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Adrien Célestin Soret, radiologist, meteorologist and inventor of the first binaural hearing aid in 1915

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 26 June 2015

Since his death, Adrien Célestin Marie Soret, (7th July 1854- 1931), Chevalier Légion d’honneur (1924), has fallen into obscurity, yet from what little I have discovered, he deserves to be much better known.  He was the son of a lemonade maker and was educated at Tonnerre, Beauvais, Orléans and Havre.  A commemorative plaque at his birthplace tells us “Driven by a concern for popularizing science, in 1886 he organized municipal courses which dealt with current scientific issues such as the effects of electricity and the discovery of X -rays.”  He then turned to photography, creating the Le Havre Society of Photography.

He is here as he is the inventor of the first binaural hearing aid, a fact that seems to have been forgotten by many.  I came across this in the book Binaural Hearing Aids by Andreas Markides (1977), where Soret gets a very brief mention.  That was because of this U.S. patent for a binaural hearing device, in 1915.  However, it is hard to find out how widely it was used and I could not find his name in Berger’s The Hearing Aid: its Operation and Development (1984).

AudiphoneIn Learning to Hear (1970), Edith Whetnall & D.B. Fry of the Royal National Throat Nose and Ear Hospital’s Nuffield Centre, wrote

The man with the monacle excites immediate attention.  The ophthalmologist who prescribed only a monacle for a patient with defective vision in both eyes would be regarded as a little odd.  The situation is completely opposite with hearing aids.  Here the tradition has been to prescribe only one aid.  It is probable that the origin of this tradition lies in expense but it is now so hallowed by custom that advocates of binaural hearing aids are told that they must produce evidence that these have an advantage over monaural aids.  As the normal person is born with two ears the onus of proof would seem to lie in the other direction and the advocates of the monaural hearing aid should prove their case.(pp.131 & 134)

Perhaps those who have threatened to reduce NHS patients to one hearing aid might reflect on that.

Soret’s death made it into Arthur Mee’s The Children’s Newspaper on August the 15th 1931, as “A MAN’S SACRIFICE FOR THE WORLD – Another Great Hero of Peace – SCIENTIST’S LIFE GIVEN TO HUMANITY”

The sunny South of France has experienced a great shadow of grief in the death of an eminent scientist, Professor Celestin Soret, who died at 77.  His life was sacrificed to the, X-ray, for he associated himself whole-heartedly with Dr Röntgen in bringing this invention to the aid of the medical world. The doctors were very sceptical as to the help which they could get from this new invention, and Professor Soret diagnosed over forty thousand cases through the X-ray in his own house, besides the thousands that he was asked to help in the hospitals.  He began life as a schoolmaster in Havre, where he taught physics. Many thousands, not only in France but in other parts of the world, owe him a great debt of gratitude, for he was an international figure.  He was the inventor of apparatus by means of which the sufferers from partial deafness could listen to concerts and conversations with the help of earphones and other pocket instruments. He tried to imagine how much the deaf must miss in life, and he used his knowledge to help them in their difficulty.

Soret was also involved in work at the Hydrographic School of Havre, where he lectured on naval hygiene, and he established a meteorological  observatory on the coast. The article concludes, “Like many other great men of science this French professor died comparatively poor. He placed his knowledge at the disposal of the world to save lives and not to make profit out of it ; and he gave up more than wealth to the cause of knowledge : he sacrificed both his hands.”

In fact, the brief obituary in The British Journal of Radiology Vol.4, p.368, the only other obituary I have so far tracked down, says he died as a result of his early X-ray work, which caused radiodermatitis.  “Through various operations carried out since 1923, Dr. Soret had lost both his arms, which had to be amputated.”

The memorial plaque also says (with the help, I admit, of Google Translate),

A year after the discovery of X -rays (1895) , he set up at his home a ray generator and the first radiography experiments. Four years later he was head of the radiological service in the Hospital of Le Havre.  […] Appointed honorary professor in 1907 , he devoted himself entirely to research and practice of X-rays.  […] In 1928 he received the Medal of the Order of the Crown of Belgium in recognition of the care given to Belgian fighters during their stay in hospital of Le Havre.

It has proved difficult to find these few details of Soret’s life.  One problem is that he shares the same birth year and initial as Charles Soret, the Swiss mathematician and physicist, and some people seem to have confused the two of them.

There is a photograph of him here, and a more poignant photograph with one hand amputated here.

He was a remarkable man.  If you know anything more about him please add a note below.

A. Soret, DES RAYONS DE RŒNTGEN DE LA PRÉCISION DANS LES MÉTHODES RADIOGRAPHIQUES

Sorel et Soret, Un cas d’elephantiasis avec troubles nerveux, gueri par les rayon X. La Normandie medicale, 1″ mars, 1898, p.97.
[I have not seen this article]

http://home.arcor.de/lung/downloads/Geyer_RoentgenStrahlenSchutzVeterinaermed.pdf

Whetnall, E. and Fry, D.S., Learning to Hear (1970)

Hie is remembered as a pioneer of radiology on the Ehrenmal der Radiologie in Hamburg.

His Legion d’honneur citation documents are here.

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