The Scientific Revolution in 19th and early 20th Century America

Throughout the 19th century and early into the 20th there were a number of crucial developments in the US that laid the foundations for what was to be later called the field of speech-language pathology. They all can be considered as falling under what was then called “the new science.” Among them, the following five were especially influential:

Studies of Phonetics

The elocutionists in the US, as elsewhere in the world drew from the wider discipline of rhetoric focusing particularly on how to best “deliver” speech. The emphasis from this heritage was on the art of oration rather than on the science of speech. For example, elocution textbooks that were used both for oratory training and speech therapy included practice materials such as poems, speeches, and short stories, with little or no commentary on techniques to be used for teaching or practicing the materials.

There was a movement among the elocutionists toward developing a more “scientific” approach to oratory and therapy, one that was based on a detailed understanding of the basic elements of “delivery”, that is, on speech sounds. One primary mover in this group was James Rush, a phonetic scholar. In 1827, Rush published what his book The philosophy of the human voice, one that described aspects of speech production. The book soon became a classic. It was addressed to practicing elocutionists, offering them a set of phonetic categories and framework for conceptualizing domains and elements of speech production.

Among those influenced by Rush’s phonetic system was the elocutionist Andrew Comstock who created his own version of Rush’s phonetics and published a number of books that were used by elocutionists to teach speech improvement and by teachers to teach students to read. Comstock also used his version of Rush’s system for doing speech therapy with people who stutter (stammer). He provides the rationale as follows:

Oral language may be resolved into certain sounds which are its elements. The stammerer should be made thoroughly acquainted with these positions, and, in connexion [sic] with them, should be required to exercise his voice in the most energetic manner upon all the elements singly, till he can utter them without hesitation. He should also utter them in various combinations, not only according to the laws of syllabication, but in every irregular way. The vowels should be exploded from the throat with great force; and they should be sung, as well as pronounced with the rising and falling inflection, through every interval of pitch within the compass of the voice (Comstock, 1841, reprinted in 1977, p. 156).

Another influential contributor to the development a physiologically-based phonetics in the US was Alexander Melville Bell, father of Alexander Graham Bell—the inventor. In 1867 Melville Bell published the results of his studies on speech sounds in the form of a phonetic alphabet that he called “visible speech.” The alphabet departed from the orthographic transcription and replaced it with a notation system that represented the particular articulatory position making up the sounds. For example, a “p” sound was represented by combining a curved line for the lip, a vertical line showing lip closure, and a right pointing bracket (>) indicating plosion. For “p”’s cognate sound “b” a straight line was added, depicting a closed glottis to show voicing.

Melville’s son, Alexander Graham Bell, used his father’s visible speech system to teach his speech impaired students. In particular, he designed techniques for using visible speech for teaching the speech sounds to those with articulation problems, those who stuttered, and those with speech problems originating from hearing loss. Among the approaches were those involving phonetic placement through illustration and actual physical manipulation of the articulators. (For an elaboration on the methods, see Duchan, 2003, submitted for publication).

Melville Bell’s system became popular with phoneticians and elocutionists throughout the US and Britain for a while, but in 1889 it was supplanted by the International Phonetic Alphabet, a system that used mostly Roman letters and was thereby easier to learn and remember.

Whether they created an articulatory-based alphabet, as did Bell, or an orthographically based one, like that of Comstock, those who took a phonetic approach to their therapies all argued for their approach as being more “scientific.” They tended to emphasize phonetic placement over sound discrimination teachings, and to start with sounds and work toward words and meanings rather than taking a more whole-language approach to their teaching.

Brain Studies

The 19th century scholars and elocutionists in America doing phonetic studies and phonetic-based therapies described their approach as “physiologically-based.” Today we would classify their investigations as anatomical and reserve the meaning of physiological studies of speech for those using more micro measures of articulatory movements and for those studying the influence of the brain on speech and language.

Brain studies were also taking place in the 19th century America, being carried out by physicians who were diagnosing and treating those with aphasia and related language disorders. The approach, drawn from European brain researchers who had been negatively described as “diagram makers,” portrayed the brain as being comprised of multiple brain centers, with each center serving a particular function. The brain centers worked in association with one another and disconnections between them was seen as a way of explaining language and literacy difficulties. Among the first of the American’s to articulate this diagram making view of the mind were Joseph Collins and Charles Karsner Mills, both neurologists with special interests in aphasia and James Sonnett Greene, a laryngologist, whose main focus was on speech disorders. All three physicians borrowed from the work Charcot (1888) and Bastian, (1898). Greene used a diagram to account for conditions he called “agitophasia” sometimes called “cluttering” and “agitographia” or illegible writing involving missing letters and syllables (Greene, 1916).

Greene's agitographia Diagram

Greene described both agitophasia and agitographia as “due to a pathological condition of the nervous system, usually the brain…” (Greene, 1916, p. 754). He explained the relationship between these two conditions by focusing on the association between brain centers (see arrows in the figure). The agitophasia develops first, in which the “patient distorts and mutilates letters and syllables and words” (p. 755). Then, when written language develops, according to Greene, the written version of an imagined word or passage is associated with the conceptual representation developed for speech. Greene says it this way:

If silent thought omits syllables and words in the construction of sentences they cannot be expressed in writing; therefore an impairment of this function of association naturally results in a pathological state, not only of spoken language but of written language as well (Greene, 1916, p. 755).

While some conditions were explained by the brain localizationists as originating from dissociations between cortical brain centers, others were seen originating from problems with or damage to a particular center. For example, oral language disabilities were explained as problems within the auditory word center and reading problems were described as breakdowns in the visual word center. The diagnostic category for each was word blindness and word deafness. This view of language and reading disorders evolved from the work of British scientists, such as James Hinshelwood (1917). Among the Americans to use these concepts to account for speech, writing, or auditory impairments in children were Samuel Torrey Orton (1925), a psychiatrist working at the University of Iowa, and Mildred McGinnis (1929), a teacher/therapist working at Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis. W. L. Worcester (1896), a physician providing services to institutionalized adults at Danvers State Insane Asylum near Boston, reported on 15 cases whom he diagnosed as exhibiting word deafness.

Another line of brain research that became a focus for scientists and speech therapists in early 20th century America was on how the right and left hemispheres of the brain function in relation to one another. For example, Samuel Torrey Orton, the psychiatrist who identified children as being word blind and word deaf (see above), explained the occurrence of language and reading disabilities in children as having to do with hemispheric dominance. In Orton’s view some children had not progressed through the normal stages of developing brain laterality, and as a result they exhibited confusions when processing symbols such as words and letters. They may have mixed dominance or lack of dominance leading to what Orton, following the lead of James Hinshelwood, called strephosymbolia or “twisted symbols”.

Technological Advances

In the late 1800s the traditional ways of investigating the nature of humans began to be challenged. In particular, this marked a shift from what came to be called “armchair” psychology to the new experimental or laboratory psychology. The first rumblings of such changes were in Germany, where Wilhelm Wundt, developed a laboratory, much like laboratories that had been used by physicists and physiologists in the “hard sciences.” Wundt’s aim was to illustrate to his students the outward manifestations of introspections showing, through measured observation of behavior how the mind works.

This “new psychology” as it came to be called in America, called for new ways of measuring behavior. In the area of speech behavior, Edward Wheeler Scripture became the inventive pioneer. He, with his students established a laboratory at Yale University and accumulated a number of techniques used throughout the world to measure, among many other things, different aspects of speech production and acoustic perception. For example, he used a speech drum or kymograph to record air flow and articulation during speech production, he used plaster molds of the alveolar ridge to obtain impressions of the tongue during the production of alveolar consonants production, and used impressions of the tongue-palate contact to measure the movement of the tongue during the production of palatal consonants.

There were several other speech science researchers of this period who devised technological inventions and means of measuring various aspects of sound perception and production. Among these were.

Floyd Summer Muckey (1858-1930)

The first to give a working analysis of tone; to photograph a manometric flame recording; and to make a photo of the vocal cords in action.

George Oscar Russell (1890-1962)

Invented a type of palatography—where dynamic movements of the tongue were revealed through bends in aluminum foil and developed a method for x-ray used for examining position of articulators in vowel production.

Carl Emil Seashore (1866-1949)

Invented and patented the following instruments (click here for photos):

  • Iowa Pitch Range Audiometer
  • Tonoscope
  • Chronoscope
  • Time-sense apparatus
  • Stimulus key

The Psychological Testing Movement

As part of the general trend in the new psychology toward measurement of various aspects of human performance, there was a specific trend toward designing measures to assess racial differences and to determine the individual variation in psychological abilities and personality traits. For example a Philadelphia physician Samuel George Morton, believing that brain size bore a direct relationship to intelligence, collected and measured more than 1000 human skulls from different racial groups. In Morton’s well-publicized research studies, he measured brain size by filling the cranial cavity of his skulls with lead shot and pouring the shot into a measuring cup to ascertain the brain’s volume in cubic inches. (See Steven Jay Gould, 1981, pp. 50-69, for an analysis and critique of Morton’s results.) Morton and others used these findings to justify the superiority of abilities of members of the Caucasian race over those from other racial groups (Morton, 1849).

Morton’s procedure, called craniometry, was supplemented by others. Most notably were those from another group of scientists who were called phrenologists. This group, comprised of serious researchers as well as carnival showmen, subscribed to the Austrian Franz Joseph Gall’s notion that the contours of the skull provided information about a person’s “psychological faculties”—the traits that make up someone’s personality and abilities. Gall and his fellow phrenologists, presumed that hills and valleys on the skull directly reflected the local cerebral activities underlying them. Some phrenologists, the ones that subscribed to the values of objective science, took careful measurements of the skull to ascertain the locale and size of the skull’s contours in order to associate the skull’s shapes with their associated faculties.

As various measures were developed, they were tucked into test batteries and administered widely to assess the abilities of individuals and groups. Some items in the batteries, such as size of the skull, involved physical measurements, comprising a field of measures called anthropometry. Other measures were devised that were more psychological in nature, involving such things as reaction time measures and detection of minor differences between similar stimuli. For example in 1890, James McKeen Cattell devised a test battery consisting of ten subtests which he used to gather norms from his students at the University of Pennsylvania. Cattell’s subtests ranged from pure physical measures (hand squeeze), or what Cattell called “bodily”, to the “mental,” such as a short term memory task involving recalling a series of consonant sounds.

Meanwhile, in Paris France, Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon, Binet’s student and later his colleague, were developing a test for measuring the intelligence of children between ages 2 and 12. Their test, first published in 1905, contained more complex subtests requiring higher cognitive processes than did the Cattell scale. For example, in test 27 (there were 30 in all) assessed children’s comprehension of abstract questions such as: "When a person has offended you, and comes to offer his apologies, what should you do?" Besides being make up of more complex and cognitively advanced items, The Binet-Simon test also was structured around the notion of a “Scale” where the items were graded in difficulty and normed for different levels of competence.

It was the Binet-Simon test that finally took hold in the US as an index of intelligence. This, in part was because when Cattell’s measures were studied in relation to students’ class grades and in relation to one another, correlations were not found (Wissler, 1901). Another reason for the Binet-Simon’s popularity in the US came from the movement of administrators (then called superintendents) in residential institutions for the developmentally disabled (then called institutions for the feeble minded).

The American move toward the use of the Binet-Simon test was led by Henry Herbert Goddard, who saw Binet and Simon’s test as a way for diagnosing and classifying those labeled feebleminded into subgroups for purposes of determining appropriate educational programming and prognosis (Goddard, 1910a & b). Goddard tested four hundred of his residents at the New Jersey Training School for Feebleminded Boys and Girls in Vineland, New Jersey (Goddard, 1911). It was here that Goddard was appointed research director and in charge of studying and classifying the residents.

Another set of circumstances led to wide-spread intelligence testing, beyond the institutions for feeble minded. Several years later after Goddard’s testing program, when the United States entered the second world war, Robert Mearns Yerkes, a psychologist from Harvard, was appointed chair of the a military committed for evaluating the abilities of US Army recruits. The committee was charged with developing a group intelligence test that would identify recruits with low intelligence as well as those who were particularly well-suited for special assignments and officers' training schools. Yerkes and the members of his committee met in May 9, 1917. By mid-July they had constructed five alternate forms of a verbal test, which became known as the Army Alpha, and had designed the Army Beta, a nonverbal test for illiterate and non-English speaking recruits. The final forms of the Army Alpha and Beta tests were published in January of 1919, and by the end of the war they had been administered to approximately two million men.

Lewis Madison Terman, using the example of mass testing carried out during the war, received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to adapt the army tests for school use. He, along with Robert Yerkes and Edward Thorndike, developed group intelligence tests called the National Intelligence Tests to be given to children in grades three to eight Terman, et al, 1922). Terman’s aim was to identify and classify together students at different levels so that they could be educated separately, according to their abilities. This idea of educational tracks was one that was hotly contested by Walter Lippmann whose exchanges in the popular press with Terman did much in the early 1920s to highlight for the public the pros and cons of intelligence testing.

The emergence of standardized testing led its proponents such as Henry Herbert Goddard to use the results of mental tests to categorize those with developmental disabilities into distinct ability groups. Goddard, for example, arrived at the following three:

Following on the heels of the intelligence testing movement was one in which tests were devised for quantifying the academic abilities and performance of students. For example, Edward Thorndike devised tests for measuring achievement in arithmetic (1908), handwriting (1910), spelling (1913), drawing (1913), reading (1914) and language ability (1916).

This testing approach to assessment was one that would have a strong impact on the founders of a new profession in the mid 1920s—a profession that they then called speech correction.

The Child Study and Child Welfare Movements

Late in the 19th century, Granville Stanley Hall began a partnership between the well-established field of pedagogy, and the newly emerging discipline of psychology, of which he was a founding member. Hall created this partnership in a number of ways. In is role as faculty member and president of Clark University, he recruited former teachers to graduate studies in the department of psychology. He also found jobs for his graduates in departments of education or in departments of psychology in teacher-training schools. Further, he worked with public school teachers to collect research data on various aspects of child development. Hall also lectured on pedagogy at meetings of the National Education Association and organized summer school programs for teachers’ continuing education. Finally, Hall began a journal, Pedagogical Seminary, that was geared to research on child development and educational practices.

A hallmark of the child study movement, as led and defined by Hall, was to carry out research in the schools. The aim of the schools in this endeavor was to create a “scientific pedagogy” and improve their status. The aim of the researchers at the universities, such as G. Stanley Hall, was to find a niche for the new psychologists to do their work. Hall’s method of doing school research was through the use of questionnaires, that he called syllabi (see examples of the topics in the American Journal of Psychology, 1903, pp. 96-106).

In order to better carry out their research, academics involved in the Child Study movement also were engaged in establishing university laboratory schools, some of which were preschool nurseries and other elementary schools. Among the most renown were the nursery schools at Stanford University ( Bing Nursery School ), at Tufts University (the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School), at Vassar College (The Wimpfheimer Nursery School), at Yale (The Yale Child Study Center Nursery School) and Wayne State University (The Merrill-Palmer Institute).

Besides Granville Stanley Hall there were a number of other people who influenced the Child Study Movement. They included:

Earl Barnes was a professor of pedagogy at Stanford University who in 1891 began conducting investigations of the attitudes of school children, using Hall’s syllabi, questionnaire method of collecting data. Barnes published two volumes of school research on child development entitled: Studies in Education.

James Mark Baldwin was an influential child developmentalist who studied the behavior of his two infant daughters in detail, and theorized about the nature of learning and the issue of inherited knowledge.

Arnold Gesell was best known for his books geared to parents about the stages of development of normal children. His emphasis was on the physical as well as mental development of children. His norms were used in a number of developmental tests which were to follow.

Henry Herbert Goddard was a student of Hall’s and a leader in the testing movement that followed from the child study movement. Goddard’s interest was to classify the residents at the Vineland, where he served as director of research.

Welfare Stations and Child Development Research:

The University of Iowa was a pioneering institution in a number of ways, not the least of which was the establishment of The Iowa Child Welfare Research Station in 1917. Carl Seashore, along with the political support of women’s clubs in the state of Iowa, campaigned for the State of Iowa to support an institute that would study normal children. Seashore described its primary purpose as applying “science to the betterment of the normal child” (Seashore, 1961, p. 271).

The Iowa Institute was directed for its first eleven years by Bird T. Baldwin. Baldwin. In that time, Baldwin instituted a monograph series where his institute affiliates research results. This widely distributed monograph series was inaugurated in 1920 with the master’s study of Sara Stinchfield Hawk called: A preliminary study in corrective speech. Other influential studies involved several on motor development by Beth Wellman, and language development by Madorah Smith.

Following Iowa ’s example, other research stations dedicated to the study of the the development and welfare of children were established throughout the United States. They thrived in the early 1920s especially because of funding from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, a foundation created in 1918 by John D. Rockefeller in memory of his wife. The research in the various institutes was designed to bring science to the study of child development. Other well-known Institutes supported with Rockefeller funds were at Johns Hopkins University (Adolf Meyer, director), Yale University (Arnold Gesell, Director) Teachers College, Columbia University (Helen Thompson Woolley, Director), and The University of Minnesota. It was in the Minnesota Institute where Dorothea McCarthy and Mildred Templin were to later do their classic studies in language development.

Other Agencies Engaged in the Scientific Study of Children

There were other agencies besides the Child Study Research Centers and the Child Welfare Agencies that focused in the study of children. One notable example was the U.S. Children’s Bureau (USCB), that was established by Congress in 1912 by Lucy Sprague Mitchell. It promoted the welfare of children, engaged in original research on child welfare, and sponsored conferences on child placement issues and priorities.


The move toward scientific thinking and doing was all pervasive in the middle part of the 20th century. The scientific domains that bore directly on the eventual direction that the profession of speech pathology was to take were in the fields of phonetic studies, brain studies, technology, testing, and child study. Research programs and academic departments were established in this period, the field of psychology came into its own, and clinical practice began to rely on tests and measurements.


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