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During the first half of the twentieth century, the mining industry in Britain was subject to recurrent disputes about the risk to miners’ lungs from coal dust, moderated by governmental, industrial, medical and mining bodies. In this environment, precise measurements offered a way to present uncontested objective knowledge. By accessing primary source material from the National Archives, the South Wales Miners Library and the University of Bristol's Special Collections, I demonstrate the importance that the British Medical Research Council (MRC) attached to standardized instrumental measures as proof of objectivity, and explore the conflict between objective and subjective measures of health. Examination of the MRC's use of spirometry in their investigation of pneumoconiosis (miner's lung) from 1936 to 1945 will shed light on this conflict and illuminate the politics inherent in attempts to quantify disability and categorize standards of health.
The provision of standardized hearing aids is now considered to be a crucial part of the UK National Health Service. Yet this is only explicable through reference to the career of a woman who has, until now, been entirely forgotten. Dr Phyllis Margaret Tookey Kerridge (1901–1940) was an authoritative figure in a variety of fields: medicine, physiology, otology and the construction of scientific apparatus. The astounding breadth of her professional qualifications allowed her to combine features of these fields and, later in her career, to position herself as a specialist to shape the discipline of audiometry. Rather than framing Kerridge in the classic ‘heroic-woman’ narrative, in this article we draw out the complexities of her career by focusing on her pursuit of standardization of hearing tests. Collaboration afforded her the necessary networks to explore the intricacies of accuracy in the measurement of hearing acuity, but her influence was enhanced by her ownership of Britain's first Western Electric (pure-tone) audiometer, which she placed in a specially designed and unique ‘silence room’. The room became the centre of Kerridge's hearing aid clinic that, for the first time, allowed people to access free and impartial advice on hearing aid prescription. In becoming the guardian expert and advocate of the audiometer, Kerridge achieved an objectively quantified approach to hearing loss that eventually made the latter an object of technocratic intervention.