Deafness, History, and Material Culture: Introducing Jaipreet Virdi

The Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research will host their 4th Annual Congress online from 21–23 April 2021. The Polyphony is delighted to publish interviews with all four keynote speakers in the build-up to the Congress. This week Congress organiser Ruben Verwaal talks to Dr Jaipreet Virdi (Department of History, University of Delaware).

Ruben Verwaal writes:

Disability Studies and Medical Humanities have much to offer each other. We are very pleased to see so many panels and papers submitted to the NNMHR Congress 2021 about disability and we’re excited to have Dr Jaipreet Virdi as keynote speaker.

Jaipreet Virdi

Virdi is a historian of medicine, technology, and disability. She researches the ways in which medicine and technology impact the lived experiences of disabled people. Her wonderful book Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History (University of Chicago Press, 2020) combines her personal story with academic research, raising pivotal questions about deafness in American society and the endless quest for a cure. In 2019, Virdi won the John C. Burnham Early Career Award by the History of Science Society (HSS) Forum for the History of Human Science.

In this interview, Virdi tells about her studies, what she’s proud of and who inspires her. Like so many of us, Virdi has had to juggle online meetings and teaching. We’re very grateful she found the time in these trying times!

RV: Where did you study and how has this shaped you?

JV: I received my MA and PhD from the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Toronto [1]. It was there that I learned the methods for thinking historically and for integrating philosophical insight into my analysis. As well, I received additional training in material culture studies through a summer fellowships at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, which made me rethink how I approached my research on the history of nineteenth-century diagnostic instruments (a chapter of my PhD dissertation). The networks that I formed at the University of Toronto and to the broader museum community have shaped the way I think about object narratives and material culture—I’m especially interested in examining how users/patients who are often at the end of medical and technical expertise, are shaped by these interventions, and how they resist, redesign, or adjust their understanding of such expertise. These are all ideas that were informed by my education at IHPST that I am still currently working on!

RV: What made you decide to pursue a career in History and Medical Humanities?

JV: Honestly, it really wasn’t much of a decision as a leap of chance. Before grad school, I was building a career in marketing and one evening spontaneously decided to research into what PhD programs were available in Toronto (where I was living), contacted the grad director, then applied!

RV: In your career as teacher/researcher, what are you most proud of?

JV: Seeing where my research ends up and how my students expand and build on the work I’ve done. It’s marvellous watching the tendrils that emerge from my work that ends up traveling in various paths.

RV: What advice do you have for young aspiring scholars in Medical Humanities?

JV: 1) Whatever you write, know who you are writing for, and write intentionally so that your work is accessible; and 2) our stories inform our perspective; learn the stories of others—including your patients—so you can understand their perspectives.

RV: What three emotions would best describe how you feel about presenting at the NNMHR 2021 Congress?

JV: I only have one—excitement!

RV: Which twentieth-century thinker or scholar has been most inspiring to you?

JV: I have two, if that’s okay? Mara Mills, who is a brilliant historian, mentor, and friend [2], and disability activist Alice Wong, who expands the realm of possibilities for how disability stories are collected and preserved [3].

RV: What will your keynote be about?

JV: Hearing aids have always been designed to be concealed. From nineteenth-century ear trumpets obscured in fans, hats, or vases, to early twentieth-century vacuum tubes built within purses and camera bags, invisibility was a predominant feature and selling point. With the inventions of the transistor, printed circuit, and button battery, devices created after the Second World War drastically reduced in size, shifting from being “body-worn,” to be worn behind or inside the ear. Despite technological advancements towards miniaturization, however, many hearing aid models were designed for aesthetic appeal: hammered aluminium chassis, gold filigree microphone grills, art deco decorative features, and a range of colours and shapes made hearing aids fashionable. Nevertheless, these devices were still promoted to be concealed when worn, even as users were modifying and adjusting their hearing aids to bring together fashion and style to affirm their deaf identity. Drawing from material and visual culture, this presentation examines how fashion both contrasted, and heightened, design trends of invisibility featured in hearing aids.


For more information about Virdi’s keynote and the Northern Network for Medical Humanities 4th Annual Congress 2021, please visit


[1] Jaipreet Virdi, ‘From the Hands of Quacks: Aural Surgery, Deafness, and the Making of a Surgical Specialty in 19th Century London’ (PhD thesis, University of Toronto, 2014).

[2] Mara Mills’ publications include: ‘Deafening: Noise and the Engineering of Communication in the Telephone System’, Grey Room 43 (2011): 118–143; ‘Hearing Aids and the History of Electronics Miniaturization’, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 33 (2011): 24–45; and ‘Deaf Jam: From Inscription to Reproduction to Information’, Social Text 28 (2010): 35–58.

[3] Alice Wong is the Founder and Director of the Disability Visibility Project, a community partnership with StoryCorps and an online community dedicated to creating, sharing and amplifying disability media and culture created in 2014.

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