Skip to content

The internal soundscapes of 19th century medicine

This project explores new scientific and cultural understandings of sound and its effects, and the new kinds of medical knowledge that became possible through the co-functioning of musical and acoustical experimentation in the nineteenth century.

The project draws on the collections of objects available at the Science Museum, and on both medical and popular representations of objects such as the percussion hammers used in auscultation, the stethoscope, the sphygmograph (an instrument for measuring the pulse—see main image), the hydrophone (essentially a rubber bag filled with water used as a medium for listening to the chest) and the cephaloscope (a device for listening to the ear itself).

It explores the history of the objects’ construction, reception, application, and success or failure, as well as the emergent corporeal anxieties and fantasies implicit in the development of new medical technologies.

Through such cases, it argues that new ways of listening in medical diagnosis demanded a cultivated medical ear to distinguish different internal sounds and to ‘read’ those sounds as physical signs in ways that emphasised the limitations of the unassisted human ear, as well as the new penetrability and vulnerability of the human body, whose inner motions and secrets might now be exposed.

Ultimately, this project seeks to situate and analyse these new acoustic medical technologies within an auditory culture of medicine that made accessible the internal soundscapes of the human body and that functioned as an interface between constructions of presence and absence, and between material and immaterial realms.

Melissa Dickson is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher on ‘Diseases of Modern Life’, a five-year, ERC funded project based at St Anne’s College, Oxford, which investigates nineteenth-century cultural, literary, and medical understandings of stress, overwork, and other disorders associated in the period with the problems of modernity.