This fall, REMEDIA a collaborative blog on the history of medicine, launched a special series exploring the histories of surgery. I contributed a post for the series, on the development of the fenestration operation in the 1930s, as a “hope for the deaf.” The post aims to weave together the history of surgery and history of disability to examine the cultural contexts of deafness within a medical framework.
A 44 year-old female patient, nearly stone-deaf for half her life, laid upon the operating table. Two dental drills covered with sterile linen sleeves hung over the table, prepared and ready. The surgeon, a wispy, small man with a bushy pompadour underneath his surgeon’s cap, signaled to the anesthetist that the procedure was about to begin. Turning on his headlamp, the surgeon focused a powerful, pencil-thin stream of illumination on the patient’s right ear. Then he began the first incision on her outer ear, creating an opening the size of a small coin. Taking one of the drills, the surgeon devoured the tough mastoid bone, slowly proceeding for half an hour until he was able to expose the bony labyrinth of the inner ear. This was to be the new window that would, hopefully, restore sound vibrations and enable the patient to hear.