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When words hurt: Stuttering study story missed the mark

By Tom Owen
The Gazette
Saturday, July 12, 2003, 4:04:48 PM

IOWA CITY -- In June 2001, the San Jose Mercury News reported a series of stories that surprised readers nationwide and seared many hearts with ties to the University of Iowa.

The paper reported that in 1939, beloved UI speech pathologist Wendell Johnson oversaw a so-called "monster" study in which his graduate student Mary Tudor repeatedly told non-stutterers they were stutterers. This caused them to stutter, leaving them scarred for life.

Some of that story is true. Some of it is false.

The study did take place, and attorneys for six of the orphans plan to have their day in court to argue that their clients suffered because of the study.

Also, speech pathology researchers have said the study, though acceptable by the ethical standards of its day, would not pass muster today.

However, an inspection of graduate student Mary Tudor's 256-page thesis shows that, contrary to the stories in the San Jose newspaper, none of the orphans was conditioned to stutter -- even temporarily -- during the experiment.

While that may have been the goal, it was never the researchers' stated goal. The goal was to see whether telling children they were stutterers could affect the frequency of so-called disfluency -- the normal hesitations and repetitions present in everyone's speech.

The group of most intense interest to Tudor was the six non-stutterers whom she labeled stutterers.

By the end of the study, Tudor had observed changes in their behavior, but no stuttering.

"They were reluctant to speak and spoke only when urged to," Tudor wrote. "While reading aloud, they all became more self-

conscious. . . . Some hung their heads, others gasped and covered their mouths with their hands; others laughed with embarrassment. In every case, the children's behavior changed noticeably."

Roughly a month after the Mercury News stories ran, editor David Yarnold wrote a column saying the Mercury News objected to reporter Jim Dyer misrepresenting himself to gain access to Iowa state historical archives.

He said Dyer, who was working on a master's degree at the University of Iowa at the time, had resigned. The newspaper, however, stood behind the report.

The New York Times Magazine also took up the issue, matter-of-factly mentioning far down in a 4,500-word story that none of the children stuttered at the end of the experiment.

The San Jose stories, in fact, raise other questions about fairness and accuracy.

For example, one of Dyer's stories details the difficulties Mary Korlaske Nixon, now 75, of Marshalltown, apparently had after the study. Teased by other students for her speech, she ran away from the orphanage and wound up in the training school for girls.

Her attorney, Curt Krull of Des Moines, told The Gazette that Nixon now has "a very poor self-image. She's afraid to speak out, not very outgoing. ... She's lived her whole life like that."

Nixon also purportedly told Dyer that after her husband died in 1999 -- 60 years after the study -- she began to stutter "again."

Tudor reported in her thesis that Korlaske's speech actually improved during the study -- from a rating of 3 on a 5-point scale to 3.8.

In the San Jose story, Dyer reported that "of the six normal speakers induced to stutter, (Nixon) retained the most noticeable speech repetitions."

Dyer could not be located for comment for this story.

Contacted last week, George Judson, the Mercury News assistant managing editor for projects, repeated that the paper stood behind the stories.

Anyone who believed the stories stated the children stuttered because of the research "isn't reading the story carefully," he said.

After rereading the paper's stories himself, Judson reversed course. He said the stories weren't really about stuttering per se.

"It's really a story about the fact the study took place and the propriety of it and the lasting impact on some of the people that took part in it," he said.

Conceding that the article had "missed in some places," he added that, "in retrospect, I wish we had ... gone into more detail about the ways in which the data did not support the theory."

Nicoline Ambrose and Ehud Yairi, two professors at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, have a National Institutes of Health grant to investigate a possible genetic component to stuttering.

Ambrose told The Gazette that she thinks Dyer "misrepresented the (Tudor study) ... and it was inaccurate or misleading in some ways."

One of her chief complaints, and something she and Yairi pointed out in a subsequent research article, is that none of the orphans stuttered at the end of the experiment.

"I didn't agree with a number of parts to (Dyer's story), but I'm not going to pick away at it. It's a done deal, and he's not (at the Mercury News) anymore," Ambrose said.

Dyer also interviewed Patricia Zebrowski, an associate professor of speech pathology at the University of Iowa, for the story.

Zebrowski also takes issue with Dyer's suggestion the children were induced to stutter.

She said that even if Korlaske Nixon began stuttering in her later years, it's far from clear that the Johnson/Tudor experiment caused it.

Zebrowski said stuttering runs in families, and people are probably predisposed to stutter. Some internal thing, such as a problem with a stutterer's brain structure, or an external thing, later triggers it.

"We don't know what that thing is," Zebrowski said.

In addition, Zebrowski questioned Dyer's suggestion that Johnson might have kept the study hidden to avoid comparisons with Nazi scientists.

The study has always been on file at the UI, and many scientists have read it over the years, Zebrowski said.

"... It's not hidden," she said.

Zebrowski said the study had serious problems in its design and execution, and it's possible that Johnson didn't publicize it for that reason.

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