10 Extreme 19th Century “Cures” for Deafness

The nineteenth-century introduced a tremendous number of treatments boasting cures for irremediable deafness. Some of these cures were advised by aurists (specialists of the ear); others were tested home remedies or marketed as proprietary nostrums. Below is a list of some of the most extreme measures that were once popular treatments:

1. MERCURY

L0058828 Packet of mercurous chloride tablets, Kassel, Germany, 1914-

Packet of mercurous chloride tablets, Kassel, Germany, 1914

The use of mercury for medical applications has been dated to the ancient Greeks, reaching its height in popularity in the 15th century. It was used for nearly every kind of ailment, from syphilis, to lung disorders, stomach complaints, and of course, deafness. It’s one of the most dangerous substances used in medicine; mercury poisoning includes symptoms such as psychotic reactions, violent muscle spasms, heart and lung issues, and explosive bowel movements!

As a “catch-all” cure, mercury was believed to be one of the most powerful remedies available for aurists–even the famed John Cunningham Saunders, founder of the London Infirmary for Diseases of the Eye and Ear (later Moorsfield Eye Hospital), favored mercury when surgical treatments were ineffective.

Compounds of mercury, such as calomel (mercurous chloride) were also prescribed in the form of a pill. They were, however, believed to be less harmful than mercury even though they slowly poisoned those who used it.

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2. SYRINGING 

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Source: Daniel Bennett St. John Roosa, A Practical Treatise on Diseases of the Ear (London: W. Wood, 1878).

Okay, this one is not that bad—or at least compared to others on the list. Syringing was done to remove excess wax out of the ear, which was explained as causing a blockage in the auditory canal, thus diminishing hearing. However, some practitioners actually used syringes filled with all sorts of medicaments (e.g. eucalyptus, water, oil, nitrate solutions) and inserted the fluid into the ears. After a period of time for letting the solution “settle,” the practitioner would then syringe out the fluid. Imagine the dizziness all that excess fluid caused!

3. ANIMAL PARTS

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Yes, you read that right. All sorts of organic things were inserted into the ear to either enhance hearing or to extract their powers. Animal parts were additionally used as ingredients in medical recipes. Elk’s claw, pig’s bladder, fish bone, oil of earthworms, fat of eel, wood lice, ant eggs, cow’s feet, fox lungs, fowl grease have appeared a a cure or part of a cure for deafness.

4. CATHETERIZATION 

Example of an air press & catheter set-up. From: William Wilde, Practical Observations on Aural Surgery (London, 1853).

Example of an air press & catheter set-up. From: William Wilde, Practical Observations on Aural Surgery (London, 1853).

Appearing in various forms since 1755, this was the process of inserting a catheter up the nostrils or through the mouth, in order to cure deafness through the Eustachian tubes (which connects the ear to the nose). 19th century French surgeons argued catheterization, followed with an injection of fluid through the nose, was the best means for restoring hearing. Other combinations included the use of smoke, coffee grounds, water, or even ether, in conjunction with catheterization. Yet, some French and British aurists insisted patients were better able to tolerate catheterization when it was combined with an air pump. 

5. BLISTERING & SETONS

Example of early 20th century plaster used for blistering. Hunterian Museum Collection.

Example of early 20th century plaster used for blistering. Hunterian Museum Collection.

Blistering was another very popular remedy for deafness. A caustic plaster made of fat or wax, was applied behind the ear (sometimes cut into a certain size) in order to raise a blister.  Any pus forming from the blister was highly desirable, as it was believed to be evident of toxins escaping from the body–in certain cases, the blister was cut, and re-cut, in order to bring forth pus. Or, further corrosive substances were applied to irritate the blister (e.g. to grow in size).

Speaking of irritating, another similar method was the use of setons, a thread placed underneath the skin behind the ear. The site was further inflamed in order to induce beneficial pus. Aurists believed blistering and setons were the best remedy for deafness arising out of the mastoid cells (hollowed out spaces in the ear’s temporal bone).

Use of a seton on the neck behind the ear. From Johannes Scultetus, Armamentarium Chirurgicum (1655)

Use of a seton on the neck behind the ear. From Johannes Scultetus, Armamentarium Chirurgicum (1655)

6. LUNAR CAUSTIC 

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Also known as “silver nitrate,” this was used as a cauterizing agent to remove blockages in the ear impeding hearing. For instance, an abnormal growth, irregular auditory canal, or herpes warts, were treated with an application of lunar caustic. It was also used for treating ulcers in the ear. And then there were the stranger applications… In the 1820s, the aurists John Stevenson recommended touching the tonsils with a solution of lunar caustic in order to treat deafness arising out of the Eustachian tubes.

7. ELECTRICITY 

Davis & Kidder's patented Magneto-Electric Machine, c.1880.

Davis & Kidder’s patented Magneto-Electric Machine, c.1880.

As electricity became a part of everyday lives in the nineteenth-century, practitioners became excited about its applications for medical ailments. Some aurists recommended a course of electrotherapy aided by weak solutions of iodine of zinc to simulate discharge. Other aurists applied electric currents directly into sites of ulcers in the ear to produce a rapid growth of healthy granulations and thus restore hearing. It was believed that electricity could correct deafness caused by paralysis of the auditory nerves, which prevented sound vibrations from being transmitted properly to the eardrum.

The powerful benefits of electric currency were certainly applied into all sorts of devices, especially at the end of the nineteenth-century although some aurists were critical of its useFor instance, Martin Kroger invented an Ear Bath, which applied electricity to the ear with stable electrodes soaked in warm water and medicinal properties!

8. VIBRATION

VIbration for ear disease using a tissue oscillator, 1920.

VIbration for ear disease using a tissue oscillator, 1920.

Vibration was another fashionable medical option during the nineteenth-century. It was particularly used to treat cases of dry middle ear catarrh (buildup of calcium in the small bones in the ear) by supplying small amounts of current to break up the calcification and restore sound waves.  All sorts of technologies and treatments were developed making use of the power of vibratory force, such as the phonograph or Lambert Synder Health Vibrator.

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9. UV LIGHT RAYS

An antique violet ray machine, 20th century.

20th century violet ray machine

Ultraviolet therapy arose during the late nineteenth-century and early twentieth century to compliment the growing use of electrotherapy by using high-frequency electric current. For deafness, it was believed to be beneficial in destroying bacterial growth, enhancing blood flow to the ear, and reducing any abnormal growths in the auditory canal. Violet ray devices included an electrode that shone a bright glow when energized; the ray was believed to cure anything. They were also quite popular as patent medicine and quack cures.

10. ARTIFICIAL EARDRUMS

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Speaking of patent medicine and quack cures, no remedy for deafness was more notorious in the late 1800s as artificial eardrums. These were tiny devices that were inserted in the ear in order to resonate sounds throughout the auditory canal and eardrum. However, they had immense financial potential for proprietary practitioners: numerous companies sprung up in the United States, offering mail-order service for artificial eardrums. These eardrums were made of all sorts of materials, but the most dangerous (and also most popular ones) were made of metal–painful when inserted in the ear, but also argued to be superior in resonating sound. In the 1920s,the US Propaganda Department deemed artificial eardrums as the worst of all quack cures available to the public.

Of course, you always had the option to avoid deafness in the first place…

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