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.
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 will examine 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.