"Mechanical Quackery: Electrical Cures for Deafness in the United States, 1880-1930"
Friday, October 19, 2018 - 3:35pm
Jaipreet Virdi
Department of History
University of Delaware

During the late nineteenth century, electrical entrepreneurs began to glut the direct-to-consumer medical market with a plethora of electrotherapy machines for curing deafness. They claimed their machines fostered a world of unbridled optimism for restoring bodies to health; in a few sessions, these machines could harness the power of electricity to jolt dead ears or apply a vibratory force to “break up” deposits in the ear. Although ear specialists—known as “aurists”—denounced such “cure all” treatments for deafness, electrical entrepreneurs made no demarcation between congenital and non-congenital cases of hearing loss, thus appealing to patient-consumers frustrated with traditional therapeutics. Electrotherapy devices also offered an effective but gentle remedy to those distrustful or skeptical of compressed powdered pills, nefarious nostrums, or other patented goods available for purchase. By the 1930s, a growing public awareness of medical fraud, combined with stricter federal regulation, led to the steady decline of electrotherapeutics usage in the home; while most mechanical deafness cures were dismissed by the American Medical Association and the Food & Drug Association as quackery in its finest forms, these devices highlight the fluid boundaries that existed between healthcare practices, and the many ways consumers attempted to regain control over their health. More broadly, these devices convey a broader historical context for understanding how and why deaf consumers attempted to cure or normalize their hearing loss.