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Archive for the 'Deafness' Category

“his slow and painful, yet most joyful death” – Deaf Author Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna and John Britt ‘The Happy Mute’

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 24 April 2015

In a passage about the Ulster Society for Promoting the Education of the Deaf, Dumb and Blind, I cam across this line – “one of the most fascinating writers of our day, […] who, having become deaf in her youth, is obliged to hold communications by means of an interpreter, – Charlotte Elizabeth, – a name known throughout the world” (Report of the Ulster Society for 1838, p.13). Since she seems to have faded from memory, I thought her a fitting subject.   Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, (nee Browne)  was born in Norwich on 1st October 1790, where her High Tory father was a minor canon (ODNB).  He mother was of Scottish covenenter descent, and with such parents she grew up inculcated with strongly anti-catholic views (Murphy 2005).  A sickly child, she became deaf when aged 10, then threw herself into reading and literature.  “Later in life she came to see this fascination as sinful because it served no useful, religious purpose, but her early reading in drama, poetry, and fiction provided excellent preparation for her future writing career.” (ibid)  She influenced both Harriet Beecher Stowe and Elizabeth Gaskell.   CharlotteElizabethTonna

She married Captain George Phelan and moved with him to Canada for two years, then to his estate in Kilkenny.  He was abusive to her, and we are told this was a symptom of oncoming insanity.  After he died she married a much younger man, the evangelical writer Lewis Hippolytus Joseph Tonna.

The complex and contradictory nature of her attitudes to the Irish is best illustrated by her relationship with John Britt, a deaf mute from Kilkenny.  She regarded him as her adopted son and educated him and converted him to Protestantism, even alienating him from his own family. Yet ultimately, she treated him as a servant rather than as a child of her own. (Murphy)

Early in her book about Britt, The Happy Mute, she  says,

in truth, every one of us is born dumb, and must remain so until reason dawns, and we begin to imitate the words used by others.  But when a person is born deaf, he continues dumb because he hears no language spoken ; or, at best, he will only make strange noises, in attempting to imitate the movements that he observes in the lips of others, who can use their organs of speech.  Thus are the poor mutes shut out from communicating their ideas, except by such signs as they can devise to express themselves by ; and these are seldom understood or regarded, unless by those very nearly and tenderly interested in the welfare and comfort of the afflicted creature who uses them.  Of course, all moral instruction is confined to mere tokens of approval or displeasure, as the child’s conduct is correct or not ; and religious teaching seems to be out of the question, where words are wanting to convey it.  We may teach a child who was born deaf, to kneel to hold up his hands, to move his lips, and often he will do so with the most affecting aspect of devotion ; but we can tell nothing of God the Creator and Preserver, the Redeemer and Sanctifier of our fallen race. (Elizabeth, 1841 p.9-10)

The collected Memoir of John Britt (1850), collated from various of her writings after her death, lays on the fiery evangelical terror with epistrophe –

Oh remember, reader that they have, as you, an evil heart of unbelief – that they are, like you, born in sin and conceived in iniquity, and that nothing but the blood, the all cleansing blood of Christ can sprinkle their consciences and make them clean. (ibid p.7)

In 1823 in Kilkenny she came across a deaf boy called Sylvester, aged 12 to 13, but though he seemed to be intelligent, “he had no thought beyond his personal gratification, of which one part indeed, consisted in pleasing his friend” (p.9), but then in October he brought along ‘Jack’ (John), who made much better progress while Sylvester ceased to come to her. Large alphabet letters were used to teach him words like ‘dog’ and ‘man’, while the illustration shows how she tried to show him that there was a God by puffing bellows – he then said “God like wind! God like Wind!” (p.27).

We learn from the  Memoir of John Britt that Charlotte was expert at ‘Dactylology’ or finger spelling (p.13).  One wonders if there was a little confusion and if the compiler was aware of the possibility that she was signing with people as well as finger-spelling.  The aim of her education seems to have been to take him from a ‘natural’ Atheism through to a belief in God, and not the Popish God she so disliked – “Two things his soul abhorred – Satan and Popery” (Memoirs p.52).  These were her prejudices, or perhaps rather genuinely held beliefs, that she was filling him with, that she had absorbed from her parents.

When she left Ireland, she took him with her, moving to Clifton with her brother for a time. John Britt died in 1831 of consumption after a long illness of over a year – “sometimes when greatly oppressed, leeches were applied, and once half a dozen were put on his side, at his own request”(Memoir p.124).  The Happy Mute begins with the quotation in the title of this page, “a year and a half has scarcely passed since I saw him depart to be with Christ ; and often do I look back with thankful wonder on his short but happy life – his slow and painful, yet most joyful death ; and I look forward to the period when, through the blood of that saviour whom he so dearly loved, I hope to meet my precious charge in the mansions of glory” (p.7).

he was buried in Bagshot church-yard, near the Eastern window. It was a four miles’ walk through melting snow, under a drizzling rain, on a comfortless day, yet all the boys of the Sunday School, and a few of the girls, appeared, attired in their best, and formed in procession, following on foot the carriage which bore the dumb boy’s remains to their final resting place. (Memoirs p.137)

BrittIn 1844, “a schirrous induration  appeared under the left axilla, which soon rapidly took a malignant form, and after being an open cancer for more than eighteen months, eventually caused her death by its attacking an artery, and causing exhaustion from loss of blood.” (Obituary p.434)

She died on the 12th of July 1846,  “and about half an hour before her departure showed manifest signs of joy, although unable to speak, when he who tended her death-bed, spelled on his fingers the name of ‘Jack,’ and reminded him that she would soon meet him again.” (Memoir p.140)

The happy mute; or, The dumb child’s appeal. 8th ed. London, L. and G. Seeley, Dublin, William Curry, and Robertson, 1841. 

Memoir of John Britt, the happy mute; compiled from the writings, letters, and conversation of Charlotte Elizabeth. 2nd ed. London, Seeleys, 1854.

Memoir of John Britt, the happy mute. 18–? Title page missing, information taken from front cover. (the two Memoirs are different slightly in pagination and it is possible I have used both editions in the quotations above)

Obituary in The Gentleman’s Magazine

David Murphy, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 94, No. 373 (Spring, 2005), pp. 105-107 Published by: Irish Province of the Society of Jesus Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30096012 Accessed: 24-04-2015 12:52 UTC



A 1933 Letter from the League of Nations: Ludwik Rajchman, Medical Director

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 17 October 2014

In a half-filled folio sized scrap book of Selwyn Oxley’s, various letters and odd documents were gathered by him or his wife Kate, from when he first became involved as a ‘missioner to the deaf’ in 1914, through to the 1930s.  Together with a small number of short letters from Dr. Eicholz (who we hope to cover in a future item), there is this letter which appears below.  The League of Nations was conducting an enquiry into Deafness, and Selwyn Oxley obviously wrote to say that he was willing to be of assistance, presumably with information and contacts.  The content of the letter is not particularly interesting, but the author is.

Ludwik Rajchman letter
Ludwik Rajchman (1881-1965) was from another of those remarkable families who produced a number of brilliant people, doctors, engineers and mathematicians.  He was born in Poland, son of the musician Aleksander Rajchman, and became a bacteriologist.  When aged only fourteen he was in trouble for distributing ‘subversive’ literature – educational brochures in Polish, which was suppressed by the Russian rulers (Duchene, 1999).  When he was caught at a banned socialist meeting in 1906, Rajchman was exiled.  After working in Paris at the Institut Pasteur, he became head of the Royal Institute of Public Health in London in 1911, though at the time he spoke no English.  The 1911 census shows him as Ludwig Witold Rajchman*, and he signs his name as such, born in Russian Poland, having been married to Mary Clotilde for six years, with two daughters, Irene Mary born in France in 1909, and Marte Alexandra, eleven months old, born in Austrian Poland.  His computer scientist son Jan Rajchman was born in London later in 1911, so the children came in quick succession.  In 1918 he returned to newly liberated Poland and helped set up the National Institute for Public Health, being so successful that he was asked to become head of the new League of Nations Medical Directorate in 1921 (Duchene, 1999).

The health section persuaded national administrators to co-ordinate statistics, standards, training, research, nutrition and infant care, all of them new fields, especially for international involvement. It made a much bigger impact than any other operational arm of the League and so was dogged by opposition of all kinds, from hostile nations, jealous institutes and conservative officials. (ibid)

After the Second  World War he was for political reasons rejected as a potential head for the WHO, but he went on to help found UNICEF.

Rajchman deserves to be better remembered as one of the great public health workers of the 20th century.

Duchene, Francois, Plotter for progress. Ludwik Rajchman, Medical Statesman by Balitiska, Marta A. (author)
The Times Literary Supplement (London, England), Friday, February 19, 1999; pg. 28; Issue 5002.  Category: Book Review [accessed 17/10/14]

*Living at 16 Hargreave Villas, Hartswood Road, Stamford Brook Road, London W., with an Austrian Polish servant Tekla Lacheta, Class: RG14; Piece: 200

There is a biography by a grand daughter of his –

Balinska, Marta Aleksandra, For the Good of Humanity: Ludwik Rajchman, Medical Statesman, New York : Central European University Press, 1998
[Held in UCL this in the SSEES Library P.XVIII.3 RAJ BAL]

This book looks potentially interesting –

Borowy, Iris, Coming to Terms with World Health: The League of Nations Health Organisation, Peter Lang GmbH,  2009



National Institute for the Deaf Medical Scrapbook, circa 1935

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 5 September 2014

As a conduit & clearing house for information on all aspects of hearing loss and deafness, the National Institute for the Deaf (N.I.D., now Action on Hearing Loss) was careful to gather information or stories that encompassed these topics in the popular press and in academic journals to which they had access.  This scrapbook from 1935 is illustrative of this.  It contains cuttings from a wide variety of papers and journals on medical aspects of hearing loss and deafness.  As it was the 1920s, when the topic of eugenics was extremely popular, many of the stories touch on that, some in favour and some against.

In one image we read about the huge number of Germans who were being sterilised, in the other we see sterilisation arguments in the British press.

Another story from 28th of march 1935 in the Daily Express, says that the Rotherham Schools Medical Officer, Dr. A.C. Turner

believes that more than 1,000 of the children under his care have varying degrees of deafness – but their class-rooms are too noisy for him to find out!

Recently his department bought a portable audiometer – a delicate instrument used in the testing of hearing – and his assistants have been going from school to school searching in vain for a room quiet enough to use the apparatus.
“Before the audiometer can function accurately we must have a room with perfect quiet,” Dr. Turner told me.

“We cannot find one! Each room we have tested has had so many distracting noises that the recordings are incomplete.

“I am advocating an aural clinic in which the audiometer could be installed in a sound-proof room.”

Perhaps someone in the Rotherham area interested in medical history could find out more about Dr. Turner and see if or when he got his room.

Click onto the images for a larger scale view.

scrapbook 1 scrapbook 2

Noise Action Week – Recent Articles on Noise and Health

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 22 May 2014

This week two awareness weeks coincide, both within our area of interest and coverage, namely Deaf Awareness Week and Noise Action Week.

Deaf Awareness Week is themed this year on “Equality In Communication For All” .

Noise Action Week “is an annual opportunity to focus the attention of communities on the problems excessive noise can cause for us all – at home, at work, at study and at leisure.”

Below is a list of recent articles on various aspects of noise and health, from noise mapping, to noise pollution and environmental noise.  Click on the links for abstracts or access to full articles where available:

Kephalopoulos S et al.  Advances in the development of common noise assessment methods in Europe: The CNOSSOS-EU framework for strategic environmental noise mapping.  The Science of the Total Environment, 2014 Jun 1;482-483:400-10. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.02.031. Epub 2014 Feb 28.

Kim, S.J.et al.  Exposure-Response Relationship Between Aircraft Noise and Sleep Quality: A Community-based Cross-sectional Study  (2014) Osong Public Health and Research Perspectives, Article in Press 

Turunen, M.et al.  Indoor environmental quality in school buildings, and the health and wellbeing of students (2014) International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health,  Article in Press

Hooper, R.E.  Acoustic shock controversies  (2014) Journal of Laryngology and Otology, Article in Press

Holzman, D.C.  Fighting noise pollution: A public health strategy (2014) Environmental Health Perspectives, 122 (2), pp. A58

Banerjee, D. et al.  Association between road traffic noise and prevalence of coronary heart disease (2014) Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, 186 (5), pp. 2885-2893

Basner, M. et al  Auditory and non-auditory effects of noise on health (2014) The Lancet, 383 (9925), pp. 1325-1332

Sygna, K. et al.  Road traffic noise, sleep and mental health (2014) Environmental Research, 131, pp. 17-24

Seltenrich, N.  Wind turbines: A different breed of noise? (2014) Environmental Health Perspectives, 122 (1), pp. A20-A25.

Alexander Graham Bell – he invented the telephone, didn’t he?

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 30 November 2012

By Mina Krishnan

Alexander Graham Bell (3rd of March 1847–2nd of August 1922). Although there is still controversy over who really got there first and whether he did so independently, Alexander Graham Bell is certainly widely credited with having invented what we now recognise as the telephone, a device that turns sound into electricity then back into sound, for which he was granted a patent in 1876.

Although Bell was born in Edinburgh, his father moved the family to Canada when Bell was 23, following the death of his two brothers from tuberculosis.  Bell then moved to the U.S. shortly thereafter to start a teaching career.  His father and grandfather were both experts in elocution and his mother started to become deaf when he was 12, which had inspired him to study acoustics and the mechanics of speech.  In the 1870s he pioneered a system called visible speech, developed by his father, which was a system that indicated oral sounds by the use of written symbols; Bell used this to teach deaf-mute children to communicate with speech.

He worked with many people, for example on techniques for teaching speech to deaf people; his most famous student was Helen Keller, for whom he established a trust fund for her education at Radcliffe College.  An advocate of oralism, he set up a school to train teachers of the deaf.  Directly opposed to his view that communication by speech was what made humans truly human and that deaf people should communicate solely by speech and speech-reading/lip-reading, was Edward Gallaudet (son of Thomas, pioneering educator of deaf people).  A fervent proponent of manualism, Gallaudet embraced deafness, rather than seeking to eradicate it as Bell did.

Not only was Bell dead-set against the use of sign-language, especially in state-funded schools – seeing it as a foreign language that had no place in the U.S. education system – he was in fact one of the earliest modern supporters of the eugenics movement in the U.S, believing deaf people should be kept apart from each other so that they would not marry or produce children.

He published Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race in 1884, warning that deaf people were creating an insular, inbred ‘deaf race’ and claimed that ‘the production of a defective race of human beings would be a great calamity to the world’ and that it was necessary to ‘examine carefully the causes that lead to the intermarriage of the deaf with the object of applying a remedy’.

He attended the first International Congress on Eugenics, held in London and presided over by Leonard Darwin – son of Charles – regarding hereditary deafness and the compulsory sterilisation of deaf people for the betterment of the human race; and he was the honorary president of the Second International Congress of Eugenics, held in New York.

He also gave evidence – relating to his research on the topic of the causes of congenital deafness – at the Royal Commission on the Blind, the Deaf and Dumb, stating for example that ‘hereditary pre-disposition’ was clearly responsible as over 50% of those he studied had ‘other members of their family deaf and dumb’ and that they should therefore not inter-marry or have children.

The library has a copy of the House of Commons parliamentary paper, Report of the Royal Commission on the Blind, the Deaf and Dumb.  This is also available in full from the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers (although the library’s hard copy is far easier to browse!):


In 1877 he married Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, who had been profoundly deaf from the age of about five following a serious illness.  They had two daughters, Elsie and Marian; they also had two sons who, tragically, died neonatally.  Mabel is considered to have had an immense influence on Bell’s work, having been of great inspiration and encouragement with regard to his commercial success.

The Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf developed in 1956 out of the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, which Bell had helped to organise in 1890, serving as its first president.  Its aim is to help with aspects of living with hearing loss such as early diagnosis in children and the provision of resources to parents who wish their children to learn speech and speech-reading/lip-reading in order to ‘thrive in mainstream society’.

Bell had other interests besides – he was also, to give just one example, very interested in botany even as a child and later was a founding member of the National Geographic Society.

Click onto the image below for a larger size.

Some items held in the RNID library:

Mackay, James A.  Sounds out of silence: a life of Alexander Graham Bell (1997)

and other books about Bell, including biographies

Winefield,  Richard, Never the twain shall meet: Bell, Gallaudet, and the communications debate, (1987) 

Volta Voices (1994 – present )

Volta Review (1910 – present; also from 1899 under the title The Association Review)

– journals of the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf

Government report:

House of Commons parliamentary paper, Report of the Royal Commission on the Blind, the Deaf and Dumb

Online resources available through the e-library:

Jamieson, James, Alexander Graham Bell: Eugenicist, Mankind Quarterly 2001.  42 (1), 65-76.

Greenwald , Brian H, The Real “Toll” of A. G. Bell: Lessons about Eugenics Sign Language Studies 2009.  9 (3).

Uncertainty over whether AGB was quite so anti-manualism:

The question of sign-language and the utility of signs in the instruction of the deaf: two papers by Alexander Graham Bell (1898). Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 2005 Spring;10(2):111-21.

(Freely available Via PubMed)

Freely available web resources:

There is plenty of controversy over who was the real inventor of the telephone:

Bell ‘did not invent telephone’ (German research scientist J. Philipp Reis did):


U.S. ruling that an Italian inventor (Meucci) did:


Or was it Elisha Gray?!


Just two of many biographies:



‘History through deaf eyes’ – Language & Identity, Gallaudet University:



Van Praagh & the rise of Oralism

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 18 November 2011

William VAN PRAAGH (1845-1907)

While other teachers such as Thomas Braidwood in Britain and the Abbé de l’Epeé had used some oral teaching in the 18th century, it was the German Samuel Heinicke who founded what became known as ‘Oralism’ or ‘the German method’ for teaching Deaf children.  In 1778 when Heinicke set up a school in Leipzig which he directed until his death in 1790 (see Wikipedia entry here – Heinicke).  He proved very influential and his followers took the Oral method to Holland.

Wolf  Saloman Van Praagh was born in Holland into a Dutch Jewish family.  He took the name William when he settled in England in 1866 (see interview in British Deaf Mute and Weinberg).  William had been sent to take charge of the Jewish Deaf School by the influential Dutch oralist David Hirsch, Director of the Rotterdam School (see McLoughlin).

In 1871 Van Praagh published a phamphlet (unfortunately not held by us) which moved for the establishment of Day Schools for Deaf children.  Possibly influenced by this and partly as a consequence of the success of the Jewish School, Baroness Mayer (see previous post) wished to start a non-sectarian school and spread the use of the Oral system.  The Association for the Oral Instruction the Deaf and Dumb was set up in 1871, and an associated training college the following year.  The Normal School and Training College was then established in June 1872 in Fitzroy Square, not far from Euston Station, with Van Praagh as the director.

Van Praagh wanted Deaf children to mix with the non-deaf population, and was opposed to the combined lip-reading and manual method of education. The British Deaf Mute article from 1894 includes an interesting interview with Van Praagh in which the following is said –

“The Rev.T.Arnold recently made use of the remark that the combined method of instruction is ‘irrational and immature.’ Is that your opinion , also?”
“Yes. I prefer any system in its purity to any combined methods of instruction.”

Van Praagh died after his annual public demonstration in Fitzroy Square.  His last words were “Gentlemen, I have finished,” then he collapsed with an attack of ‘angina pectoris’.  Immediately after his obituary in the British Deaf Times for 1907, there is a short article on ‘The Shortcomings of the “Oral” Method’, which concludes “Every teacher of the deaf ought to master the sign language of his pupils.”  The spread of Oralism did, and continues to generate great anger in the Deaf community. In his 1910 book ‘The Deaf Child‘ (p.121), James Kerr Love said “Teachers have divided themselves into opposing camps of oralists and manualists, and until this opposition ceases, the deaf child must suffer.”

Andreas Markides, The speech of hearing-impaired children. 1983.

Appreciation. Teacher of the Deaf, 1907, 5, 178-81.

Association for the Oral Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb. British Deaf-Mute and Deaf Chronicle, 1894, 3(33), 113-15. (photo)

Love, James, 1858-1942.:  The deaf child : a manual for teachers and school doctors. Bristol, 1911

McLoughlin, M. G.:  A history of the education of the deaf in England. Liverpool :   [the author] ,   1987

Obituary. British Deaf Times, 1907, 4 (44), 185-86. (photo)

Obituary. American Annals of the Deaf, 1907, 52, 499.

Van Praagh, William,  Lessons for the instruction of deaf and dumb children in speaking, lip-reading, reading and writing… Illustrated. London, Trubner, 1884.

WEINBERG, J. The history of the Residential School for Jewish Deaf Children, 1865-1965.