The Monster Study of 1939: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Speech Pathology

The unethical research highlight this month dates back to the 1930s. The “Monster Study” – as it came to be called – focused on the nature of stuttering and its potential causes. In this blog post, we will explore the controversial history and ethical implications of the Monster Study. 

The Monster Study, also known as the Wendell Johnson Speech Clinic Study, was conducted by Wendell Johnson, a renowned speech pathologist, and his graduate student, Mary Tudor. The study aimed to investigate the development of stuttering in children. More specifically, their theory suggested that negative labeling and criticism could induce stuttering in normally fluent children.

To conduct this study, Johnson and Tudor recruited 22 orphaned children from the Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home in Davenport, Iowa. They divided the children into two groups: one labeled as “normal speakers,” and the other as “stutterers.” However, the labeling was arbitrary and did not reflect the children’s actual speech abilities.

The children labeled as stutterers were subjected to intense speech therapy, which included criticism of their speech, while the so-called normal speakers received regular speech therapy. The study lasted for several months, during which the children in the stutterer group were subjected to emotional stress and criticism intended to induce stuttering.

Ethical Concerns

The Monster Study raises several ethical concerns:

Lack of Informed Consent. The children involved in the study were not capable of providing informed consent due to their age and orphaned status. Their participation was coerced.

Psychological Harm. The children in the stutterer group experienced significant psychological harm. They were led to believe they had a speech problem and were subjected to emotional distress and negative reinforcement, potentially causing lasting psychological trauma.

Violation of Ethical Principles. The study flagrantly violated ethical principles such as “do no harm” and “informed consent.” The deception and emotional manipulation of vulnerable children have been widely criticized.

Although the study happened decades before the creation of formal research oversight bodies, The Monster Study caused widespread outrage, especially within the scientific community itself. Further, it is a haunting example of the ethical dilemmas that can arise in the pursuit of scientific understanding. While the study did contribute to our knowledge of speech development, it did so at the cost of the emotional well-being of vulnerable children. It underscores the critical importance of adhering to ethical principles in research and the need for constant vigilance to ensure that scientific inquiry is conducted responsibly and with the utmost respect for the dignity and rights of participants.

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