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Humanist and sociologist Harriet Martineau began to lose her hearing aged just 12, and in later life used an ear trumpet to help her hear, which many of her friends and acquaintances recalled. In 1834, she wrote an essay entitled ‘Letter to the Deaf’, in which she wrote:

The more our sympathies are in danger of contraction, the more must we put ourselves in the way of being interested by what is happening all about us. Society is the very last thing to be given up; but it must be sought… The worst is, either to sink under the trial, or to be made callous by it. The best is, to be as wise as is possible under a great disability, and as happy as is possible under a great privation.

In 1848, lecturing in Ambleside, Martineau was assisted by another freethinking woman, Anne Clough (first Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge), who stood at the back of the hall to signal to Martineau about her audibility – by then difficult for her to judge. A reminder of such anecdotes of friendship and collaboration, and of the uniquely human capacity to use our intellect to develop technology that can improve people’s lives, the ear trumpet is symbolic of Martineau’s enduring interest in other people, her desire to maintain connection with them, and a lifelong effort to share her own ideas and ideals with others.

Image: Ear trumpet, 19th century. Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

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