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UI professor's son defends him, research

By Tom Owen
The Gazette
Saturday, July 12, 2003, 3:48:40 PM

IOWA CITY -- As Nicholas Johnson considers what Jim Dyer wrote about his father, it still gets his blood boiling.

In June 2001, Dyer, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, reported that Wendell Johnson, a University of Iowa speech pathology professor, oversaw a 1939 study that tried to condition orphans to stutter.

The Associated Press distributed the story about the so-called "monster study" around the world. And the New York Times later weighed in with a 4,500-word piece in its Sunday magazine.

For the past two years, Nicholas Johnson has avoided any in-depth interviews on the stories. But he changed his mind recently and gave The Gazette his assessment of the Dyer piece.

"I consider this grossly unfair, unethical, despicable attack on a very decent human being, who also happens to have been my best friend and my father," he said. "Am I emotionally involved? Damn right."

Johnson's father, a researcher of towering stature in the world of speech pathology, died in 1965. His belief that parents can induce stuttering by labeling and criticizing their children's speech has contributed to the positive reinforcement that therapists use with children today.

Nicholas Johnson, 68, was, among many other things, an influential member of the Federal Communications Commission from 1966 to 1973; he is now a part-time law professor at the UI.

He stews about who put Dyer onto the story in the first place, saying he might sue someone if he knew. He also wonders why a journalist would dig into a 60-year-old study -- conducted when ethical standards were generally not as high as they are today -- instead of some modern-day misdeed.

"Why attack a man who's been dead 37 years and can't defend himself?" he asked.

The study that prompted the furor took place at an orphanage in Davenport. Wendell Johnson's graduate student, Mary Tudor divided a group of 22 orphans into stutterers and non-stutterers.

Over a period of months, she had the students read aloud for judges. She told some of each of the two groups that their speech was fine; she told the others that they were developing a stutter and would have to make every effort to stop it.

Tudor especially wanted to find out what effect the stuttering label would have on non-stutterers.

She found that those children became withdrawn and often embarassed by their speech, but none developed a stutter.

Even so, since the articles appeared, criticism of Wendell Johnson's study has flowed freely, with some in his own profession saying the research would not have been acceptable in any era.

Johnson disagrees. He said his father's critics fail to place the study in the proper context. He points out that the scientific establishment, even in the 1970s, was far from enlightened on human subjects' research.

For example, in the Tuskegee Syphillis Experiment, which ran from 1932 to 1972, doctors told poor black men that they were being treated for the disease when the experiment actually aimed to study the effects of not treating it. When the experiment became public, the U.S. Public Health Service defended it, saying the men liked their role in it.

Johnson also noted that University of Iowa and the orphanage director had given his father permission to do the research, and that many other UI professors were doing research on children at the orphanage as well.

Patricia Zebrowski, a UI professor of speech pathology, said she has heard in academic circles that other UI professors did studies at the orphanage, but she is not sure.

A spokesman said university officials do not know of any records that would help them ascertain if that is correct.

Johnson wonders if those reacting with such indignation to Johnson's research would feel comfortable being judged by the standards of, say, 2070.

He also noted that none of the orphans in the study were actually conditioned to stutter -- a fact stated clearly in the research thesis that followed the study.

Six of the orphans, however, have sued the university, claiming they suffered socially and emotionally from the experiment.

Johnson said that even if that's true, there may be reasons for their problems unconnected to the study. Orphanages are difficult places in which to grow up, and many orphans struggle with problems later in life, he said.

"To say the study is quote, unquote, the cause of anything is scientifically ludicrous," he said.

Nicoline Ambrose is a speech pathology professor at the University of Illinois who shares a $4 million National Institutes of Health grant to study stuttering.

She agrees that it's hard to look at someone's life and pin down what led to what.

Ambrose said Tudor's research thesis does note that the orphans became "more reticent about talking" as the four-month study progressed.

However, one of Dyer's stories observes that after the study, one orphan, Mary Korlaske Nixon, ran away from the orphanage and wound up at a reform school. She lived a nomadic existence for years until she met her husband and then started stuttering 60 years after the study.

"What is the likelihood that this one event could cause that chain reaction of things?" Johnson said. "You could never prove that functional relationship."

Dyer's story said some people believe Wendell Johnson didn't talk about the study or otherwise promote it for fear of drawing comparison to Nazi experiments.

Johnson is repulsed by the idea that because of the study, his father, who grew up as a stutterer and is widely known as a compassionate man, is being mentioned in the same breath as Nazis.

Ambrose and Ehud Yairi at the University of Illinois, and Zebrowski at the UI, believe the study was deeply flawed, even by 1939 standards.

For example, it never described the credentials of the people used to judge the orphans' speech, and it allowed a stutterer to be classified as a non-stutterer.

Nicholas Johnson's view: "It's altogether conceivable that (Wendell Johnson) looked at the study and came to pretty much the same conclusion that Yairi and Ambrose did -- that this just isn't very good scholarship."

Johnson is also frustrated that the university, in the wake of the story, expressed shock and regret that such a study had taken place.

Johnson noted Dyer had written about the study in the UI student newspaper in the early 1990s. He chalks up the university's 2001 apology to an acute sense of public relations.

"If they were really so concerned about how awful this study was, even though it had approval from everybody (at UI and the orphanage) at the time, ... why didn't they respond when it was first published in Iowa City? They respond when it becomes a national story."

At the same time, Johnson has no hard feelings toward UI President David Skorton, saying Skorton showed great sensitivity in a conversation with him while the university was denouncing the study -- a time when many administrators would have avoided him.

"It was a very unusual thing, but he's a very unusual administrator," he said.

These days, Johnson is enjoying life, despite it all. He notes that he is able to walk to work a few blocks to work and gladly ticks off a list of university "brags," from James Van Allen to the Hawkeye athletic program.

Is he bitter toward the university, in light of its response to Dyer's articles?

He gives a verbal shrug.

"I can carry a lot of things in my head at one time," he said. "I don't support a lot of the pope's positions, but I appreciate what he's doing for world peace. I think the university is a great institution, and this is a tempest in a teapot."

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