The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Denny, Emerson Charles
(August 15, 1887–January 12, 1984)

—educator and developer of educational tests—was born in Madison, Indiana, the first child of John Johnson Denny and Effa Lau retta (Haines) Denny. Emerson Denny was a professor on the faculty of Iowa State Teachers College who is best known for developing educational measurement instruments, especially the Nelson-Denny Reading Test. Denny married Blanche Blackburn on August 22, 1917. They had three children: Lois E., John Blackburn, and James Ross.

    Denny attended Marion Normal College before receiving his B.A. from Indiana University in 1915. He then received his M.A. from the University of Chicago in 1916 and his Ph.D. from the State University of Iowa in 1932. His dissertation's topic was defects and weaknesses in American history tests.

    From 1905 through 1914 Denny taught and served as superintendent in rural and town schools in Indiana. He was head of the Department of Education at the Normal School in Lewiston, Idaho (1916-1917). He served in the U.S. Army in England, France, and Germany (1917-1919). Following military service, Denny taught mathematics at Wabash College (1919- 1920); served as high school principal at Norfolk, Nebraska (1920-1922); taught education at Berea College in the summers of 1920 and 1921; and was head of the English Department at the high school in West Allis, Wisconsin (1922-1923). In the summer of 1923 he joined the faculty of the Department of Education at the Iowa State Teachers College. He served as head of the Department of Education from 1934 through 1949. He retired from full-time teaching duties in 1955 but continued to teach part-time until 1967.

    Denny, who taught in the fields of mental testing and child psychology, was known as a fine teacher. A colleague, Gordon Rhum, recalled that students enjoyed Denny's relaxed, balanced, and encouraging classroom manner. His primary research interest was educational testing and measurement. In 1929 he and another Iowa State Teachers College faculty member, Martin J. Nelson, published the Denny-Nelson American History Test for grades 7 and 8. In 1930 they published the Nelson-Denny Reading Test. Denny and Nelson worked together for the next three decades to develop and revise tests in several subject areas for many educational levels. The tests gained wide recognition and acceptance. Revised by others, the tests, especially the Reading Test, continue to be published and used widely in the 21st century. Denny wrote a number of professional articles on testing as well as several workbooks on statistics for teachers. He conducted many smaller, unpublished studies of measurement and testing. Denny helped to found the National Council on Measurement in Education and served as president of the association from 1942 through 1946.

    Denny was active in local civic affairs. He was an officer in the local American Legion, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Rotary Club. He served on the Selective Service Board for Black Hawk County for almost 20 years and was secretary of the Cedar Falls Board of Adjustment from 1949 through 1955. He died at age 96 in Cedar Falls.
Sources Primary and secondary sources on Denny are extremely limited. Limited and scattered biographical information may be found in such items as Denny's personnel file, university press releases, and newspaper clippings in the University Archives, Rod Library, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls.
Contributor: Gerald L. Peterson