The following is a feature article which was first published in the ASHA Magazine, November 1981 (Volume 23:11, pp. 855-858). It is reprinted below with permission of ASHA.


An Early History of ASHA

by Charles Van Riper


Being a profession dedicated so completely to people, it is fortunate that we may present here a personal history of the fledgling days of our Association, of those who provided the energy and desire to build an organization that today serves the nation's communicatively handicapped. Charles Van Riper, professor emeritus at Western Michigan University, provides this eyewitness account.


It was Carl Seashore, a professor of psychology and dean of the Graduate College at Iowa State University, who first started the snowball rolling in 1925. Gathering a small group of scholars for dinner and discussion at the home of Lee Edward Travis, Seashore put forth the possibility of forming an academy for speech correction independent of the National Association of Teachers of Speech. While NATS held an annual convention, and provided the only outlet for publication of scholarly research in its Quarterly Journal of Speech, the association had little interest in the scientific aspects of communication disorders.

Among those present at the first meeting were Robert West and Smiley Blanton from the University of Wisconsin, John Muyskens from the University of Michigan, and G. Oscar Russell of Ohio State University. These four comprised the nucleus of a second conference at Iowa that same year, which was also financed by Seashore. At this second meeting they not only continued their discussion about the need to form an association but also put on a demonstration of what they had in mind for such an organization by sharing their ideas and research. Travis, for example, reported on a study of the effects upon the speech of stutterers and nonstutterers when a pistol was fired behind their heads without warning.

The actual break from NATS came about at the next convention in 1925 when a small group of 11 individuals led by Robert West held three rump sessions and formally organized the American Academy of Speech Correction. If any one individual could be singled out as the father of our field, it would have to be West, for he not only participated in its birth but nurtured it in its early precarious years and lived long enough to enjoy .its maturity. All of us should know more about this remarkable man for it was his vision and tenacity and energy that overcame the many obstacles to our profession's survival.

Let me clothe the bare bones of the name with the flesh of the unique person Bob West was. A very private person, the man behind the dark glasses he always wore was hard to know until after long acquaintance.  Possessed of superb intelligence, he had little tolerance for stupidity or ineptitude, and many of his graduate students were terrified of his sardonic tongue as he dissected their presentations and egos.

I came to know Bob West much better in his later years and found him to be a very warm as well as stimulating person. One evening in his home, West confided he had always wanted to be a physician but circumstances prevented that course so, "I had to help create a healing profession that came pretty close to medicine." Certainly, his medical knowledge was astounding. "I was greatly influenced by Smiley Blanton," he said, "but never greatly impressed by the results of his psychotherapy with stutterers. There's something basically organic about that disorder and mental hygiene is not the answer. Someday we shall know the nature of the dysphasia which underlies it."

It was Blanton who had opened the first speech clinic in 1914 at the University of Wisconsin and in 1923 helped develop a statewide program of speech correction under the direction of Pauline Camp. Blanton had originally been a speech instructor at Cornell University and, finding himself unable to cope with people with speech defects who came to him, enrolled in the university medical college, where he earned his M.D. He later studied with Freud but, while his articles and books reveal a deep interest in psychotherapy, he never became an orthodox Freudian.

The American Academy of Speech Correction maintained a precarious existence during its first five years. Only six of the charter members attended its next convention in 1927, eight in 1928, and fifteen in 1929. In that year it changed its name to the American Society for the Study of Disorders of Speech, elected Elmer Kenyon as president, and made plans to hold a three-day symposium on stuttering in 1930. Kenyon was a Chicago otolaryngologist with a consuming interest in stuttering (though he insisted on calling it stammering) because of his nephew who stuttered and who had been victimized by quacks.

With Bryng Bryngelson I attended my first annual convention of the ASSDS in 1930. I had met him the summer before at the University of Minnesota Speech Clinic seeking help for my own severe stuttering. After a brief examination, Bryngelson diagnosed my problem as being due to a shift of handedness early in life and explained the theory of cerebral dominance. Bryngelson had been a student of Lee Edward Travis at Iowa and although he was not a charter member of the former Academy of Speech Correction he became one of its early members, and created one of the first university speech clinics. He had been a preacher, speech teacher, and friend of Smiley Blanton and Robert West, but he went to Iowa seeking a more scientific background than he felt he could obtain at Wisconsin.

Compared to the quacks I had known at the commercial schools for stutterers I had attended, Bryngelson seemed honest and his explanation of why I stuttered and what I had to do to overcome it made sense. At least it was the first scientific explanation I had known. I enrolled in the University of Iowa Speech Clinic and there met Wendell Johnson. Both of us wore plaster casts upon our right arms to enforce left-handedness and again I found myself doing the interminable pages of talking and writing each day.

Bryngelson earlier had been the first to explore nonavoidance therapy for stuttering and the use of voluntary repetitions as a substitute for the real blockings, procedures that the Iowa Clinic had adopted by the time I arrived. He was a free soul with a gay spirit. Later, when he became president of ASHA, he once came to a council meeting or main session with one shoe painted red and the other yellow.

To me the actual symposium was disappointing. I went to every session, listening hungrily to every paper, hoping to hear something new, something that might hold the answer to my own stuttering problem. And then Lee Edward Travis came to the rostrum. Young, suave, and perfectly poised, he described the cerebral dominance theory of stuttering and the research, which seemed to support it. Travis made no immodest claims: he was only offering a possible hypothesis.

I was tremendously impressed. Here at last was something that made sense. I resolved right then and there that if I could learn to control my stuttering I would become a member of this new profession, learn to do research, and seek to find better ways of treating the disorder.

Many have asked me what it was about Iowa that produced so many of the individuals who built the first programs of speech pathology throughout the land and my only answer has been that it was Lee Edward Travis. This extraordinary man, tall, handsome, and athletic, had a profound impact on everyone he met. As his personal research assistant at Iowa, I came to know him very well. Possessed of a brilliant mind and huge energies, he was essentially a searcher for the truth. He wanted to know what and why and in his three careers, first as a neuropsychologist at the University of Southern California, and finally as dean of the graduate college of the Fuller Theological Seminary, he explored the great unknowns. Travis made all of his students feel they were his comrades in that search, that they were fellow pioneers. He respected us and cared for us and expected more from us than we ever felt we could give or do.

That 1930 convention was perhaps the most important one our association ever held. By the end of the three-day Symposium on Stuttering and just after the members had voted to have Dr. West compile and publish the papers at their business meeting, a prolonged and often heated discussion occurred. Someone arose and protested the emphasis on stuttering and insisted that in the future the society should concern itself more with lisping, voice disorders, and aphasia. This was opposed by Dr. Max Goldstein of the Central Institution of the Deaf. "Lisping would be acceptable but don't invade the province of the medical profession or this promising young organization will be in trouble." Others argued that all speech disorders should be the concern of the membership. Then the discussion turned to the larger picture. If the society was to survive and grow, it should stress services. Pauline Camp of Wisconsin, the first state supervisor of speech correction, made an eloquent presentation for the need to train speech correctionists for the public schools.

"These should be the backbone of your membership," Camp insisted. "If we can put a speech correctionist in almost every school system, and certainly there is sufficient need for one, then many of our survival problems will vanish and our growth will be amazing. Build your college speech clinics and have them do the research we need so badly, but more importantly have them train special teachers we need to help and heal the hundreds of thousands of speech defectives who are to be found there."

This view was fiercely opposed by several of the other charter members. I believe it was Muyskens of Michigan who protested the most, but G. Oscar Russell of Ohio State did too, and there were others. They pointed out that the original Academy originally had been intended to consist of scholars who would share with each other their research and insights, and that opening up the membership to a large number of teachers of speech correction in the public schools would inevitably dilute the quality of the organization. They insisted that it was too early to emphasize services, that we simply did not know enough about the nature of the speech disorders to treat them effectively, and that the American Society for the Study of Disorders of Speech should do just that, study and share research. West, Travis, and Bryngelson rejected these arguments strongly and, although no formal action was taken, their view prevailed. We would build a profession independent of medicine or psychology or speech, based in the colleges and public schools. The first priority should be to establish and staff speech clinics in the colleges that could be used to do the basic research and to train personnel who would offer the services. These three men, West, Travis and Bryngelson, in turn pointed out that in their universities they already were doing this, and they hoped other institutions would soon recognize the need for developing similar programs.

The meeting ended in an atmosphere of excitement and exhilaration. The vision of a new profession was now very clear. There was a vivid feeling of pioneering and dedication, even of comradeship. This was expressed lucidly by Mabel Gifford of California, one of the charter members of the Academy. "I no longer feel isolated and alone," she said. "I no longer feel separated from my colleagues in the universities or in medicine merely because I do no research and am primarily interested in seeing that children with speech defects in the public schools get the help they need. This meeting has given me both hope and inspiration."

Our organization grew slowly but steadily between the years 1931 and 1936. In the latter year there were about 90 paid members but attendance at the annual conventions had increased far beyond this number. By 1934, we also had a new name, the American Speech Correction Association, reflecting a new emphasis upon treatment. In the published Proceedings of these years we also find an increasing number of articles on speech disorders other than stuttering though the latter still predominated. We were broadening our scope. In 1935, the Executive Council decided that the organization was strong enough to publish its own professional journal and G. Oscar Russell volunteered to be its editor. G. Oscar Russell, as editor of the new Journal of Speech Disorders, was a man of imposing presence and very definite ideas. For seven years he could almost be said to have dominated the association. Certainly, he did his utmost to make the Journal into his own image, including the naming of European authorities on the editorial board, publishing German and French articles in those languages, filling the sparse pages with bibliographies, book reviews, and abstracts of periodical articles. Throughout, there was a very definite foreign flavor and an aura of pomposity that many of us young Turks did not appreciate. Dr. Russell was also very interested in the nomenclature our profession would be using, and he, with Sarah Stinchifield and Sam Robbins, worked hard to prepare a dictionary that would sound very professional. A child with /s/, /l/, and /r/ articulatory errors was said to possess the disorders of sigmatism, lambdacism, and rhotacism while cleft palate speech was uranoscolalia. Despite his tyrannical editorship, Russell never was able to impose his preference for these scholarly terms upon the contributors.

Russell seemed to regard the Journal as his own personal property. He would not submit any bills to the treasurer for payment nor give any account of expenses. He merely, as Bryng Bryngelson, the treasurer, ruefully admitted, demanded the Association's money and paid the bills himself. He often reported that he had made up deficits from his own purse, and probably did, but his arrogant ways finally led to the choice of a new editor, Wendell Johnson, in 1942.

Paden, in her History of the American Speech and Hearing Association, writes, "Wendell Johnson was almost the complete opposite of his predecessor in personality. While Russell had been aloof and distant, Johnson was outgoing, warm, and friendly. While Russell resented even impersonal criticism, Johnson accepted it with good grace and enjoyed a needling joke on himself even more than the person who had told it. While Russell preferred to work alone, Johnson chose to involve others, not simply to share the load but because he liked to work with them. Both men contributed talent, intelligence, and a great amount of energy to the publication of the Journal, but Johnson's methods were quite unlike Russell's, and JSD took on a distinctively different tone than it had before."

As I said earlier, Johnson and I were young men together in the Iowa Clinic at the beginning of the thirties. He, too, had been a very severe stutterer and had profited much from the nonavoidance, voluntary stuttering program then offered. He let his bouncing stuttering hang out. Without any apparent fear, no matter what the speaking situation happened to be, he liked to communicate and did so very effectively.

The contribution of Wendell Johnson to our field is immeasurable. With his students he explored the psychology of stuttering in a host of its aspects, always blazing new trails. His research on the onset of stuttering still remains a classic. His semantogenic theory of the nature of stuttering dominated the literature for many years. He charmed the pants off the bureaucracy in Washington and helped many of us get the grants we needed. Travis had taught us to think for ourselves, to challenge the old beliefs, and to search for better theories and therapies. Johnson climbed up the ancient mountain of stuttering by one path and I by another. Neither of us came near the summit but when he died I felt terribly alone.

So ends this tale of The Old Ones. There were others, of course, whom I've not mentioned, and still more who followed in their footsteps to build our profession into the impressive one it has become. If we are to know where we are going, we should know where we began.


added with permission of ASHA
December 20, 2004