Duncan Campbell

The play also raised a timely social issue, that of the need of England’s charity movement to establish educational schools for the deaf; but the transference of public perceptions of the deaf and dumb from France to Britain through this play was no means done so in isolation—the public were already aware of the necessities of education and training through the famous case of Duncan Campbell (c.1680-1730) in the late eighteenth century. Claiming to be deaf and blessed with the gift of second sight that enabled him to write and predict people’s futures, Campbell travelled through England marvelling people with his magical powers. His reputation gained such notoriety that Daniel Defoe (1659/61-1731) wrote a biography on him, The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell (1720) which spawned other commentaries and books on Campbell as well. As Christopher Krentz notes, all of this print makes Campbell possibly the first main deaf characters in literature and figure of consequence in deaf and disability history.[1]

The question of whether Campbell was actually deaf has been a subject of debate among historians of deaf and disability history. Harlan Lane and Lennard Davis label him a fraud while other critics treat him as if he was actually deaf. But I’m not concerned with whether or not Campbell was deaf, for as Krentz rightfully insists, deafness is a matter of discourse; the audiological status of a historical individual can only be made through judgment:

These competing interpretations make clear that Campbell’s deafness is largely a product of discourse, a social construction more than any biological difference—thus discourses about Campbell, or on any deaf individual in history points not only to the elusiveness of deafness, but they also reveal a great deal about 18th century Britain and their perceptions of deafness.[2]

What Campbell’s saga reveals is how widespread ideas about the deaf began to slowly transform. Instead of being seen as deviants to be thrown on the fringe of society, Campbell showed an eager public that through education and proper training, the deaf man was able to integrate and communicate with the rest of society, embark on a career and function economically. While as Cockayne has argued that many deaf individuals in the eighteenth century had perfectly ‘normal’ lives, many of them, for the most part, were illiterate, and thought to be impossible to train. Thus, more than anything else, what Campbell did was popularize the notion, more so than any other deaf individual, that deaf people could be educated and that they should be educated.


[1] Christopher Krentz, “Duncan Campbell and the Discourses of Deafness.” Prose Studies vol.27, no.1-2; 39-52.

[2] Krentz, “Duncan Campbell and the Discourses of Deafness,” 40.

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