A Brief History of Hearing Loss

A Brief History of Hearing Loss

Throughout history, people have had hearing loss. But have you ever stopped to wonder what people thought about hearing loss, or what happened to someone with hearing loss? Here is a very brief history of hearing loss, with a few highlights of how people understood hearing loss in the past.

Earliest Signs of Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is nothing new. As long as there have been people in the world, there has been hearing loss. Some of the earliest signs of hearing loss date back over 10,000 years. Researchers examining the bones and skulls of some of our earliest ancestors have uncovered signs of hearing loss. Not all hearing loss is visible in bones. But any abnormal growth in bones of the ear, or any damage to bones caused by injuries tell a clear story of hearing loss.

Ancient human remains found in Iraqi Kurdistan show signs of hearing loss. Several of these remains had bony growths in the ear that probably caused hearing loss.

The First Treatments for Hearing Loss

Hearing aids are a relatively new invention. So how did people treat hearing loss in the past 4,000 years? Early written accounts found on Egyptian scrolls are the first written records of hearing loss. The Ebers Papyrus, dating from around 1,500 BCE, is a medical scroll with herbal remedies for a number of illnesses. This scroll even talks about hearing loss! And the treatment? It’s a mixture of red lead, olive oil, ant eggs, bat wings, and goat urine. After pouring this mixture into the ears, hearing loss should be cured. 

What Did Society Think of People with Hearing Loss?

In ancient Europe, no one knew what caused hearing loss. Greek philosophers thought that people born deaf were less intelligent than those born with hearing. They were treated as outcasts from society and were not welcomed by their communities.

Developing Sign Language

Sign language wasn’t originally developed to help the hard of hearing communicate. In fact, monks were the first to communicate using hand signs and gestures. In the early 1,000s CE, monks across Europe took strict vows of silence. But even though they’d sworn not to speak, they still needed a way to communicate with one another. The sign language developed by monks is called Cluniac sign language, and this same set of hand gestures spread to monasteries throughout Europe.

The First Emphasis on Education

Even though the monks had sign language, people born deaf or those with hearing loss still couldn’t communicate easily. Most children born deaf weren’t educated or given an opportunity to join the community. This started to change in the 1,500s CE. Benedictine Pedro Ponce de Leon founded the first school for children with hearing loss in Spain. The school was intended to teach aristocratic children with hearing loss how to communicate, learn sign language, and master a manual alphabet. Ponce de Leon even developed a way to teach the children how to speak audibly, despite their hearing loss.

The First Hearing Instruments

The first devices were actually hearing instruments. The most common early hearing device was a hearing trumpet. This trumpet had a small end that could be held up to the ear canal and a large bell-shaped end. Someone could speak into the large end, and the shape would naturally amplify the sound, making it easier for the person with hearing loss to hear what was said. 

The First Hearing Aid

The first hearing aid wasn’t invented until after the discovery of electricity. Miller Reese Hutchison made one of the first hearing aids in 1898. This large device could take quiet sounds, use an electrical current to amplify the sound, and then send the amplified sound waves to the ear.

Early hearing aids were huge. They were large boxes you’d have to carry with you. In the 1920s hearing aids got a bit smaller and a bit lighter, but they still weighed over 7 lbs.

Where We Are Now

Audiologists and medical providers now know all about hearing loss. We know how the ear works, how sounds travel through the air, and what can cause hearing loss.

Modern hearing technology has also improved. Hearing aids today are so small they can fit inside your ear canal. And sophisticated digital programs help you hear like never before.