Return to Wendell Johnson Memorial Home Page

Campus Character: Figure of Speech

Linda Alexander

Iowa Alumni Quarterly, Winter 1993, p. 41 [Carol Harker, Editor; UI Alumni Association, University of Iowa, Iowa City IA 52242-1797] (copyright by Linda Alexander and the UI Alumni Association; posted to this Web page with permission)

I became a speech pathologist because I needed one," Wendell Johnson often said.

In the 1920s, Johnson came to the University of Iowa with a severe stuttering problem he was determined to overcome. His research, teaching, and successful work with patients ultimately made the UI "the stuttering capital of the world" -- and changed the lives of countless people who struggled to speak without impediment.

Johnson's own struggle with stuttering began when he was a five-year-old boy growing up on a farm in Kansas. The more his family worked to alleviate his problem, the worse it became. By the time he was eight, Johnson had begun to avoid situations where he would be expected to talk. He loved to learn and did well in school, but he was a quiet student. Writing in his master's thesis 20 years later, Johnson recalled how he had cultivated the "right expression, the right sparkle in the eye" to avoid being labeled stupid. An unselfish good nature and his natural athletic ability helped him gain popularity with his classmates. Dubbed "Jack" because his boxing prowess reminded people of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, Wendell Johnson was captain of the baseball, basketball, and football teams during his senior year in high school. He even had hopes of pitching in the major leagues, but those hopes were dashed when a printing press accident partially crushed his left hand.

Instead of pursuing a career in baseball, Johnson enrolled at McPherson College in Kansas, where a professor recognized his stuttering problem and encouraged him to transfer to the University of Iowa. He arrived at Iowa as a junior in 1926 and went on to earn three degrees: a bachelor's degree with honors in English in 1928, a master's in psychology in 1929, and a doctorate in psychology in 1931. In his master's thesis, an in-depth look at stuttering, Wendell Johnson revealed what it meant to go through life without a voice.

Immediately after earning his doctorate, Johnson became a research associate at the university. Intent on steering research toward solving the problem of stuttering, he worked his way up the academic ranks and in 1947 was named a full professor. That year he was also named head of the Iowa Program in Speech Pathology.

As head of the program, Johnson lobbied intensely for formal recognition and autonomy of speech pathology. In memo after lengthy memo, he hammered away at getting speech pathology recognized as a major, allocating an independent budget for the program, garnering its own space and administration, and offering additional courses.

Dorothy Moeller, 25BA, worked as Johnson's research assistant. "He was a very warm, gentle man," she recalls. "But he was absolutely driven. He worked almost frantically. I think there was a residue of having been pent up for so long. He always carried a little red note-book and was constantly writing, noting down ideas."

The work of Alfred Korzybski, in particular, gave Johnson many ideas to build upon. "From Korzybski's writing, Jack gleaned an idea that became central to his living and teaching," says Moeller. "And that was that people don't stutter; they are involved in the problem of stuttering. Recognizing that, he was able to externalize the problem and tear away the stereotypes. That freed him from the strictures of stuttering."

It was through years of involvement in research of this type that Johnson conquered his own stuttering. He challenged the cerebral dominance theory and the notion that stuttering was a physical or mental defect. With his colleague John Knott, Johnson found that stuttering is what people do when they try not to stutter. One of the therapy exercises the two researchers developed involved stuttering deliberately. By continuing work on this model, Johnson discovered that learning not to fear stuttering was the key to unlocking his own lips and tongue. He had conquered his problem.

Having found his way to uninhibited speech, Johnson delighted in putting himself in situations where he had to talk. Not only did he lecture, but he broadcast the "Classroom on the Air" program on campus radio and appeared on national television as UI work on stuttering gained attention. Johnson quickly became internationally recognized as an authority on stuttering. His interest in general semantics blossomed into a dedicated study of human communication.

Johnson worked tirelessly to create understanding of the processes of language and speech production. He developed a university-level course on general semantics, and it became one of the most popular courses on the UI campus. Moeller says that students responded to Johnson as a teacher because he was so empathetic and because he forced them to look at themselves and their methods of communication as no other professor did. Johnson also devoted time to the specific communication needs of students who stuttered, founding the Demosthenes Club and assigning members practical tasks such as making phone calls, buying tickets, or speaking at civic clubs.

One important key to communication, Johnson believed, was humor. He once told friend Paul Engle, the poet and Writers' Workshop director, that his sense of humor was "a way of enduring the unpleasantries of a stumbling tongue." It was a talent he retained long after he learned not to stutter.

Duane Spriestersbach, emeritus vice president for educational development and research, did his doctoral work under Johnson's direction and then taught in the Program of Speech Pathology and served as Johnson's office administrator. "He loved to hear and tell jokes, and he was wonderfully responsive," recalls Spriestersbach. "He would shout with laughter and slap his thighs. He loved to write limericks about everyone, including himself."

About Spriestersbach, Johnson rhymed:

Although Johnson laughed easily, one topic he always took seriously was language. He was a prolific writer and published ten books on the topic, including People in Quandaries: The Semantics of Personal Adjustment, which was a best-seller for several years. Johnson also wrote more than 150 articles and nearly as many research, clinical, and theoretical papers. He wrote dozens of book reviews for major newspapers and edited several professional journals, including the Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders.

"People thought he wrote easily, but he didn't," says Dean Williams, professor emeritus of speech pathology and audiology, who also conducted his doctoral work under Johnson. "He cared too much about how words and language were used. It was nothing for him to do a dozen revisions of a single paper. His idea was to get it down and then create. The people who did his typing and retyping must have wished they'd never laid eyes on him."

Johnson's propensity for editing extended to others' work as well as his own. "I wrote an article that I thought was good," recalls Williams, "but Jack took it and edited it until I was utterly frustrated and angry. It wasn't until I went home and typed up his changes that I realized he had brought my article to life!"

Obsessed with language, Johnson was a master of pithy phrases. His "Johnson's Laws" -- including "Some days are better than others" and "It is normal to react badly to being classified as abnormal" -- were legendary. Johnson also was known for his "Critical Questions." Perhaps chief among these was, "What else is there to scratch but the surface?"

And scratch Johnson did, continually revealing new layers to ponder in solving the mysteries of speech and stuttering. Among his most significant work was a study on the onset of stuttering. Begun in 1935, this study of children showed, among other things, that disfluencies in children diagnosed as stutterers were indistinguishable from the disfluencies in "normal" children's speech.

"Jack was vehement that there was nothing organic involved in stuttering," says Williams. "His view was that the listeners rather than the speakers needed the understanding and instruction. He drew a great deal of criticism when he said, 'Stuttering often begins not in the child's mouth, but in the parent's ear.' Today we recognize that his theory was too extreme."

Patricia Zebrowski, UI assistant professor of speech pathology and audiology, notes, "The body of data that resulted from Johnson's work on children who stutter and their parents is still the largest collection of scientific information on the subject of stuttering onset. Although new work has determined that children who stutter are doing something different in their speech production than non-stutterers, Johnson was the first to talk about the importance of a stutterer's thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, and feelings. We still don't know what causes stuttering, but the 'Iowa' way of approaching study and treatment is still heavily influenced by Johnson -- but with an added emphasis on speech production."

In 1951, the UI created the Council on Speech Pathology and Audiology to administer the growing Iowa program. Johnson served as chair of the council and head of the Iowa Program in Speech Pathology until a heart attack forced his early retirement in 1955. One year after Johnson stepped down, the program achieved full department status.

One of the great shapers of the UI's Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology, Johnson continued teaching, lecturing, working with patients, and writing until his death In 1965. He died at home, at his desk, while working on an article for Encyclopedia Britannica.

Return to Wendell Johnson Memorial Home Page