Most people are surprised to see how young the field of audiology really is, and how recently its founding father established the profession. To put this in perspective, if you wished to find the founding father of biology, for instance, you’d have to go back in time by 2,300 years and read through the The History of Animals, a natural history text penned 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 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 greatest lessons tells us that necessity is the mother of invention, meaning that difficult circumstances prompt inventions focused on reducing the difficulty. Such was the story for audiology, as hearing loss was turning out to be a larger public health concern both during and after World War II.
In fact, the principal driving force behind the progression of audiology was World War II, which lead to military personnel coming back from battle with significant hearing impairment caused by direct exposure to loud sounds. While many speech pathologists had been calling for better hearing evaluation and therapy all along, the multitude of people suffering from hearing loss from World War II made the request impossible to dismiss.
Among those calling for a new discipline, Robert West, a well known speech pathologist, called for the expansion 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.
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 happened 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 setting of helping more than 16,000 hearing-impaired military personnel, made popular the term audiology, assigning it as the science of hearing. From that point forward, audiology would divide from speech pathology as its own distinct research specialty.
At the end of the war, Carhart would go back to Northwestern University to establish the country’s first academic program in audiology. As a talented teacher, he guided 45 doctoral students to the completion of their work, students who would themselves become notable teachers, scientists, and clinical specialists throughout the country. And as a researcher, among innumerable contributions, Carhart developed and refined speech audiometry, in particular as it applied to determining the efficiency of hearing aid performance. He even discovered a specific pattern on the audiogram that indicates 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 well known 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.”