Most people are surprised to see how young the discipline of audiology actually is, and just how recently its founding father founded the profession. To put this in perspective, if you wished to find the founding father of biology, for example, you’d have to go back in time by 2,300 years and read the The History of Animals, a natural history text composed in the 4th century BCE by the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.
In comparison, to find the founding father of audiology, we need go back only 70 years, to 1945 when Raymond Carhart popularized the word. But who was Raymond Carhart, and how did he come to start a distinct scientific field so recently? The narrative starts with World War II.
World War II and Hearing Loss
One of history’s most reliable lessons tells us that necessity is the mother of invention, which means that challenging problems prompt inventions aimed at reducing the difficulty. Such was the case for audiology, as hearing loss was turning out to be a larger public health concern both during and after World War II.
Indeed, the principal driving force behind the progression of audiology was World War II, which resulted in military personnel returning from combat with extreme hearing damage due to exposure to loud sounds. While many speech pathologists had been calling for better hearing evaluation and treatment all along, the amount of people dealing with hearing loss from World War II made the request impossible to dismiss.
Among those calling for a new profession, Robert West, a well known speech pathologist, called for the development of the speech pathology field to include the correction of hearing in 1936 — the same year that Raymond Carhart would graduate with a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Speech Pathology, Experimental Phonetics and Psychology.
Raymond Carhart Establishes the New Science of Hearing
Raymond Carhart himself began his career in speech pathology. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Speech and Psychology from Dakota Wesleyan University in 1932 and his Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in Speech Pathology, Experimental Phonetics and Psychology at Northwestern University in 1934 and 1936. Carhart was in fact one of the department’s first two PhD graduates.
Shortly after graduation, Carhart became an instructor in Speech Re-education from 1936 to 1940. Then, in 1940 he was promoted to Assistant Professor and in 1943 to Associate Professor. It was what transpired next, however, that may have altered the course of history for audiology.
In 1944, Carhart was commissioned a captain in the Army to head the Deshon General Hospital aural rehab program for war-deafened military personnel in Butler, Pennsylvania. It was here that Carhart, in the context of helping more than 16,000 hearing-impaired military personnel, made popular the term audiology, designating it as the science of hearing. From that point forward, audiology would break from speech pathology as its own distinct research specialization.
At the close of the war, Carhart would go back to Northwestern University to start the country’s first academic program in audiology. As a skilled teacher, he guided 45 doctoral students to the completion of their work, students who would themselves become famous professors, scientists, and clinical specialists throughout the country. And as a researcher, among many contributions, Carhart developed and enhanced speech audiometry, in particular as it applied to calculating the efficiency of hearing aid performance. He even identified a particular pattern on the audiogram that reveals otosclerosis (hardening of the middle ear bones), eponymously named the “Carhart notch.”
Raymond Carhart’s Place in History
Of history’s founding fathers, the name Raymond Carhart may not be as familiar as Aristotle, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, or Charles Darwin. But if you wear hearing aids, and you know the degree to which the quality of life is increased as the result, you might place Raymond Carhart on the same level as history’s greats. His students probably would, and if you visit the Frances Searle Building at Northwestern University, you’ll still see a plaque that reads:
“Raymond Carhart, Teacher, Scholar, and Friend. From his students.”