Dr Graham Williams: Who were the world’s greatest deaf scientists?

Posted on September 23, 2017

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I really enjoyed the Deaflympics in 2013 and was dismayed that it was not given a higher priority in the media – especially after the feel good factor of the Olympics and Paralympics last year.

It made me think about other areas where the achievements of deaf people are not recognised. As I am a deaf scientist myself, I naturally wondered if any famous scientists were deaf. So equipped with Google, I started to have a look around.

To my surprise, perhaps one of the most famous scientists in history turned out to be deaf. Thomas Edison, the scientist who invented the light bulb and the telegraph, was deaf.

Edison even attributed his success as a scientist to be being deaf as all communications has to be written so there were no misunderstandings. It amused me to discover that he claimed to be deaf because someone picked him up by is ears!!

There are some lesser known (at least in the general public), but by no means less successful deaf scientists; for example, Sir John Cornforth, a Nobel Prize winning chemist who worked in synthesis and catalysis, was deaf.

The Norwegian Astronomer, Olaf Hassel, who discovered Hassel’s comet and a nova was also deaf.

File:Thomas Edison2.jpg

Thomas Edison: “all communications had to be written so there were no misunderstandings”

The French scientist, Charles Henri Nicolle, who discovered the mechanism of transmission of Typhus through body lice, was deaf.

This discovery led to a major breakthrough in medicine and he went on to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology

Many of us look to the stars with aspirations of landing on other planets and meeting extraterrestrial life – but how many of us knew that the father of Astronautics, Konstantin Eduardovic Tsiolkovsky was also deaf. I didn’t.

One particular scientist, Nansie Sharpless, overcame many educational barriers and paved the way for educational reform in the US for deaf students. She was a biochemist who investigated the long term effect of Levodopa as a treatment pathway for Parkinson’s disease.

One particular aspect of scientific life that was a boon for Dr Sharpless was the introduction of poster sessions at scientific conferences. Traditionally scientific findings are presented orally at a conference where they may be challenged.

This format is particularly onerous for deaf scientists, not only because we have to talk in a clear and concise manner, we are also asked questions from a wide audience.

The incorporation of poster sessions (where scientists create posters explaining their work) transformed this, and thus allowed deaf scientist to routinely and easily present posters. Questions were much more manageable as they would be asked face to face.

It is important and right that these scientists are recognised for their achievements and not for their deafness; but it is also important that we recognise their achievements as deaf scientists.

The educational system is much more supportive of deaf students nowadays, but back in the days when the above scientists were students, the struggle would have been incredible.

That these scientist has reached such lofty heights of achievements (with Nobel Prizes no less) despite their deafness is awe-inspiring! Whenever the difficulties of academic life gets me down, I just think of these individuals.

More deaf scientists can be found at the following link – http://www.twu.edu/dsc/

Dr Graham Williams is a Senior Lecturer in Forensic Science at the University of Huddersfield. He has also been profoundly deaf since birth and communicates primarily through lip-reading. He was educated at a combination of schools for the deaf and mainstream schools (with deaf support units) until studying for a BSc in Physiology at the University of Leeds and an MSc in Neurosciences at King’s College London. He then worked at the University of Oxford and became a forensic scientist for the London lab of the Forensic Science Service. He has worked at the University of Huddersfield since 2007 and has just recently completed a staff PhD in Forensic Genetics.

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