The aim of this website is to offer historical information for speech-language pathologists so they can see the advantages of viewing what they do in its historical context. Knowing about one's history has considerable reward. It can offer lessons from the past, help make predictions for the future, and, perhaps most importantly for this website, it can provide a perspective for a deeper understanding of current theories and practices.

An understanding of the history behind today's theories helps build a needed reflective and critical stance toward clinical practice. By studying history one unavoidably comes to the humbling conclusion that that what goes on now is neither inevitable nor is it impervious to change. An historical perspective helps one realize that while some of today's theories and methods may survive many are likely be reframed, reworked or replaced with new approaches that are more in keeping with current social, and professional trends.

A reflective and critical historical stance attained through historical studies also provides a way to evaluate today's practices. Working from a historical and outside perspective can offer clinicians new angles from which to view their taken-for-granted ideas and practices. A reflective historical stance also provides a source of courage for critically analyzing and changing those current practices that need changing.

Some goals and expectations

This project aims to highlight some of the significant historical antecedents to today's field of speech language pathology. The focus will be on the conceptual side of practice—that is, on theories, ideas, and frameeworks that have been used to construe human communication and its breakdowns.

The professional history attended to in this website will begin at the beginning of recorded time. It starts at around 3000 BC in an effort to find traces of what has become our field. By examining how those throughout recorded history have regarded communication and its breakdowns, we can better see how conceptual frameworks and social conditions shape the ways we depict communication disorders today. The overall aim is to show the direct and indirect paths as well as the blind alleys that have been taken on the way to the creation of today's speech and language frameworks and practices.

This is not an encyclopedic review. Rather it serves more as an outline or table of contents, and is but suggestive of the work that needs doing and the terrain that needs covering. Readers needn't be knowledgeable about history to understand the where their field has come from. They will, however, need to be open to new ways of thinking about what they do.

It will be helpful for readers of this history to try to put themselves into the mind set of their predecessors by assuming that different takes on current issues can have their own coherence and legitimacy. Yes, it seems odd that the well-known and well-reputed Medieval physician Avicenna portrayed stuttering as being caused by the tongue's softening and excess moisture (Wollock, 1997, p. 208 fn. 43) and that he considered problems of vocal quality to be caused by bodily temperature (cold resulted in a weak voice, and heat caused a loud voice (O'Neill, 1980, p. 110). It is the aim of this history to provide contexts and explanations for such apparently strange thinking and practices. It is the hope that this will entice readers to want to historically contextualize not only histories of yore but also current ways of rendering and treating communication disabilities.

There has been too little work in the field of speech-language pathology on the evolution and history of current practices. While nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers can go to a number of historical sources in their fields, speech-language pathologists have only a smattering of such studies. It is my hope that the information provided in this website will serve to redress this notable blind spot in historical understanding of speech-language pathologists, especially for those practicing in the United States. I aim to provide a growing body of historical information that clinicians in America can use to trace their evolution and understand the thinking of their ancestors.

Organization of the website

The website is divided into eight historical periods:

Each of these historical periods, in turn, has its own integral structure. Some are based on geography, some are based on chronology and some on trends of the historical period described. There are four subdivisions that offer structure to the first four time periods, ancient times through the enlightenment. These divisions relate to how our predecessors:

  1. rendered various medical conditions that are associated with communication;
  2. portrayed communication, its functions and breakdowns;
  3. regarded and treated people with disability (including communication disability); and
  4. educated and rehabilitated those with communication disorders.

These four subsections are used as a way of framing what was going on during the periods ranging from 3000 BC to 1800 AD that had a bearing on later speech-language pathology practices. These four domains (medicine, rhetoric, disability, and education/rehabilitation) offer us a way to draw parallels across time using the distinctions available during these older periods. Each of these four domains are examined in its own right as well as for ideas that bear on what today would be considered to be within the scope of theory and practice in speech-language pathology.

The history covered in these early time periods spans different areas of the world. For example, the ancient period is divided into Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Each of these regions of the world is examined for what was going on in the fields of medicine, rhetoric, disability, and education. The regions covered in medieval period were the Byzantine Empire and Europe. The early modern period and the enlightenment focus primarily on European history.

The fifth period, the 19th century, is structured chronologically beginning with a discussion of the Elocutionists, then the Scientists, and then to the rise of Professionalism.

An in-between period beginning mid-19th century and extending into the first half of the 20th was one that also influenced the growth and shape of professionalism in America. This section on ASHA’s European Ancestry describes a movement in Europe when physicians created a new specialty, that of phoniatrics—a field, focusing on speech and hearing disorders. This movement and its proponents influenced the establishment of the field of speech correction in America.

This in-between period is subdivided into several subsections including: (1) Preparing the ground, that argues that ASHA did not arise out of the blue but was based on earlier work by scholars and physicians working in Austria and Germany; (2) Planting the seeds—that identifies specific European intellectual ancestors; (3) The first flowerings—that describes two hubs of activity in phoniatrics, one in Berlin and another in Vienna; and (4) Pollination—a section that describes how the ideas of our European Ancestors took hold in America around the time that ASHA was founded in 1925. References for this in-between period are here.

The 20th century section is again subdivided chronologically and has to do with American history. This period is divided into four historical subsections (1) Our Formative Years beginning just before 1900, when the first books and articles on communication disorders were published in the United States to the end of World War II in 1945, (2) The Processing Period from 1945 to 1965, during which time many therapy approaches were developed to improve internal psychological processing, (3) The Linguistic Era from 1965 to 1975 during which time we came to treat language disorders as separable from speech disorders and as being linguistic in nature, to (4) The Pragmatics Revolution from 1975 to 2000, when we reconsidered and reframed language in light of its communicative, linguistic, cultural, and everyday-life contexts.

The 21st century has, once again, witnessed dramatic changes in the profession of Speech Language Pathology. We are now experiencing shifts in thinking having to do with social justice movements in the culture designed to empower the disenfranchised. Liberation struggles such as Black Lives Matter, the Me Too Movement, and the fights for Disability Rights have forced the Speech-Language Pathology profession to critically reexamine its basic assumptions about what it is about. Various aspects of these movements are reviewed in this new section, called Promoting Social Justice in the Field of Speech Language Pathology. It contains a flavor of what has been going on in the first quarter of the 21st century.

Yet another section of the website called Related Topics has information about other aspects of speech pathology history that do not fit neatly into a chronology framework. This section includes information about our Foremothers—women who have contributed to but are not always credited with founding the profession. It also includes material on John Thelwall, a British elocutionist who practiced in the early 19th century, and biographies and pictures of individuals who have contributed to speech pathology history. Other related sections include a Canadian history by Virginia Martin and therapy stories, including Margaret Hussey's story of her experiences following the stroke and aphasia of her husband Michael Hussey. The newest addition to this section is a history module, called a Critical History Approach, designed to illustrate how a critical study of the history of the speech language pathology profession can help address injustices in the profession in hopes of developing a more socially just practices.

Hyperlinks throughout the web pages tie to definitions of technical terms, biographical details of some of our intellectual forbearers, tables of contents and descriptions of cited books, and detailed information about particular clinical interventions.


O'Neill, Y. V. (1980). Speech and speech disorders in Western Thought before 1600. Westport, CO: Greenwood Press.

Wollock, J. (1997). The noblest animate motion: Speech physiology and medicine in pre-Cartesian linguistic thought. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.