Nineteenth-Century Disability:  Cultures & Contexts

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The second poem in Amy Levy’s second published collection attests to her longstanding interest in mental illness. As a fin-de-siècle poet, essayist, and novelist, Levy (1861-1889) was one of the most prominent female voices for the significance of…

Ear Phonautograph.jpg
As disability theorists such as Douglas Baynton, Jonathan Rée, Lennard J. Davis, Jennifer Esmail, and Jan Branson and Don Miller explain, in both America and England in the mid-nineteenth century, attitudes toward sign language shifted: whereas in…

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In 1791 a female patient, belonging to the Society of Friends, was admitted to the York Asylum. Since her family did not live nearby, they requested that their friends who lived in the city visit her. These visits were refused, and a few weeks later…

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Millie (left) and Christine (right) McKoy were born into slavery in Columbus County, North Carolina, in 1851. These conjoined twin sisters were sometimes called Millie-Christine McKoy. Each sister had two arms and two legs, but they were connected at…

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Orthopaedic medicine began as a general practice of child rearing in France with Nicolas Andry’s Orthopaedia (1741).  (Andry’s work was translated into English in 1743.)  In the mid-nineteenth century, orthopaedic medicine became a specialized…

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The story of Joseph Carey Merrick began in 1862, when he was born to Mary Jane and Joseph Merrick of Leicester, but the story of the Elephant Man did not start until several years later. It was when he was a toddler that tumours first appeared on…

Mrs. Skewton's Bath Chair.jpg
Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1846–1848) attests to his career-long interest in chair-bound characters[1]—characters who, because of illness, injury, or egotism, are confined or confine themselves to a “wheeled chair” (alternately…

Jane Eyre.jpg
Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 sensation, Jane Eyre, ends with a dramatic climax in which the hero is blinded and maimed. This ending is often read as a symbolic castration.  Richard Chase first proposed this Freudian reading of Rochester's disabilities…

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One of Charlotte M. Yonge’s last great family sagas, The Pillars of the House (1873) prominently features disability. Several of the thirteen orphaned Underwood siblings experience disability or chronic illness: Felix, the eldest, struggles against…

Audiphone_c1926_BeckerLibrary.jpeg
On September 1879, Richard Silas Rhodes (1842-1902), president of a publishing company in Chicago, received a patent for his “Audiphone for the Deaf” his various improvements to the device. (U.S. Patent No. 319,828). Rhodes had conductive hearing…
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