Boren, Fourth Floor 02 Nov 2018 Organized Session
Medicine and Health 09:00 - 11:45

Objectivity has often been used to refer to an ideal of scientific representation, facilitated by precise measurements and standardized instrumentation. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, clinical and research programs attempted to measure difference in human bodies and minds. Quantitative technologies and techniques that were, arguably, more “scientific” than qualitative descriptions, enabled researchers to determine more flexible “normal” ranges to juxtapose the abnormal and define parameters for creating categories of difference in disability, ability, and even race. How did quantification of difference, racially-defined deficiency, and anthropometric studies frame new epistemic authority for measuring human health? How did qualitative and quantitative indicators rely on technology and the pathological embodiment of medical surveillance? And to what extent did researchers rely on statistics and measurement to create a relationship between what they considered to be “normal” and “abnormal”? As the papers in this panel show, however, changing values about the classification of human bodies and minds relied not only on expert studies, but also on the perspectives and self-knowledge of subjects. The quantification of human hair, the commodification of phrenological self-knowledge, the pathologizing of audiometric data, the development of formal guidelines for hearing acuity, and the need to stabilize diagnostic boundaries of mental deficiency were all dependent on normative responses to the study of human difference.

Organized by Jaipreet Virdi (University of Deleware)

By a Hair's Breadth: Measuring Hair in the Nineteenth Century
09:00 - 09:33

In the middle of the nineteenth century, lawyer and naturalist Peter A. Browne of Philadelphia obsessively collected, measured, and classified the hair of humans and animals. He built what he claimed to be the largest collection of hair specimens in the world. Browne had at least two major goals in this project. First, he wanted to understand sheep’s wool in order to improve the breeding of sheep in the United States. Second, Browne thought his studies of human hair would shed light on questions surrounding the origins of human beings. Browne argued that his measurements of the hair of different races—whites, blacks, and American Indians—proved that these races actually constituted separate species because of the characteristic differences between their hair. I will examine Browne’s various methods for measuring hair. He built instruments to measure the fineness, flexibility, and tenacity of his hair samples. By quantifying certain characteristics of his specimens of sheep’s wool, Browne attempted to show that the wool of American sheep was of the same or better quality than the leading European wools. Browne’s quantification of human hair contributed to his classification of the hair of black people as an exotic object that was quite different from, and inferior to, the hair of white people. Browne’s hair studies thus present a particularly interesting example of the quantifying and measuring spirit in nineteenth-century science.

Measure of the Mind: Phrenological Character Charts and the Marketing of Self-Knowledge
09:33 - 10:06

In 1843 a phrenologist examined the skull of Benjamin Franklin Perry. He presented his subject with a chart rating the strengths and weaknesses of his mental developments: Amativeness large, Combativeness large, Acquisitiveness full. “He gave my character entirely and perfectly,” Perry marveled. The chart revealed Perry to himself. “It seemed like unlocking to me my bosom.” Phrenologists sold self-knowledge in the form of character readings. After an examination of one’s cranial morphology, one could purchase a chart documenting the phrenologist’s numerical evaluation of each organ of the brain. Some phrenologists offered manuscript versions of these charts: detailed descriptions of a customer’s character, with practical suggestions for self- improvement in the realms of education, marriage, diet, and other aspects of life. Though handwritten, these charts were often not as personalized as they seemed. Phrenologists could treat their customers as members of generic groups, commodifying individual self-knowledge through technologies of mass production. This paper examines the business of phrenological readings, with an emphasis on the American practical phrenology in the antebellum years. How was self-knowledge bought and sold in the era of the idealized “self-made man”?  How did customers understand and make use of their character readings?

Measuring Deaf People: Approaches from Audiology, Genetics and the Psycho-Sciences, 1930-1970
10:06 - 10:39

Ever since the late 19th century, professionals from different disciplines have measured deaf people. Teachers and psychologists ascertained their intellectual achievements and psyche; eugenicists, anthropologists or physicians charted their family and medical history. The way this data was used reveals interdisciplinary coalitions and larger ideas about normalizing the disabled. Intelligence tests, for example were to be used for more efficient educational placement, but they also fed into a larger eugenic discourse that restricted access to schools of the deaf to the “normally” abled. Likewise, when schools started using audiometers in the 1930s and 40s, audiograms where initially meant for educational assessment, yet they also were useful in genetic research for tracing different types deafness in a family tree. The ways such data was collected and used often were pathologizing and gave little attention to deaf people’s perspectives. However, from the 1940s on psychologists and sociologists also became interested in the deaf as a social minority with a culture and language of their own. Interacting with local deaf communities, they grappled with ways of measuring normalcy and difference, and drew from contemporary theories of majority-minority relations, bias and discrimination, or sensory and cultural deprivation. Looking more closely at this research points to early origins of a sociocultural model of deafness and disability, which disability historians usually place with the activism of the 1970s and ‘80s; and provides insights to the different ways scientists and researched populations have interacted and established bodies of knowledge.

Measuring and Conserving Hearing/Hearing Loss in Postwar America
10:39 - 11:12

In 1943, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology formed a joint “Committee on the Conservation of Hearing” composed of some of the top otolaryngologists and acoustic physicists in the country. Working in conjunction with the American Federation of Organizations for the Hard of Hearing, an advocacy group incorporating different social organizations – educators, social workers, and speech teachers – serving the needs of the deafened, the Committee devoted its primary resources to tackling the problem of childhood hearing loss. Yet, the Committee’s agenda of implementing national and state efforts to secure periodic hearing testing was, in fact, largely instigated by deafened people who perceived the need for standard guidelines for measuring hearing loss as vital to their ability to receive medical and employment benefits. After the war, however, the Committee’s primary agenda shifted towards the problem of occupational deafness and industrial noise. This shift, from a disability-focused perspective to an occupational one raises crucial questions about how researchers approached the problem of measuring hearing conservation and protecting hearing from the effects of noise exposure. Additionally, this presentation addresses the implications such a shift could have for how deaf and hard-of-hearing people were classified under new standards of measurement.

The Mercurial Gaze: Distinctly Trainable Students, Measurement, and Mental Deficiency at the Elwyn Training School, 1940-1960
11:12 - 11:45

On Tuesday, November 27, 1945, Mrs. Constance Rhodes received a personal letter from Dr. Arthur Whitney, superintendent of the Elwyn Training School for Mental Defectives in Media, Pennsylvania, letting her know that her seven-year-old son, Roger, “can not be granted admission to Elwyn because we accept only the distinctly trainable children, with IQ’s above 50.” Whitney added any child with an “IQ of 50 at the age of seven will probably have an IQ of 30 at the age of fourteen.” Roger’s rejection by the Elwyn School demonstrates both the malleability and authority of measurement testing in postwar America for the identification of mental deficiency. I suggest that Dr. Whitney attempted to stabilize the diagnostic boundaries of mental deficiency through the establishment of new admission policies based on measurement testing. The administrators at Elwyn, however, grossly overestimated the stability of the IQ test as a measurement tool upon which the classification and diagnosis of mental abnormality rested. This presentation engages with the history of medicine and disability scholarship to show that, yes, diagnoses and designations can be, have been, and are oppressive but that upon closer examination these constructions are simultaneously unstable, permeable, and full of gaps. If we shift to focus on the enterable qualities of these designations at the Elwyn School, we see that families and students were an essential, and operative, part of the production of mental deficiency.

University of Delaware
Brown University
University of Pennsylvania
Georg August Universität Göttingen
University of Kentucky
Vanderbilt University


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