Fitting For Health

In September, I’ll be in Paris, presenting at what is sure to be an amazing conference. The “Fitting for Health: The Economy of Medical Technology in Europe and its Colonies, 1600-1850,” will be held on 2-3 September at the École normale supérieure and Académie nationale de médecine. Here is the conference description:

Is the history of medicine “that of its instruments ?” (Henri Sigerist). In spite of the importance of material tools for diagnosis and therapeutic practices since Antiquity, we have insufficient knowledge of medical equipment, its uses or production. Yet, recent studies have emphasized the importance of the forceps in the successful management of difficult births, the role of ceramic in the storage and commercial display of drugs in early modern Europe, the development of toyware and that of metallic trusses sent to the colonies, or the visual technologies that linked corpses, printed images, wax artefacts and instruments for diagnosis.

My paper, “Diagnosing Deafness: Instruments and the Making of Surgical Authority in 19c London/Diagnostiquer la surdité : l’instrumentation et la fabrique de l’autorité chirurgicale à Londres au XIXe siècle,” examines how various diagnostic instruments served as a means for establishing authority within aural surgery. My abstract is below:

The introduction and use of diagnostic instruments for aural surgery —a branch of medicine focusing on the diseases of the ear—in early nineteenth century London functioned both as a means for medicalization of a particular segment of society and the material expression of the interactions between medicine, technology, and society. Although the anatomy of the ear was well-known during the nineteenth century, British aural surgery was in disarray, a crude branch of surgery more prone to the passing fancy of men of means and anatomists, than an accredited branch of scientific medicine. Combining with the difficulty of examining the ear, there was no census on what constituted as appropriate treatment or classification of ear diseases ; as a result, the precarious state of aural surgery left it vulnerable to the clutches of charlatans and quacks who sought the opportunity for it within the medical marketplace.

In his A Treatise on the Physiology and Diseases of the Ear (1817), the aurist John Harrison Curtis (1778-1856) argued that the disarray of the field not only compromised treatment, but also weakened public trust in the ability of aurists and aural surgeons to effectively cure deafness. In particular, Curtis emphasized that the difficulty of properly diagnosing deafness limited the range of treatments ; practitioners often misdiagnosed ear ailments or worsened the condition, which further weakened the authority of the field. Diagnostic instruments, I argue, thus provided Curtis and other aurists a pivotal advantage in establishing their authority within society and within medicine. These instruments allowed for more specific diagnosis, which in turn, led to more effective cures and treatments for deafness and ear diseases.

If you’re in Paris around that time, I strongly recommend you attend this conference. You can view the full program and book of abstracts on the conference website.

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