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Wendell Johnson


Wendell A. L. Johnson


Memorial Home Page


NOTE: This Web site was created, and is maintained, by Wendell Johnson’s son, Nicholas Johnson. Although the University of Iowa’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders kindly maintains a link to this site, neither the Department nor the University of Iowa is in any way, legally or otherwise, responsible for its content.

Immediately below are some quick links. (To return, use “Back” on your Web browser.) But there’s much more here than these links provide. You may prefer a leisurely scroll down the page. It’s your choice. Enjoy. (This page was first dedicated at the University of Iowa’s Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Clinic on April 16, 1997 — what would have been Wendell Johnson’s 91st birthday.)

Given the widespread and distorted national media attention given to the 1939 Tudor masters thesis during the years 2001-2003, those who may be interested in a little more balanced approach to the issues may want to read at least the first introductory pages of Nicholas Johnson, “Retroactive Ethical Judgments and Human Subjects Research: The 1939 Tudor Study” — a paper presented, by invitation, at a City University of New York symposium in December 2002 and subsequently published as Chapter 9, “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), p. 139 — and a couple of articles in the eastern Iowa Gazette: Tom Owen, “When Words Hurt: Stuttering Story Missed the Mark” and ” Professor’s Son Defends Him, Research,” both July 13, 2003.

This page was created in 1997; last substantively updated July 18, 2000; the reference to “Retroactive Ethical Judgments . . .” added July 6, 2003 (and revised slightly June 14, 2009); Spriestersbach Tribute added June 6, 2015 . — Nicholas Johnson




Linda Alexander

Curriculum Vitae

Nicholas Johnson

Who’s Who in America

Joseph Stewart


Dean Williams


D.C. Spriestersbach, “A Tribute to Wendell Johnson” (dedication of Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center), June 15, 1968



Because I Stutter

People in Quandaries

Your Most Enchanted Listener

Stuttering and What You Can Do About It

Living With Change

“You Can’t Write Writing”

“The Language of Responsibility”


My father — known to me as “Dad,” to his students as “Dr. Wendell Johnson,” and to his close friends as “Jack” — was my best friend. This page has been created as a memorial and source for today’s students and practitioners of speech pathology and of general semantics.believe it is an appropriate medium for such a memorial. Before his death Dad wrote of his electronics hobby — at that time the work he was doing with audio tape recorders,* including the invention of a rather ingenious dual-deck machine to enable individuals to hear, and react to, their own speech. I am confident that, had he been alive in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he would have been among the first to be exploring a PC, the Internet and Web.

Born in Roxbury, Kansas, in 1906, he died of a heart attack at his home in Iowa City, Iowa, August 29, 1965. He was then 59; I was 30. A writer, he died literally with a pen in his hand, drafting the entry on “Speech Defects” for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Dad began life as a stutterer. As he put it, he became a speech pathologist because he needed one. He was one of the world’s first in the 1920s and 1930s at the University of Iowa.

But he was much more, as well — as these audio links to his “Plogglies” story, or samples of lectures from October 1962, will illustrate for old friends and new acquaintances. (Here also is a link to my own remarks at the dedication of this Web page on what would have been his 91st birthday, April 16, 1997, and the story in the Iowa City Press-Citizen about that event.)

— Nicholas Johnson


* See, for example, the reference in the last section of his curriculum vitae (the essay headed “Sidelights”), and the chapter from Living With Change at page 185.

When my father died in 1965 the family received literally thousands of moving letters of condolence and anecdote from around the world. He had touched so many lives in his brief 59 years, and in ways that often left those he encountered full of an admiration, appreciation and affection they never forgot.

That fact is relevant to this Web site. (1) It is because he was that kind of a person that I think it is worth my time — and yours — to be reminded of him through the material available here. (2) There are still many individuals who knew him personally. If they have access to the Web, it may be more pleasant than sad for them to visit again in this way with their old friend “Jack.” (3) The new waves of students, teachers and practitioners of speech pathology — and of general semantics — may find these links a useful way to satisfy some curiosity about this early pioneer in their specialties of study and practice. It would be an odd science indeed if all of his 20th Century insights and theories were still thought valid today; but they will always be prominent in the origins of these fields. (4) And it is also relevant because this page, and its links, are the product of those thousands of individuals. They literally wrote some of the introductory pieces linked below. They certainly inspired, and contributed to, Dad’s 35 years of research and writing (1930-1965). And it is they, and their successors, who are carrying it on today. (As an inadequate tip of the iceberg, here is a list of the authors of doctoral dissertations awarded by the Iowa program from 1928 through 1954. For what is probably the most thorough history of that program, see Dorothy Moeller, Speech Pathology & Audiology: Iowa Origins of a Discipline (Iowa City: The University of Iowa, 1975).)

Just as the consequences of Dad’s work live on, and change from day to day, so too does this Web site. Contribute your own building block. Send me your suggestions — of links that might be included to material already on the Web, links you’ve created back to this page, anecdotes you’d like to share, text or photos you think should be scanned and linked. My eamil address, substituting the “@” for the “[at]” is: mailbox [at] nicholasjohnson [dot] org. 


Brief Introductory Pieces

We begin with some introductory pieces. The first is by Linda Alexander. It appeared in the Winter 1993 issue of the Iowa Alumni Quarterly (Carol Harker, Editor; UI Alumni Association, Iowa City IA 52242-1797). It is called “Figure of Speech.”

The University of Iowa was central to Dad’s professional life. The photo at the top of this page shows him in front of that University’s central landmark, “The Old Capitol.” He arrived in Iowa City in 1926, earned a B.A. with honors in English in 1928, and two degrees in psychology: an M.A. in 1929 and Ph.D. in 1931. He spent much of his life attempting to create the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology which now exists at Iowa, and is housed in the Center which bears his name, and was built after his death, the Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center.

Not incidentally, Wendell Johnson met my mother, Edna, at the University of Iowa. Born in 1905, she had also grown up on a family farm — one of three girls near Galva, Iowa. At the University she further developed her abilities as a talented poet and dancer, and probably became, if anything, Dad’s academic better. I returned to Iowa City from Washington in 1980, in largest measure to be with her following her cancer surgery. It was some of our best time together. She died peacefully at home in 1989, still quoting poetry at length and exhibiting her wry humor until the end.Following her death my wife, Mary Vasey, and I moved back into the family home that Dad had purchased in 1941, where I lived until 1952, my sister, Kate, until 1956, my Dad until 1965, and Mother until 1989.

For those interested in the skeletal biographical details, a link is provided to Who’s Who in America — that is, the entry in the last edition of Who’s Who in America after Dad’s death that still carried an entry. For those who want more information, there is his more detailed (indeed, the current expression would be “awesome”) curriculum vitae and the bibliography of his writing. This page is not intended to be academic, thorough — or even balanced — just snippits and samples. Hopefully, however, there are enough references here for anyone who would like to pursue his life and work in greater depth to do so.

Among Dad’s students, and later colleagues, was the late Dean Williams — a family friend with whom Mother and I shared Thanksgiving dinners during the 1980s until Dean’s tragic death. He wrote a nice essay about Dad that was published in the University’s student newspaper, the Daily Iowan, in 1992. It was subsequently reprinted in the journal of the International Society for General SemanticsETC. A Review of General Semantics — an organization and journal that Dad helped start. Dean Williams’ piece is called “Remembering Wendell Johnson.” (For a delightful letter from Dad to Dean Williams as a little boy, thanking him for some chickens — a letter Dean Williams saved in his desk drawer for a half-century — see the textual background, and full quotation of the letter, at the end of my remarks on the occasion of the dedication of this Web page, April 16, 1997.)

(Having mentioned ETC., here also, incidentally, is a copy of an article Dad wrote for the first issue of that journal — volume one, number one — in 1943. He called it “You Can’t Write Writing.” It was reprinted in the Winter 1992-93 issue, from which this copy was obtained, as well as in a number of anthologies, and is as timely for teachers and students today as when he wrote it.)

Another student, Joseph L. Stewart — who wrote Mother every year on the anniversary of Dad’s death — has provided a longer and more detailed essay of reminiscence in that same issue of ETC. It is called, simply, “Wendell Johnson: A Memoir.”

Because I Stutter — A Teenager’s Autobiography

There would be little point in providing links here to the full text of everything Dad wrote. There were literally hundreds of books, articles, monographs and book reviews — not to mention all the masters theses and doctoral dissertations he supervised. Most are still available in hard copy in libraries somewhere and can be tracked down with the use of library hard copy indexes and electronic search techniques. But a bibliography of them, and a sampling from some of his works, may be of interest.

His masters thesis was published commercially by D. Appleton in 1930. That fact alone represents no mean accomplishment! The book has, of course, long been out of print — although it is still covered by copyright. There are, to the best of my knowledge, no copies available from used book stores. Copies have been lost from some libraries. Thus, this Web site is, so far as I know, one of the few sources for the book. The text has been scanned and is available here in full, subject to the copyright terms explained within the text.

The book is titled Because I Stutter. Even discounting for the fact he was my father, I think you will share my sense that it is a remarkable work for a 23-year-old: beautifully written, unusually candid and insightful, a self-revealing illustration of how one’s origins affect destinations, description of life in 1910s and 1920s America, and, of course, a speech pathology classic — one of the first works of any kind about “stuttering,” and still one of the very rare descriptions of feelings and function from the perspective of the person who stutters.

As remarkable as the book may be for what it is, it does not purport to be, and could not be, based on any of the research findings from the 35 years following its publication. Two volumes that do are Stuttering in Children and Adults (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955), and The Onset of Stuttering: Research Findings and Implications (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1959). There are many other books which he wrote, co-authored, or edited. There are also hundreds of articles and monographs. Stuttering in Children and Adults contains “A Bibliography of University of Iowa Studies of Stuttering through 1954” that runs 17 pages of very small type. (See the bibliography for more detail.)

Drawing upon these two volumes, he produced a third, Stuttering and What You Can Do About It (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1961), written to reach a larger audience. (It was also published in paperback: Stuttering and What You Can Do About It (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1961), as a “Dolphin Handbook,” C-349, and in Japanese and Turkish language editions. Adil Uskudarli, who prepared the first Turkish translation, completed a second edition in late 1999.)

Just as Because I Stutter provides insights into all youth, especially those with disabilities of some kind, and not just stutterers, so does Stuttering and What You Can Do About It offer far more than a “how to” cure for stuttering. It is a mystery story, a case study of how Dad, and his colleagues at Iowa, went about designing and executing scientific research regarding a phenomenon about which virtually nothing was known. There was no “library research” to be done; no teachers, consultants, or experts to help. The story of what they did, and when, and why, and then what, can provide insight for others confronting comparably original research assignments. How they formulated, and then answered, the questions is a mystery story unfolding. (Of course, the book also provides some useful guidance and insight for parents and stutterers.)

The whole book is not here. It is available in libraries. What is excerpted here are the dedication, or introduction, “With Appreciation and Best Wishes,” and the first chapter, “In Search of Beginnings and Endings.” Click here for these excerpts from Stuttering and What You Can Do About It.

Among the many professional organizations he helped organize or served in one way or another is what was originally the American Speech and Hearing Association — now the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and some 87,000 members strong — which he served as President, and for which he helped create the American Speech and Hearing Foundation.

This is (1) a photo, (2) of a painting, (3) of a photo. In the lobby of the Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center building hangs a large work painted by Cloy Kent after Dad died. The family thought her choice of scene captured his spirit better than a stiff, staged pose with hand on globe or back of chair. Ms. Kent studied many photos, and drew on them all — but especially one of him engaged in one of the things he loved best, the clinical work that provided the satisfaction of enabling him to help persons who stutter, one at a time. Since the original creation of this memorial Web page, the answer to the burning question, “Who is that boy in the picture?” has been found — along with a wonderful story of life in the early 1960s with Dad and his students.

If you would like to download better quality copies of the photos, above, you may do so by clicking on Old Capitol picture or Cloy Kent painting.

People in Quandaries and General Semantics

In addition to his contributions as a speech pathologist, Dad was a leading figure in the general semantics movement. (The online Encyclopedia Britannica entry for “General Semantics” says that it is “a philosophy of language-meaning that was developed by Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950), a Polish-American scholar, and furthered by S.I. Hayakawa, Wendell Johnson, and others; it is the study of language as a representation of reality.”)

Indeed, if you are already familiar with his writing you know that the insights and analyses made possible with general semantics were central to his analyses of the onset of stuttering and other speech defects, as well as disabilities generally. (In the latter connection, I have also provided here the text of his Iowa commencement address titled “The Language of Responsibility.” It was delivered in August 1961, published in the Alumni Review (vol. 14, no. 5, 1961), the May 1962 ETC. (vol. 19, no. 1), and slightly revised as chapter 8, “Speaking the Language of Responsibility,” in Living With Change.)

To grossly oversimplify, general semantics is the study of the ways in which our language structure can affect our behavior — and often not for the better. As Dad used to say, “Humans are the only animals able to talk themselves into difficulties that would not otherwise exist.” As a result, general semantics is a valuable set of tools and skills to bring to any undertaking, from managing a drug store to engaging in the highest levels of international diplomacy. It has been used to advantage by professionals in virtually every academic and professional discipline.

If you would like to read a brief introduction and overview, take a look at his “The Communication Process and General Semantic Principles” (from Wilbur Schramm, Mass Communications (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2d ed. 1975). I am indebted to Carmen Clark (the moderator of the Science and Sanity Reading List) for reminding me of this paper when I was searching for a brief reading for my law students.

As a young boy I found in these tools a power of heady proportions in interacting with our learned, adult house guests. You may find of interest a nostalgic piece of mine about growing up in the home of one of the founders of general semantics. It was presented as the 1995 Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture for the Institute of General Semantics.

The book of Dad’s that probably garnered the most devoted adherents, sold the most copies, and stayed in print the longest (it is still available from the International Society for General Semantics; all royalties go to ISGS) is People in Quandaries: The Semantics of Personal Adjustment, published by Harper & Brothers in 1946. Because the entire book is still widely available in libraries — and from ISGS, and is protected by copyright — only one chapter is linked here by way of illustration. If that chapter interests you in reading more you can easily find the book. (If you would like to read some passages of People in Quandaries in French, check out Michel Dussandier’s Sémantique Générale.)
One of general semantics’ most popular areas of application is the field of psychology. Dad describes what he calls the “IFD” disease as one of the most common maladies he encountered as a consulting psychologist. It’s a chapter I have often shared with friends. And I share it now with you. He titled it “Verbal Cocoons”.

However, the book that he most enjoyed creating, and thought perhaps his best writing, was titled Your Most Enchanted Listener (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956). (It was also published in paperback under the title Verbal Man: The Enchantment of Words (New York: Collier Books, 1965, No. 04669.) The excerpts here are chapter 1 (“There Might Once Have Been a Wise Old Frenchman”) and chapter 7 (“Seeing What Stares Us in the Face”). The former is a charming introduction; the latter a succinct statement of his view of a scientific method that can be applied to everyday life. Here are those excerpts from Your Most Enchanted Listener.

Following his death, his colleague, Dorothy Moeller, produced from his unpublished writing and lectures a marvelous little book entitled Living With Change: The Semantics of Coping (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), also in paperback. (She described the authors as “Observations by Wendell Johnson Selected and Synthesized by Dorothy Moeller.”) In an age when business, and other literature, is emphasizing the need to observe, innovate, and deal with rapid change in creative ways, Living With Change seems especially timely. Here is an excerpt from Living With Change.


Dad and I in the Cabinet Room at the White House. We are standing before a podium with the Presidential seal. It is March 1, 1964, and President Lyndon B. Johnson is having me sworn in as the U.S. Maritime Administrator. All my life to that point I had often been referred to as “Wendell Johnson’s son” — and proud to be. On this occasion, a reporter approached Dad and said, “You must be Nicholas Johnson’s father.” Dad often told the story and, as you can see, was seemingly even more pleased with the occasion — and his new title — than was the new, 29-year-old Maritime Administrator. 

Finally, feel free to send me your suggestions for additions to this Web page (or any other comments) by e-mail: mailbox [at] nicholasjohnson [dot] org.