The Deafness of George


Hearing International has shied away from a discussion of George Washington’s hearing impairment as,  on the surface, it appears not to be an international topic.  But as research progressed into his hearing issues, it has become evident that there are some international aspects to the story that should be presented and will shed light on his known hearing loss and provide some speculation as to the type and configuration of that impairment.  His lineage in the colonies dates back to his great-grandfather, John Washington, who held some distinction in England before he left for the colonies and was granted land by King Henry VIII.  During the Puritan Revolution, a political and military conflict that followed the collapse of the rule and religious policies of Charles I, the Washington family lost most of their wealth.  Consequently,  in 1657 George’s grandfather, Lawrence Washington, migrated to Virginia and became a militia captain and a member of the VirginiaHouse of Burgesses, the first gathering of elected representatives in the new world.To encourage English craftsmen to settle in North America and to make conditions in the colony more agreeable for its current inhabitants.

gw2Lawrence became a large landowner in Virginia responsible for establishing the town of Alexandria, Virginia as well as a founding member of the Ohio Company, a land speculation company organized for the settlement by Virginians of the Ohio Country (approximately the present state of Ohio) and to trade with the Native Americans. (click on the Bio for about a 4 minute bio of the 1st US President).  The Company had a land grant from Britain and a treaty with Indians, but France also claimed the area, and the conflict helped provoke the outbreak of the French and Indian War.  George’s father, Augustine Washington (1694-1748), inherited the family fortune in 1698 at 4 years of age and continued their tradition of land and slave owning, raising tobacco, and political activism, even serving as a Justice of the Peace and County Sheriff. 

Thus, George Washington (1732-1799) was born into Virginian wealth and political activism with a strong tradition of military service in the family. Inheriting the family fortune of farms, estates, slaves and other riches, by 1752 at age 20 he was well heeled and ready to enter into a career of service and politics.  The Ohio Company, in which Washington held a large share, was an important vehicle through which British investors planned to expand into the Ohio Valley, opening new settlements and trading posts for the Indian trade. 

gw3In 1753, the French, based in Quebec, began expanding their military control into the Ohio Country, a territory already claimed by the British colonies of Virginia and Pennsylvania. These competing claims led to a war in the colonies called the French and Indian War (1754–63) and called the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) in Europe. By birth, investment, involvement in the Virginia Militia, and by chance, Washington became involved as a British officer in the French and Indian War from the beginning.  Seeing significant action, he soon became a battle-hardened soldier and by 1755 rose to a commission as “Colonel of the Virginia Regiment and Commander in Chief of all forces now raised in the defense of His Majesty’s Colony.”

While his duty was to defend the Virginia frontier, he was still in the thick of any battles as they arose….the rest is history – election to the Continental Congress, and then leading the Continental Army to Victory over the British in the American Revolutionary War…and more noise exposure.

Washington’s 9 Deadly Diseases


gw6The noise of battle with its cannon, muskets and other noise can be deafening… but, Washington has some other contributors to the hearing loss noted by his close colleagues.  He is documented to have contracted 9 deadly diseases during his lifetime:

  • Diptheria – A very common infection in the colonies, particularly in childhood. Records suggest that Washington may have had it when he was 15- 18 years of age. Diphtheria strikes in two stages, first with a terrible sore throat and then a pseudo-membrane over the back of the throat which poses a risk of suffocation. It also creates a toxin which circulates around the body, weakening the heart and sometimes causing a person to drop dead several weeks later. Diphtheria in childhood may have consequences for hearing that do not become apparent until later in life. A possible biological mechanism for a diphtheria effect on hearing ability exists: The toxin produced by the Corynebacterium diphtheriae bacteria can cause damage to cranial nerves and therefore may affect the auditory neural pathway.
  • Tuberculosis – Washington’s brother had TB and a common treatment of the time was to “breathe in fresh air”…so they took a sea trip to Barbados.  While on that trip George contracted TB from his brother, Lawrence.  An infection of the lining that coats the lungs, it can return later in life after it is thought to be cured. If contacted today hearing loss could be a factor because the antibotics used to treat it are often ototoxic, but  it probably had little effect on George’s hearing loss.
  • Smallpox – Washington was infected by smallpox at about age 19.  This is a very serious disease that causes blistery lesions all over the face. Its effects on the internal organs are what kill 1 out of 3 victims. Washington survived, but he did have serious scarring pock marks on his face for the rest of his life.   Knowing how bad smallpox could be, he played a revolutionary role by having all of the Colonial Army’s soldiers vaccinated. gw5  In a review of literature of over 200 cases, Tennyson and Mair (2004) concluded that smallpox manifestations in the head and neck often presented as acute airway obstruction and also as long-term sequelae such as ectropion, nasal vestibular stenosis, conductive hearing loss, and blindness. Most chronic sequelae involve the head and neck.
  • Dysentery – “Today dysentery is typically defined as bloody diarrhea, which may also contain mucous in the liquid-like stools. Washington had this many, many times, including when he was fighting in the French & Indian War in the 1750s. At one point when he was fighting, he was in such agony from diarrhea and intense rectal pain that he needed to put a pillow underneath him on his horse. He was in a terrible battle and sitting erect on the pillow. That in itself put him at terrible risk. He could have easily been shot and things might have turned out very differently for this country. While a pain in the kiester, his dysentery probably had no effect on his hearing.
  • Malaria – Washington probgw9ably contracted malaria at age of 17. It strikes, the fever will come, and then it goes away. It’s active, quiet, active and quiet, and as a result Washington probably had bouts with the disease throughout his life. We tend to think of it now as a developing-nation disease, but well into the early 19th century, malaria was extremely common in the United States, even in places like Michigan and Minnesota. Treatment at the time was the use of bark from the chinchona tree, which contains quinine, known to cause temporary hearing impairment.
  • Quinsy – Quinsy is rather an antiquated 18th century term that generally refers to tonsillitis or an infection of the tonsils in the back of the throat similar to what we might call in today’s clinic “Strep Throat.”  In Washington’s time there were no antibiotics for this disorder but he was diagnosed with this entity on several occasions. Quinsy attacks, though painful and frustrating, would probably not have had any effect on his hearing.gw7
  • Carbuncle – He got his carbuncle late in life, probably sometime in 1795. It was a bump on his face that some thought to be a cancerous tumor but it could have simply been a streptococcal or staphylococcal. We just don’t know. Obviously had no real effect on the President’s hearing.
  • Pneumonia –  If you get pneumonia, you have a very high fever, great difficulty breathing, and you just feel sick as can be.  Here the possible high fever might put his at cells at risk……
  • Epiglottitis – Issues with the epiglottis are more commonly found in kids and tend to be caused by Haemophilus influenzae. While there is no official record,  Washington was out riding on his Mount Vernon estate on a cold winter day and came in with a sore throat that within hours created significant problems swallowing.  Consistent with medical treatment of the times, physicians thought it might be due to an excess amount of blood. Within 12 hours, they had taken about 80 ounces of blood, which is 35% of the blood in an adult’s body and finally Washington died of the disorder (or the blood loss).


George Washington’s Hearing Loss



As you can see, Washington was involved with the war with the French and was a British soldier, so he was an international figure. 

As for his hearing loss…  Audiologically, the odds are high that the dysentery, malaria, quinsy and carbuncle did not have much effect on his hearing.  The pneumonia could have had had some great effects if the fever was high enough during the illness, but reports are that he made it through that rather well without much complication. 

So, our Hearing International panel feels that George Washington probably had a simple, but very significant noise-induced hearing loss from all of his battles during the French and Indian War as well as during the Revolution.  He was also left handed, suggesting more of a loss on the right ear than the left ear.  Check out the panel’s depiction in the audiogram.  As for the speech data we would suggest that the SRT s would be about 30 for the left ear and 50 for the right ear with word recognition scores in the 70% range or so.  This would probably be the amount of hearing loss or some variation of it, that President Washington had in the White House during his term (1789-1797). 

While it could have been a very difficult problem, his saving grace is that most of his cabinet and many of those that surrounded him were also war veterans probably with some significant hearing impairment.  Those must have been some interesting state discussions.

About Robert Traynor

Robert M. Traynor is a board certified audiologist with 45 years of clinical practice in audiology. He is a hearing industry consultant, trainer, professor, conference speaker, practice manager, and author. He has 45 years experience teaching courses and training clinicians within the field of audiology with specific emphasis in hearing and tinnitus rehabilitation. Currently, he is an adjunct professor in various university audiology programs.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting. I’d also like to learn more about Joseph Pulitzer’s hyperacusis, which was so bad he had to leave his newspaper offices in futile search for a treatment.

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