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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Johnson, Wendell
(April 16, 1906–August 29, 1965)

–psychologist and pioneer in the field of speech pathology—was born in Roxbury, Kansas, the son of Andrew and Mary (Tarnstrom) Johnson. Despite being plagued by severe stuttering from an early age, he was successful academically and athletically in his public school years. In high school, he played basketball and baseball and was captain of both teams. He was president of his senior class and valedictorian as well.

    Johnson attended McPherson College in McPherson, Kansas, for two years. A sympathetic teacher there suggested that he consider attending the State University of Iowa (UI), where the problem of stuttering was just beginning to be studied. Johnson enrolled at the UI in 1926 with the intention of becoming a writer and poet. He received his B.A. in English, with honors.

    Shortly after his arrival in Iowa City, however, Johnson became one of the first subjects of study in the nascent speech pathology labo ratory. As he later described it, "That turned out to be the beginning of a long apprenticeship as a 'professional white rat.'" It was also the beginning of what became his life work, the study of speech disorders and the larger question of human communication. In 1929 he received an M.A. in psychology and in 1931 a Ph.D. in psychology and physiology. He was then offered a research associate position at the UI, which was to become his lifelong academic home.

    In 1929 he married Edna Bockwoldt, whom he had met when they were both undergraduate English students at the UI. They had two children, Nicholas and Katherine.

    During the 1930s, Johnson and his colleagues scientifically tested and discarded the current theories on the causes of stuttering, eventually coming to the conclusion that it was neither a physical nor an emotional problem, but a psychosocial problem, a problem of interaction between stutterers and their listeners. As he put it at one time, "Stuttering often begins not in the child's mouth, but in the parent's ear."

    In the late 1930s, while recovering from an emergency appendectomy, Johnson found the time to read and study Alfred Korzybski's Science and Sanity, the seminal work on semantic theory. The book changed Johnson's life and the direction of his academic research. He began to see the field of speech pathology in the broader context of the whole question of the nature of human communication. One of the first results of that change was a course on general semantics designed and first taught by Johnson in 1939, one of the first such courses in the world. Since there was no text for such a course, Johnson wrote his own, People in Quandaries: The Semantics of Personal Adjustment, which remained a standard text in the field for many years.

    In 1945 Johnson was elected president of the International Society of General Seman tics. In 1946 he was given the Honors of the Association Award, the highest honor given by the American Speech and Hearing Association, and in 1950 he became president of that body. In 1956 he became a founder of the American Speech and Hearing Foundation.

    At the UI his responsibilities were also increasing. In 1943 he became director of the Iowa Speech Clinic. In 1947 he was named chief administrative officer of the Iowa Program in Speech Pathology, and in 1951 he was appointed chairman of the Council on Speech Pathology and Audiology, the predecessor of the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology. Despite his broadened interests and increased responsibilities, he never lost his interest in research on the causes and treatment of stuttering. He published several books on the subject in the 1950s and 1960s. And in the midst of all that he found time to serve as the editor of the Journal of Speech Disorders from 1943 to 1948.

    A heart attack in 1955 forced Johnson to resign most of his responsibilities, but he continued as a professor in the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology until his death in 1965. And he continued to do research and to write voluminously on many topics of interest to him right up until his death, which occurred at his desk while he was at work revising an article on speech defects for the Encyclopedia Britannica. In 1968 the UI honored him by naming the new building for the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology the Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Center.

    An unfortunate ethical lapse in his research resulted in some notoriety and a lawsuit many years after his death. In the late 1930s Johnson had approved the research design of one of his doctoral students, who proposed to use orphans at a local home in a stuttering experiment without their knowledge or consent. The lawsuit claimed that the experiment permanently scarred many of those children. The UI settled with the litigants and issued a public apology.
Sources The Papers of Wendell Johnson are located in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. Several published works also give useful information about Johnson. Johnson's own work, Because I Stutter (1930), tells of his childhood experiences as a stutterer. Dorothy Moeller, a longtime associate of Johnson's, published useful reviews of his academic career in Speech Pathology and Audiology: Iowa Origins of a Discipline (1976) and "Wendell Johnson: The Addiction to Wonder," Books at Iowa 20 (April 1974). For a briefer review of his life and influence, see Linda Alexander, "Campus Character: Figure of Speech," Iowa Alumni Quarterly (Winter 1993).
Contributor: David Hudson

Cite as: Hudson, David. "Johnson, Wendell" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017