In 1934, a surgeon examined the medical histories and nutrition diaries of his deaf patients. He soon noticed that most of his patients ate very little food containing vitamin B, which was essential for heathy nerves. He then pondered: could cases of nerve deafness be cured simply by adding more vitamin B to a diet?
Dr. Grant Selfridge (1863-1951) was an ear specialist who graduated from the Hahnemann Medical College in San Francisco in 1889 and was later joined the California State Homeopathic Medical Society, receiving his licence to practice in 1890. Despite his homeopathic training*, it’s not clear how much homeopathy influenced—or was used in—his clinical practice. He was employed at the Southern Pacific Hospital of San Francisco where he later specialized in otolaryngology (specialism of ear and throat), and was supposedly the first surgeon in San Francisco to perform tonsillectomy.
Selfridge achieved national fame in 1939 when Time magazine wrote a short article on his use of vitamin B to treat deafness caused by deterioration of the eight nerve—aka the auditory vestibular nerve, which transmits sound and balance information from the inner ear to the brain). He became convinced that vitamin B was a contributing factor in hearing loss, easily remediable by adding more of the vitamin to daily diets. This was especially observed in the dietary histories of patients with otosclerosis, a hereditary condition that causes progressive deafness due to bone overgrowth in the inner ear. In over 100 patients, Selfridge added vitamin B tablets, rice brans, or injections. After as few as six injections, there was evidence of improvement in some patients, especially in younger patients; older patients required longer courses of treatment.
After the Associated Press picked up the story, a flood of inquiries and a large number of patients from all parts of the country arrived to Selfridge’s office seeking treatment. However, in a later publication, Selfridge makes it clear his initial study on vitamin B pointed out that much more research was required to study the entire vitamin B complex and its relation to healthy nerves. Further research was still needed to connect the likelihood of degenerative auditory diseases (such as otosclerosis) and nutrition.
By 1941, Selfridge was experimenting the benefits of the entire vitamin B complex and auditory nerve degeneration on rats, guinea pigs, and chicks that had been fed diets deficient in one of the components of the vitamin B complex. He advocated nutrition treatment before birth, for a pregnant mother to add more vitamins to her diet as a preventive measure against deafness and other disorders:
The mother should have an optimum diet during her entire pregnancy, and the child when born should be treated the same way. The dietary correction should be carried through childhood and adolescence. This is the only way the deafness can be obviated…The important factors in diet should be: One egg daily; at least one pint of milk daily; one leafy salad daily; orange, grapefruit, or lemon daily.
So can vitamin B cure deafness? In the 1930s there were numerous studies on the nutritional and vitamin therapy of deafness alongside Selfridge’s, but none of them have proven that deficiency of vitamins can cause deafness. Some modern studies have shown that taking vitamin B can improve tinnitus (“ringing in the ear” syndrome) but these studies are largely anecdotal. Other studies have examined the effects of vitamin B-12 on hearing loss, concluding that deficiency in that vitamin can lead to, or worsen cases of progressive hearing loss; however, similar studies have argued the contrary, that vitamin B-12 had no effect whatsoever in improving hearing loss.
Selfridge’s story, however, provides us with important insight into how the “problem” of deafness was approached from a different angle, one that took into consideration diet and nutrition—and of course, placed the responsibility of treatment upon the patient.
*Homeopathy, invented by German physician Samuel Christian Hahnemann (1755-1843), is based on the principle that drugs that cause specific symptoms can be used to cure diseases which cause the same symptoms (“like cures like”). Homeopathic drugs are diluted in water or alcohol, on the basis that dilutions increase therapeutic potency of the drugs. It is a form of alternative medicine that runs contrary to evidence-based scientific medicine as most of the homeopathic claims have ever been empirically proven.
 Jonathan Davidson, A Century of Homeopaths: Their Influence on Medicine and Health (Springer Books, 2014), 10.
 Grant Selfridge, “Present Status of Vitamins in Relation to Eight Nerve and Conduction Deafness,” Archives of Otolaryngology 34.1 (1941): 125-140.
 Grant Selfridge, “Eighth Nerve and Conduction Deafness,” California and Western Medical Journal 52.5 (May 1940): 214-217.