“Imagine trying to learn biology without ever using the word “organism.” Or studying to become a botanist when the only way of referring to photosynthesis is to spell the word out, letter by painstaking letter.”I've been asked to write an article about deaf scientists for my agency. I have to say that I never thought about the communication issue in science fields. There was just a vague sense of sign language without thought to how tedious and/or difficult lectures could be for both the lecturer and those in the audience.
I don't want the article to be just a listing of deaf scientists, so I've been poking around the web and trying to condense some history as well as reading biographies. I don't recognize most of the names, of course, but one did surprise me - Thomas Edison. He wasn't totally deaf, but very hard of hearing. The Q&A at the website of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park says this:
Was Edison deaf?
That is how Edison described himself, but in fact he was not totally deaf. It is more accurate to say he was very hard of hearing. He once wrote, "I have not heard a bird sing since I was twelve years old."
So, why didn't Edison invent a hearing aid? He often told reporters that he was working on one; sometimes he tested hearing aids designed by others. But it seems that Edison saw advantages to being deaf. For example, he said that it helped him concentrate on his work. In 1927 he told a group of 300 hard-of-hearing adults, "Deaf people [like himself] should take to reading. It beats the babble of ordinary conversation."
A part of my fond memories of Grandma's house, it's an Edison Amberola 30, and until fairly recently it still played. This series was built between 1915 and 1929 - I think I traced the serial number to a manufacture date of 1918. There's more than 100 "records" with it: celluloid cylinders around a plaster core. Some are in rough condition - my Dad and uncles knew that if you knocked the plaster out the right way they could play them backwards.
I really ought to catalog the cylinders properly. And I really ought to figure out how to get it back in working order. There's some great stuff in there - the one shown is "Alexander's Rag Time Band". Lot's of Hawaiian - apparently that was real big in the early 20s. A speech by Teddy Roosevelt. "Darktown Strutter's Ball" would probably get me into trouble with the PC crowd.
Novelty songs were popular, as well. My favorite of the ones I have has always been "Barney Google", written for Eddie Cantor in 1923 and based on a comic by the same name. (Although "Yes We Have No Bananas" runs a close second.)
You can probably see why the song was written for Cantor. My version is the Billy Jones and Ernest Hare one, I think. You can give a listen here because I'm too lazy to try to attach it to the comic image.
Hours of listening, limited only by how often I want to crank it. Yeah, I'd really like to be able to do that again. Time for some more web surfing.
Note - I know about Beethoven going deaf, but Edison still surprised me. As did the fact that a mathematician whose major contribution was to acoustics, including giving us the word for the science, Joseph Sauveur (1653 - 1716), appears to have been either born deaf or so seriously impaired that he didn't speech until he was 7.