The University of Iowa in Iowa City was once the most famous center for stuttering research in the world. That’s precisely why Wendall Johnson, a stutterer himself, came to study there. Many experiments were under way when Johnson arrived, and he threw himself into the work, by switching to psychology for his master’s study.
”I became a speech pathologist because I needed one,” Johnson would later say.
At the university, physiology was the main focus and explanation for stuttering. The professors were certain that the disorder resulted from misdirected brain signals. By 1937, Johnson, who was by then an assistant professor, was not convinced. For him, the stuttering had started around the ages of 5 or 6. The more self conscious he grew about stuttering, the worse it became. Because of his own experience, Johnson decided that the problem of stuttering lay in learned experience, not biology as the university he worked for believed. Later, he’d say that it ”begins not in the child’s mouth but in the parent’s ear.”
If something is learned, it can be unlearned. This hypothesis was huge! Hence was born what others eventually dubbed the “monster study,” in which the monsters weren’t the test participants, but Johnson himself.
In 1938, Johnson recruited a student, Mary Tudor, to his new study. She was supposed to lie and tell nonstuttering children that they stuttered to see if they’d eventually begin stuttering. Johnson set his sights on an orphanage in Davenport, Iowa. From there, he and Tudor plucked a group of unknowing children –22 orphans, 10 who were stutterers — and began an experiment which was (until 2007) a pending multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the State of Iowa and the University of Iowa.
The 10 stuttering children were divided into two groups. Five were assigned to Group IA. They would be told: ”You do not stutter. Your speech is fine.” The five children in Group IB would be told, ”Yes, your speech is as bad as people say.” The 12 non-stuttering children were assigned to IIA, the group that eventually would lead to a lawsuit. Six of these 12 children were to be told that they’d begun to stutter (when it wasn’t true) and that they must correct their stuttering immediately.The final six children in Group IIB (also non-stutterers) were to be given compliments on their perfect speech.
The children in group IIA began to show signs of psychological distress early on. They refused to speak or rarely did so. Their schoolwork and grades fell.
The experiment failed miserably because according to Johnson’s hypothesis the non-stuttering children who were told they stuttered should have begun stuttering. But they didn’t. In fact two of the six who were lied to and told were stutterers improved their speech. However, they behaved like stutterers with the shame they exhibited when they spoke. They lost confidence.
The only life the study had thereafter was in the thesis Mary Tudor wrote about it for her dissertation.
”Those who had heard about it nicknamed it the ‘Monster Study,”’ remembers Franklin Silverman, a professor of speech pathology and a former student of Johnson’s. ”It reminded people of the Nazi experiments on human subjects. The other professors at the time told him that it would ruin his reputation to publish the data. It was chilling and disturbing, especially to think that Wendell Johnson, of all people, had sanctioned it. He knew the pain of being told that you stutter.”
About the monster study Johnson even lied about the results, claiming that it had caused an orphan to stutter. He said the student validated his hypothesis. But the researchers, in their final evaluation, graded the student he mentioned a nonstutterer.
As for the lawsuit, three of the surviving students in group IIA sued the State and University of Iowa for millions of dollars, citing among other things the infliction of emotional distress and fraudulent misrepresentation.
Johnson had a fatal heart attack while writing an entry for the Encyclopedia Britannica when he died. It was published after his death, and what it said was shocking, considering the torment he put the most vulnerable children through: ”Persons with speech disorders . . . have traditionally known the scorn, ridicule and even revulsion of their society.”
In 2007 three women and the estates of three deceased participants were awarded a $925,000 payment from the state.