Most people are surprised to discover how young the field of audiology really is, and how recently its founding father founded the profession. To put this in perspective, if you desired to find the founding father of biology, as an example, you’d have to go back in time by 2,300 years and read through the The History of Animals, a natural history text written in the fourth century BCE by the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.
In contrast, to find the founding father of audiology, we need go back only 70 years, to 1945 when Raymond Carhart popularized the term. But who was Raymond Carhart, and how did he come to create a distinctive scientific field so recently? The narrative starts with World War II.
World War II and Hearing Loss
One of history’s greatest lessons tells us that necessity is the mother of invention, which means that difficult problems prompt inventions focused on reducing the difficulty. Such was the case for audiology, as hearing loss was turning into a bigger public health concern both during and after World War II.
Indeed, the principal driving force behind the progress of audiology was World War II, which resulted in military personnel returning from combat with extreme hearing damage due to direct exposure to loud sounds. While many speech pathologists had been calling for better hearing assessment and therapy 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 prominent 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 started off 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.
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 changed 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 serving more than 16,000 hearing-impaired military personnel, popularized the term audiology, designating it as the science of hearing. From that point forward, audiology would separate from speech pathology as its own distinct research specialty.
At the conclusion 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 respected professors, scientists, and clinical specialists throughout the country. And as a researcher, among innumerable contributions, Carhart developed and enhanced speech audiometry, specifically as it applied to determining the efficiency of hearing aid performance. He even discovered 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 enhanced 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.”