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THE MONSTER STUDY The little college town of Iowa City_ Iowa



        The little college town of Iowa City, Iowa has a building named after a renowned

professor of speech therapy. It is the Wendell Johnson Speech and Therapy Center.

Johnson was one of the world’s first speech pathologists and was a life-long stutterer,

himself. His widely accepted research and writings on the causes of stuttering are

credited with helping millions of children all over the world who suffered from the

affliction.   He is remembered by many as the most well respected, well loved innovator

in his field. He is also remembered as the creator and supervisor of what has become

known as the “MONSTER STUDY”.

        Wendell Johnson was a 20-year-old boy, straight off the farm in 1926, when he

came to the University of Iowa in Iowa City as an English student. He stood out as an

accomplished scholar at the high school he graduated from in Roxbury, Kansas. But,

the stuttering was a major force in his life, even at his young age. Instead of leaning

towards a profession which required public contact, he was going to study writing and

literature. And the University of Iowa was also famous for stuttering research, one of

the few such facilities in the world.

He soon dived into some of the many stuttering experiments being conducted by the

college, and eventually obtained a Masters degree in Psychology. At that time, that was

the field where a student positioned himself if he wanted to study the cause of

stuttering. And, many of the graduate students alongside Johnson were also stutterers.

They would test theories and experiment on each other. The reason the study of
stuttering ended up under psychology was because at that time, most scholars in the

field believed that stuttering was somehow caused by a “misfiring” of signals moving

about the brain.

       Johnson began to believe otherwise because of his own experiences and

observations. He felt that his own problem began or possibly became worse when

someone pointed out when he was a small child that he was stuttering. Over the years,

while worrying about his speech, an obsession with speech overcame him, and his

stuttering became a staggering problem. By worrying about the problem, he felt it

became worse. As an adult and now a professor, he believed the problem was actually

a learned behavior, which meant that it could be “unlearned.” Johnson needed to

validate this theory and he was determined to prove it.

       He decided that if any child could be made to stutter, that would, in turn, prove

that no brain misfiring was required. If a normal child could be made to stutter when no

stuttering had been previously observed, then his learned response theory would be

proved. In 1938, the University of Iowa had a research relationship with the Soldiers

and Sailors Orphans’ Home in Davenport, Iowa. Johnson recruited Mary Tudor, a

psychology graduate student, to implement his experiment, by working with the orphans

at the Home. Her assignment was to promote nonstuttering children to begin stuttering,

by telling them that they already did and to criticize their speech.

       Twenty two subjects were selected from the children at the Orphan Home. None

of them were told what the research was all about. They believed that they were to

receive speech therapy. Tudor was not only trying to get nonstammering children to
start, but she was also trying to discover if complements and positive reinforcement

given to stutterers would improve their speech. It was actually a quite involved study.

Ten orphans out of the 22 were identified by the staff as stutters. Those ten were

divided into two groups—the experimental group and the control group. The five

“experimental” stutterers would be told: ''You do not stutter. Your speech is fine.'' The

five in the control group were told, “Your speech is as bad as everyone says it is.”

        Of the other twelve children, six were in the told their speech was not at all

normal, even though it was normal. These six children were told repeatedly that they

must correct their speech immediately. Whenever they tried to speak, they were

interrupted and corrected. The final six children in the group of twelve were normal

speakers who were to be treated as such and given compliments on their nice


        Tudor’s experiment lasted for six months, from January to May, 1939. She drove

from Iowa City to Davenport every couple of weeks, meeting with each child for a little

less than an hour. There was a script developed which she followed with each of the children.

In her later dissertation about this study, she reported that she told the stuttering orphans that

they would outgrow the problem and will be able to speak much better when they got older.

Also, to disregard what anyone said about their speech problems because it will all


        To the nonstutterers who she was going to try to induce to stutter, she told them

the staff had reported they all had a lot of trouble with their speech, and sounded like

they were beginning to stutter. She also told them that they must stop stuttering
immediately and only open their mouth to speak if they were going to speak correctly.

They were told that they would soon be sounding like the rest of the children who

stuttered badly, if they did not use will power to control their speech. '

       From the first, the children who started out with normal speech, but told

otherwise, Tudor could barely get them to speak at all. She noted that one of the

children held her hand over her eyes most of the time. These formerly normally

speaking children began to slip in their schoolwork, and refusing to speak and recite in

class. They were anxious and afraid more and more of the time. A few of them

eventually ran away from the Home and ended up locked into various facilities for

children. As a group, there was noticeable deterioration.

Later that year Johnson was contacted by the orphanage shortly after the experiment

ended. The officials there had become alarmed at the deterioration of some of the

children’s speech and behaviors and were looking for help. He, in turn, contacted Mary

Tudor, who had moved to Wisconsin. Johnson requested that Tudor go back and try to

reverse the effects of the experiment. She finally returned to Davenport in March of

1940 and saw for herself how the children’s stuttering had worsened.

"I didn't find them as free from the effects of the therapy I had inflicted upon them last

year as I had hoped to,'' she wrote to Johnson. "But as I am still a firm believer in the

theory of evaluative labeling, I wasn't too disappointed.''

She made two more trips to the Home that year, and never made it back.
World War II was consuming the world in the 1940’s, and the NAZI’s experiments in the

concentration camps became news. Some of Johnson’s students and associates,

warned him that quite possibly his stuttering experiment would be viewed as similar.

They informally named it, the “Monster Study.” It was concealed and not talked about

for decades. People had heard that some of the orphans had never recovered. It

became an embarrassment to Johnson, who was forging a stellar career in Iowa.

At some point, Johnson did not know whether to publish his theory and findings about

the stuttering experiment, possibly helping millions of children. Or, would exposing this

information ruin his career. He chose not to publish Tudor’s thesis nor mention it in any

of his writings. He did publish his underlying theory, but used other evidence he had

gathered, never mentioning the orphans. Shortly after the War ended, his

“diagnosogenic theory” was accepted all over the world as the move innovative and

effective therapy method for stutterers. Johnson’s reputation was worldwide. He

became “the” authority. His own speech improved to the point that he could lecture to

full houses all over the country. Johnson died at home in 1965 while writing an article for

an Encyclopedia. Thousands of cards and letters of condolence arrived in Iowa City

praising his life's work. The Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center remains one

of the nation's leading institutes for speech pathology and audiology. (Johnson, 2007)

       The harm caused by Johnson’s experiment is hard to gauge. These orphans

were deprived of family, lived in poverty, and were being raised in an institution. To

separate this trauma and assess the damage is difficult to impossible.
       In 2000, the San Jose Mercury News began investigating this rumored study and

set out to find the subjects and find out more about the whole thing. The last time

anyone contacted the orphans in connection with the experiment was August 1940,

when Tudor made her last visit to the orphanage. A search by the newspaper almost 60

years later 20 of the 22 orphans, and found that at least 13 are still alive. None that

were contacted had ever heard about the experiment. When the Mercury News told

them, most became angered by what took place decades ago.

       One former subject who was contacted was a normal speaker who had been in a

control group and now lives in Milwaukee. She refused to listen to anything about the

experiment. "I don't even want to know,'' she said, shaking her hand in front of her face

and ushering the reporter out of her home. Her younger sister, however, had been a six

year old normal speaker, but had been induced to stutter. She reportedly never got

normal speech back and had suffered for years and could not be comfortable around

people. The Mercury reporter found out she had gone from foster family to foster family

throughout her childhood. She was considered “slow” and was teased by her

classmates. Many such stories came to light. (Dyer, 2001)

       Since the subjects of this medical experiment were children, they could not, and

did not give their consent. From all evidence, the entire orphanage was “fair game” for

any experiments from the University of Iowa due to an agreement. Money most

certainly changed hands while the children paid the price. If there were formal papers

signed, the staff at the orphanage would have been the signers. This was a non-
invasive procedure and likely, permission for this would not have been a problem. Yet,

the outcome of what was done to these children was devastating and they had no

choice and no voice in it. Consent was given for financial gain.

       Although the creator of this study, Wendell Johnson, contributed a great deal to

the study of stuttering and to speech pathology in general, Tudor’s actual study had little

benefit and little effect. The results were never even published or distributed. The

number of subjects was very small and never followed for the ongoing results. Perhaps

the best result was that it brought to light some of the “ugliness” that can result from

thoughtless experimentation without regard to the human cost.

       Since this took place in 1938, there were no ethics committees or oversight in

place. The experiment would have surely not been approved at all. At least knowing

what Tudor was trying to do, we could hope that this would not be accepted practice.

       The culture and beliefs were so different in 1938, I would like to believe that if I

had been in a position of power either at the University of Iowa I would have insisted

that more thought and a different approach would have been used in the stuttering

study. Special care should be used when using children for any study for so many

reasons. Of course one reason is that they have no ability to understand and consent

to being “used” or “studied.” We, as the adults, are supposed to be caring for the

children in our communities.

       If manager of the Orphan’s Home I probably would have trusted the University of

Iowa to be knowledgeable and to not subject the children to anything detrimental. I

would like to think I would have vetoed the whole thing. But, this was an Orphan’s
home, right after the Depression. There was reportedly a “deal” made with the

University, which likely was financial beneficial to the Home. I doubt that anyone would

have done anything different then. Now—of course it is different. Putting this in the

context of the 1930’s is the most difficult. But, it shows how norms and beliefs change

over time, coloring our view of what is ethical. I think someday the ethics of the medical

research we are doing today may likely be called into question. Using apes and other

animals, using prisoners, using children—for experiments that seem benign at the

time—we may look back with disgust as many do now when they hear about the

“Monster Study.”

(Reynolds, 2003)Reynolds, G. (2003, March 16). The Stuttering Doctor's 'Monster Study'. The
       New York Times.
Dyer, J. (2001, June 11). The "Monster Experiment" Taught Kids to Stutter. The San Jose
       Mercury News.
Johnson, N. (2007, August 18). From DC2 Iowa--Tudor Settlement. Retrieved from

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