Dr. Wendell Johnson was a leading researcher in the field of
speech pathology. A stutterer himself, he was determined to find the
cause of stuttering and possibly a cure for the affliction. As a young
graduate student, he came to the University of Iowa in 1926 to become
a writer and to obtain speech therapy. Stutter therapies available at
that time had little or no effect and there was virtually no scientific
knowledge on the cause of stuttering. Johnson was obsessed with the
subject of speech pathology and ultimately became a Professor at the
University of Iowa, specialized in research on stuttering.
The prevailing theories around the 1930's were that stuttering was
caused by either a physical disability, or an inborn genetic effect.
Through his research, Johnson's seriously questioned these theories, and
proposed that stuttering had an environmental cause. In two case studies
he interviewed parents and their stuttering children, and he concluded
that all of these children were already labeled as stutterers at a very
young age. Johnson hypothesized that these parents put so much emphasis
on their children's speech behavior that they become too self-conscious,
and nervous. Or, as he would phrase it: "The affliction is caused by
But Johnson needed evidence for his so called diagnosogenic
theory; to show that diagnozing and labeling young children as
stutterers will turn them into stutterers. In order to do this, Johnson
turned to the Iowa Soldiers' Orphans' Home, a state-run facility that
was already involved in a number of psychological studies of the
Johnson devised a scientific experiment to prove his hypothesis, and
selected a graduate student, Mary Tudor to conduct the work. Tudor
selected 22 children out of a screening procedure involving 256 orphans.
Ten of these children were stutterers, and twelve were "normal" speaking
children. Both the normal speaking children and the stutterers were
split up in a test group and a control group. The
children in the control group were labeled as normal speakers, and
received positive therapy. The children in the test group were
labeled as stutterers, and received negative therapy; each
time the children repeated a word, Tudor would stop them, lecture them,
and sensitize them to their speech behavior.
Of course the test group was unaware that they were lab rats in a
psychological experiment. In fact, even the teachers and matrons at the
orphanage were under the impression that Tudor was there to
help the children with their speech. By doing so, the
orphanage's personel unknowingly reinforced the negative
The results of the experiment were disastrous. Not because the
experiment failed, but because Johnson's hypothesis proved correct.
Three out of five stutterers in the test group showed increased
stuttering, and five out of six of the normal speaking children
showed deteriorated speech. In the control group, only one
child had worsened speech. Tudor tried positive feedback therapy to
reverse the speech deterioration, but the damage was permanent. Several
children became shy and refused to speak up in class. Their grades
plummeted, and a few even ran away from the orphanage. The children that
were subjected to this cruel experiment are now well in their eighties, and
look back on dealing an entire life with stuttering.
Tudor published her thesis, and based on this work Johnson developed
a succesfull therapy against stuttering. But advized by friends, Johnson
was reluctant to cite his student's work, or pursue any further research.
Johnson's graduate students started to describe the experiment as the
"Monster Experiment", and the "Monster Study". World War II had
ended, and the world was abhorred by the Nazi
experiments that came to light in the Nuremberg Trials. Johnson was
afraid that a widespread knowledge of his experiments would ultimately
destroy his career, and he covered up the experiment.
In fact, the "Monster Study" did not stop Dr. Wendell Johnson's
career. He became one of the most influential speech pathologists until
his death in 1965. Only recently did San Jose's Mercury News uncover
the story of the experiment on stuttering. The University of Iowa kept
quiet about the experiments for 62 years, but issued a formal apology on
June 13, 2001 calling the experiment "regrettable". Wendell Johnson's
name lives on at the University of Iowa, in the Wendell Johnson Speech
and Hearing Center.
http://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/buitenland/992604713084.html (in Dutch)