Wendell Johnson

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Dr. Wendell Johnson (April 16, 1906 – August 29, 1965) was an American psychologist, actor and author and was a proponent of General Semantics (or GS). He was born in Roxbury, Kansas and died in Iowa City, Iowa. The Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center, which houses the University of Iowa's speech pathology and audiology programs, is named after him. He is known for the experiment nicknamed the "Monster Study" for the damage it did to its human subjects, although this study has defenders.[1]

His son is former American Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner Nicholas Johnson.

Stuttering contributions[edit]

Considered one of the earliest and most influential speech pathologists in the field, he spent most of his life trying to find the cause and cure for stuttering -- through teaching, research, scholarly and other writing, lecturing, supervision of graduate students, and persuading K-12 schools, the Veterans Administration and other institutions of the need for speech pathologists. He played a major role in the creation of the American Speech and Hearing Association.

Johnson's book People in Quandaries: The Semantics of Personal Adjustment (1946; still in print from the Institute of General Semantics) is an excellent introduction to general semantics applied to psychotherapy. In 1956 his Your Most Enchanted Listener was published; in 1972, his Living With Change: The Semantics of Coping, a collection of selected portions of transcriptions of hundreds of his talks, organized by Dorothy Moeller, provided further general semantic insights. He also published many articles in his lifetime, in journals, including ETC: A Review of General Semantics. [1] Neil Postman acknowledges the influence of People in Quandaries in his own excellent general semantics book Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk (1976, Delacorte, New York):

I am tempted to say that there are two kinds of people in the world -- those who will learn something from this book (People in Quandaries) and those who will not. The best blessing I can give you is to wish that as you go through life you will be surrounded by the former and neglected by the latter.

Patricia Zebrowski, University of Iowa assistant professor of speech pathology and audiology, notes, "The body of data that resulted from Johnson's work on children who stutter and their parents is still the largest collection of scientific information on the subject of stuttering onset. Although new work has determined that children who stutter are doing something different in their speech production than non-stutterers, Johnson was the first to talk about the importance of a stutterer's thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, and feelings. We still don't know what causes stuttering, but the 'Iowa' way of approaching study and treatment is still heavily influenced by Johnson, but with an added emphasis on speech production."

One of the most thorough single Web site collections of material regarding Wendell Johnson is http://www.uiowa.edu/~cyberlaw/oldinav/wjhome.html. It contains links to his Who's Who in America entry and c.v., bibliographies, excerpts from his writing, audio of his general semantics lectures, articles by others about Johnson, and an excerpt from Robert Goldfarb, editor, Ethics: A Case Study from Fluency (2005).

Attacks on the 1930s master's thesis, and the journalistic labeling as a "Monster Study", contributed to controversy. On the one hand, speech research scientists Nicoline Grinager Ambrose and Ehud Yairi are critical of the conclusions that Mary Tudor drew from her data, but believe that no harm was done to the subjects and that there was no intention to do harm: "[T]he study failed to provide any credible scientific support that stuttering was produced 'in the laboratory' . . .. [T]here is no evidence of intent to harm, and . . . the objective of increasing disfluent speech should not be confused with instilling chronic stuttering in normally fluent children." To which human subjects researcher Dr. Michael Flaum has written, "That really ought to be the end of the matter. If harm was neither intended nor done, what's the problem? Where's the 'lack of ethics'?" The University's vice president for research said, "the experiment was both justified and ethical. . . . [I]t was fully within the norms of the time." [Sources: "Retroactive Ethical Judgments and Human Subjects Research: the 1939 Tudor Study in Context," linked above.]

On the other hand, Richard Schwartz concludes in Chapter 6 of the book that the study "was unfortunate in Tudor and Johnson's lack of regard for the potential harm to the children who participated and in their selection of institutionalized children simply because they were easily available. The deception and the apparent lack of debriefing were also not justifiable." Other authors concur claiming the orphan experiment was not within the ethical boundaries of acceptable research. Others, however, felt that the ethical standards in 1939 were different from those used today. Some felt the study was poorly designed and executed by Tudor, and as a result the data offered no proof of Johnson's subsequent theory that "stuttering begins, not in the child's mouth but in the parent's ear" -- i.e., that it is the well-meaning parent's effort to help the child avoid what the parent has labelled "stuttering" (but is in fact within the range of normal speech) that contributes to what ultimately becomes the problem diagnosed as stuttering.

Johnson chose one of his master's graduate students, Mary Tudor (researcher), to conduct the experiment and he supervised her research. Many of the orphan children were psychologically scarred by Johnson's experiment after Tudor spent four months in 1939 conditioning them to stutter through negative speech therapy in which she belittled them for their own normal speech imperfections. Dubbed the "Monster Study" by some of his peers who were horrified that Johnson would experiment on orphan children to prove a theory, the experiment was kept hidden for fear Johnson's reputation would be tarnished in the wake of human experiments conducted by the Nazis during World War II. The University of Iowa publicly apologized for the Monster Study in 2001. A university spokesman called the experiment "regrettable" and added: "This is a study that should never be considered defensible in any era...In no way would I ever think of defending this study. In no way. It’s more than unfortunate." Before her death, Mary Tudor expressed deep regret about her role in the study and maintained that Wendell Johnson should have done more to reverse the negative effects on the orphan children's speech. In spite of Wendell Johnson's role in the creation of the study, Tudor still felt he had made many positive contributions to speech pathology and stuttering research.

Some of subjects of the Tudor study brought a lawsuit against the University of Iowa that was settled in 2007 for less than 7 percent of what the plaintiffs were asking ($925,000).

  1. ^ "Retroactive Ethical Judgments and Human Subjects Research: the 1939 Tudor Study in Context," in Robert Goldfarb, ed., Ethics: A Case Study in Fluency (San Diego and Oxford: Plural Publishing, 2005), ch. 9, p. 139. Link label

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