The twentieth century saw a slew of research studies that gained notoriety as much for the ethical boundaries they pushed as well as the psychological insights that were gained.  The attention garnered by these studies, which included the Stanford prison experiment, Stanley Milgram’s shock experiment, and John Watson’s “Little Albert,” helped highlight the need to create ethical standards and reviews in research.  The “Monster Study” was different, though.  Its lessons went long swept under the rug.

"Little Albert's" Monster
“Little Albert’s” Monster

In 1939, Wendell Johnson, who is now the namesake of the University of Iowa’s eminent Speech and Hearing Center, together with one of his graduate students, Mary Tudor, undertook an experiment to gain more information into the behavioral nature of stuttering. Specifically, Johnson sought to question the prevailing theory that stuttering’s cause was entirely genetic, and therefore, little could be done to therapeutically help stutterers.  While Johnson’s ultimate goal may have been noble, his methods and subsequent cover-up led to this one, out of all of the era’s questionable studies, as the one that was dubbed the “Monster Study.”

Tudor was sent to an orphan’s home to pick subjects to test Johnson’s view that stuttering develops when speakers are criticized for normal mistakes.  Johnson, himself a stutterer, ultimately developed the diagnosogenic theory of stuttering, despite later hiding the research used to support this view that the diagnosis causes the disease.  Out of 22 test subjects, half (five previously identified stutterers, and six identified as having normal speech) were given sessions every few weeks in which they were criticized harshly for every mistake, and during which Tudor tried to convince them that they were stutterers.  Tudor also instructed teachers to be critical of the speaking of this group of children.  The other half were generally complimented on their speech.  The experiment lasted for nearly five months.  While the exact effects were disputed, the fact that these kids were harmed is very clear.  Tudor attempted three follow-ups, and in later correspondence to Johnson she expressed remorse for not being able to reverse the study’s earlier “deleterious effects.”

Johnson’s Namesake at the University of Iowa

And so for decades, few outside of the participants, and Johnson’s colleagues at Iowa, knew about the study.  Meanwhile, the department named after Johnson grew into one of the more prestigious institutions of Speech-Language Pathology in the world.  Then, a 2001 story in the San Jose Mercury News brought what had been local whispers of a “Monster Study” into the national limelight.  The story was re-published in newspapers across America, immediately igniting a firestorm of controversy.  It also spawned litigation, ultimately leading to nearly million dollar settlements for 3 still living subjects, and for the descendants of three others.

Unfortunately lost in the details was Johnson’s big question.  Can you create a stutterer?  The results of Tudor and Johnson were themselves mixed.  According to their own ratings of the previously non-stuttering children, two kids from the normal group developed more stuttering, but two didn’t, and two others were even marked as improved.  While its effects on stuttering were ambivalent, the experiment clearly did have other negative consequences for its participants.  There were admitted increases across multiple areas of behavior, such as increased shyness, tics, anxiety, inhibition, and self-esteem.

Most insidious, perhaps, was the results of Johnson’s own actions.  Not only did he fail to publish results which were, at the best, ambivalent toward his hypothesis, he continued promoting his view that caregivers are almost solely responsible for stuttering.  Directly due to the diagnosogenic theory, therapy was greatly reduced for decades of stutters.  In its place, therapists worked almost exclusively with parents.  While we still don’t know exactly what causes stuttering, the research has clearly indicated a strong genetic component which can be triggered or exacerbated by events in the environment.  And critically, direct therapy can, and often does, help.

This fantastic story in The New York Times has many more details.  This article describes some more recent developments.