8 Famous Historical Figures with Hearing Loss
While it’s impossible to know exactly how many historical figures were known to suffer from hearing loss, there are a few well-documented cases. Because modern medicine and hearing aids did not exist yet, many people struggling with mild hearing loss went undiagnosed or untreated and learned other ways of coping with their condition.
This list is a small compilation of the notable people throughout history, but the records indicate other historic figures who lived with hearing loss. Likewise, there are famous people with hearing loss that live today, from celebrities to activists.
Despite his colourful history and reputation as a master painter, Francisco Goya’s hearing loss is often forgotten. However, his hearing loss and feelings of isolation played a part in his most notorious works: the Black Paintings. After falling ill with a mysterious disease, Goya became deaf. His country was also at war, and he had fallen out of favour with the royal court.
These compounding factors led to a sense of bitterness, disillusionment, and depression. He went on to paint a series of dark, disturbing images, which he plastered around his home. He later died in 1828, leaving behind a rich portfolio of work and an enigmatic legacy. The true cause of his hearing loss was never determined.
Arguably the most well-known deaf figure in history, Helen Keller was more than just a deaf-blind pupil. While the most famous story involving Keller revolved around her tutor, Anne Sullivan, Keller herself grew up to be an outspoken activist. She demanded women’s rights and labour rights, and opposed the military and acts of war.
She became deaf and blind at a young age, likely due to meningitis or scarlet fever. Later in life, she underwent speech therapy to improve her clarity and tone, and used her voice to speak out for what she believed in. To this day, Helen Keller stands as one of the most prolific and well-known deaf-blind figures in history.
Fifty years before Helen Keller, there was Laura Bridgman. She suffered a bout of scarlet fever at age two, which stripped away her hearing and sight. Bridgman was enrolled at the Perkins Institution for the Blind, where she was taught braille by Samuel Gridley Howe.
Her intelligence and perseverance led to fame when Charles Dickens met her in 1842 and wrote about her accomplishments in his American Notes. While she did fade into obscurity over time, she went on to work with blind girls as a sewing instructor. Howe made arrangements for her to live in financial stability before his death in 1876, and Bridgman herself passed away in 1889.
While not completely deaf, Thomas Edison was extremely hard of hearing. The exact cause of his hearing loss is debatable, but many agree that scarlet fever and a blow to the head rendered him deaf in one ear, and 80% deaf in the other. However, he saw his hearing loss as an asset; at one point, he made a joke about how it made it easier to ignore conversations and concentrate.
He is considered one of America’s greatest inventors, and for good reason. He went on to father many modern inventions, including the lightbulb. His second wife was also reportedly almost-deaf, and he proposed to her using a telegraph machine.
While Helen Keller is well-known for her deaf-blindness, Julia Brace is another overlooked example of the same condition and bravery. After typhus fever took her hearing and vision, she went on to enroll at the Hartford Asylum, or the American School for the Deaf.
Her reputation made her a minor celebrity, but she reportedly disliked being interrupted from her work & education. She was a kind and gentle nurse and was mindful of other people’s rights and her own. Despite English lessons by Samuel Gridley Howe, the same man who taught Laura Bridgman, she preferred to communicate using sign language.
Ludwig Van Beethoven
One of the most famous and baffling on this list, Beethoven is one of the most famous people in music history. While it might seem impossible for those with hearing loss to excel at music, Beethoven was not always deaf, and he did not let his hearing loss stop his work.
Ludwig Van Beethoven’s struggle with hearing loss was likely caused by lead poisoning and began as a case of tinnitus. Over time, it worsened until he was unable to hold a conversation, and was forced to communicate using “conversation books”. Personal writings by Beethoven reveal that his loss of hearing deeply upset him. However, his strong grasp on music theory allowed him to continue composing, though his work took on a darker tone as he grew older and more deaf.
It’s well-recorded history that Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States, used a hearing aid while serving in the White House. While serving a significant amount of time in the military likely affected his hearing, the hearing in his right ear was stolen after a .38 caliber gun was fired next to his head.
He was later fitted with a custom-made hearing aid, and his decision to come forward with the decision led to a spike in hearing aid sales. The realisation that the President wore a hearing aid reduced the perceived stigma of wearing them, and many men struggling with hearing loss went on to follow his example.
While this name might not ring a bell, her accomplishments will. Despite slowly losing her hearing from the time she was 17, Low is responsible for the growth and spread of the Girl Scouts. After seeing the Girl Guides Association, Lowe was inspired by their knowledge of knitting, sewing, and first aid. She went on to spread the idea, organising Girl Scout troops in England, Scotland, and Savannah, Georgia.
Her hard work paid off, and she is credited as the creator of the Girl Scouts. Without her work, the Girl Guides Association might have faded into obscurity, never growing into the community we know today.
This is just a fraction of the famous people throughout history that prevailed despite their hearing loss. While a number of them suffered because of their hearing loss, particularly Goya and Beethoven, they continued their work and refused to let it overcome them.
They were activists, politicians, artists, musicians, and more. Their work has not been forgotten, and neither has their hearing loss. We benefit from much of their accomplishments, from Edison’s lightbulb to Beethoven’s musical masterpieces.