Hear ye! Eugenics debate targets deaf

Listen up. You might remember from grade school history lessons that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. But did you know that this pioneer in communications technology was married to a deaf woman? Or that he opposed deaf-deaf marriages because he believed an inferior race would result?
Although eugenics as such was not yet a full-fledged science in the 1880s, Bell brought deaf-deaf marriages to the attention of U.S. and British scientists working in the field of hereditary studies and public health. He essentially popularized what had previously been a minor issue by linking it to dominant social concerns over the health of national races. But how did the deaf respond to Bell’s controversial philosophy?
Find out at what promises to be an ear-opening lecture by Joseph J. Murray, doctoral candidate in history at the University of Iowa, and an emerging leader in the international deaf studies movement. In his talk “Deaf-Deaf Marriages: the Transatlantic Debate 1883-1900,” Murray will discuss the reactions of deaf people in America and Europe as they sought to rebut Bell’s assertions.
Ranging from statistical data to a defense of their right to pursue individual (vs. nation-state) happiness, the arguments of the deaf were perhaps most compelling when backed by true love. Even Bell himself, when confronted with the marriage of two of his dearest friends– both deaf– conceded that love and mutual sympathy ought to prevail over hereditary principles, even if deafness in the couple’s children might result.
“The deaf-deaf marriages debate is an important story that has tremendous relevance to today’s ongoing transformation of society according to genetic principles,” Murray says of his lecture’s broad-reaching scope. “Our society seems to be in a default setting of eliminating deafness, with little input from deaf people themselves. To be truly open, universities need to interject the deaf viewpoint in contemporary conversations, not just on issues such as genetic research, but also on the values of our contemporary society.”
Providing a forum for this vital minority discourse is the primary goal of the UVA American Sign Language/Deaf Culture Lecture series, which is co-sponsoring Murray’s talk. Intended to supplement the ASL Program, this series brings deaf leaders in the fields of history, linguistics, education, ASL poetry, ASL Literary traditions, and deaf art, among other topics.

Joseph J. Murray shares his research on “Deaf-Deaf Marriages: the Transatlantic Debate 1883-1900” at Friday, April 4 at 7pm at UVA’s Wilson Hall Auditorium (Room 402). Free and open to the public. Voice interpretation services will be provided. Email Lisa Berke at ljb9r@virginia.edu for more information.

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