Meeting of the Three Societies

In case you haven’t gathered from my increased Twitter activity this last week, I’ve been at the meeting of the Three Societies. Philadelphia is a gorgeous, historic city, and I found it to be an ideal setting for the meeting. And what a great meeting it was! It was fantastic to finally meet some of the regular Twitter historians, and some scholars whose work I’ve admired. It was also great to meet fellow graduate students, especially those from Leeds (where I’ll be in two weeks!). Thanks to those who showed up at my session, to new friends and old, to many conversations I’ve had (especially those about acoustic instruments), and to some truly interesting talks. Due to a stupid error I made when I originally booked my flight, I had to miss the last day of the conference; which meant I was truly disappointed to miss the one session (on Patents and Instruments–particularly the session by Graeme Gooday) I was looking forward to the most.

Alas, there’s always another conference! Here’s some photos I took before my camera battery died:

Benjamin Franklin Hall at the American Philosophical Society

The iced tea were just perfect for a sweltering hot day

Ronald Numbers giving the keynote address, “Into all the World: Expanding the History of Science Beyond the Abrahamic Faiths”

British Journal for the History of Science 50th Anniversary Reception.

Coffee Break at the gorgeous Houston Hall at UPenn

I’ll be posting extracts from my presentation, on Dr. Alexander Turnbull and Eustachian tube catheterization, a topic that forms the bulk of Chapter Five of my dissertation. In the meantime, here’s the abstract:

Inquests into a Surgical Procedure: Creating Public and Professional Trust in Aural Surgery, 1830-1845

During the late 1830s, a group of practitioners providing specialized treatments for ear diseases–known as aurists or aural surgeons–aimed to distance themselves from any ambivalence surrounding their profession and mark themselves as specialists. In particular, they found their profession threatened by the prominence of quacks who offered ill-advised remedies and undermined the surgical authority of aurists. This authority became severely fragile in 1839 when Alexander Turnbull, a popular London-based aurist, applied a surgical procedure, Eustachian tube catheterization, which led to the deaths of two patients within a week. While the first death barely registered in the community, the death of the second patient, 18 year-old Joseph Hall, sent outrage throughout both public and professional fronts. This paper narrates the responses following the coroner’s inquest into Hall’s death and the operation performed on him. Although Eustachian tube catheterization was not a popular therapeutic procedure during the 1820s and many British aurists considered it dangerous if done improperly, by the 1830s it became one of many catch-all cures for deafness. I argue that the inquest into Hall’s death questioned the nature of the field’s consensus on a surgical procedure, and undermined the authority of aurists as skilled experts. Since aurists appealed to both the public and professional counterparts in defense of the procedure, I demonstrate how the Hall case provided them with a powerful impetus for overhauling their field, thus providing a sense of immediate urgency for establishing some kind of surgical consensus necessary for securing a specialty.

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