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Remembering The Pioneering Audiologist Who Tested Hearing At Birth

Dec 28, 2014
Originally published on December 29, 2014 4:03 pm

Before turning the page on 2014, All Things Considered is paying tribute to some of the people who died this year whose stories you may not have heard — including Marion Downs.

As recently as the early 1990s, if you were born deaf, nobody would know for years. Parents were left to realize that something was amiss when their toddlers were not learning to talk or communicate at a normal pace. A diagnosis that late meant many deaf children never fully developed the ability to use language.

Today, things are drastically different for hard-of-hearing children, thanks to the efforts of a remarkable woman: Marion Downs.

It was just chance that Downs ended up as an audiologist. In the 1930s, she dropped out of college to marry and have children. When her children were old enough to spend their days in school, she wrapped up her bachelor's degree and headed to the University of Denver to register for graduate school.

"It was right after World War II, and there were GIs standing in miles of lines for different departments. And I said, 'I'll find a short line,' " Downs told Colorado Public Radio in 2011. "So I found a short line that was speech pathology and audiology."

She was a woman in a field dominated by men — and a mother surrounded by audiologists who insisted it made no difference whether hearing loss was detected at birth or years into a child's life. Downs didn't believe that, but it would be decades before research proved her right.

"There's a critical period for language development that occurs between 12 and 24 months," says Jerry Northern, a longtime colleague. But many hard-of-hearing children wouldn't get hearing aids until they were 3 or 4, if at all.

"And if children are not stimulated, they don't hear language and speech developed correctly, they are very often delayed and very often face educational problems for the remainder of their lives," Northern says.

Often, it meant growing up in a separate educational system for deaf and hard-of-hearing children, says Christine Yoshinaga-Itano, an audiologist at the University of Colorado.

"The average child that was that late identified, they would leave our school system after 20-some-odd years of schooling with about a third- to fourth-grade reading level," she says. "[That] severely limited their ability to live independently, even though the vast proportion of them had normal or above-normal intelligence."

In the early 1960s, Downs started testing newborns herself with horns and rattles. For decades, she traveled to pediatricians and audiologists across the country, urging them to screen newborns. Eventually, technology was developed that made universal screening easier and more affordable.

Finally, in 1993, the National Institutes of Health made a consensus recommendation for universal newborn hearing screening. Today, 97 percent of the millions of American babies born in hospitals or birthing centers are screened at birth. Downs received the Highest Recognition Award from the Department of Health and Human Services in 2007, in honor of her "exemplary contributions to improving the lives of persons with disabilities."

Downs herself was hearing from former patients as recently as that Colorado Public Radio interview in 2011.

"I got a letter just recently from a 50-year-old man who said, 'I thank you for having identified me at birth as having a hearing loss and being deaf. Because I've done very well.' "

Marion Downs died in November. She was 100 years old.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Since you're sure to be hearing obituaries and tributes to big names like Robin Williams or Maya Angelou before turning the page on 2014, we wanted to tell you about some of the people who passed away you may never have heard of - people who deserve to be remembered. We begin in the world of science and medicine. As recently as the early '90s, if you were born deaf, there was a good chance your parents would have no idea until you were at least two or three years old. A diagnosis that late meant many deaf children never fully developed the ability to use language. Today, things are much different for hard-of-hearing children, thanks to the efforts of a remarkable woman named Marion Downs. Our producer Becky Sullivan has her story.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It was actually just chance that Marion Downs even ended up as an audiologist. She had dropped out of undergrad in the 1930s to marry and have children. When the kids were old enough to spend their days at school, Downs went to the University of Denver to register for graduate school.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MARION DOWNS: And it was right after World War II, and there were GIs standing in miles of lines for different departments. And I said, I'll find a short line.

SULLIVAN: This is Dr. Downs herself speaking to Colorado Public Radio in 2011.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DOWNS: So I found a short line that was speech pathology and audiology.

SULLIVAN: That conveniently quick registration lead to a lifetime in audiology for Downs. She was particularly interested in children. Dr. Jerry Northern was her longtime colleague.

JERRY NORTHERN: There's a critical period for language development that occurs between 12 and 24 months.

SULLIVAN: But back then deaf or hard-of-hearing children often wouldn't get hearing aids until they were 3 or 4, if at all. Here's Dr. Christine Yoshinaga-Itano, an audiologist at the University of Colorado.

CHRISTINE YOSHINAGA-ITANO: The average child that was that late-identified - they would leave our school system after 20 some-odd years of schooling with about a 3rd to 4th grade reading level, which severely limited their ability to live independently, even though the vast proportion of them had normal or above normal intelligence.

SULLIVAN: Downs firmly believed that catching hearing loss earlier would give these children a chance. So in the early '60s, she started testing newborns herself with whatever was around - horns or rattles. And more, she spent decades traveling to pediatricians and audiologists across the country, urging them to screen newborns. Finally, the technology caught up. And in 1993, the National Institutes of Health made a consensus recommendation for universal newborn hearing screening. Jerry Northern...

NORTHERN: Last year in the United States, nearly 4 million babies were born. Ninety seven percent of these children had a hearing screening test before they were discharged and sent home with their mother.

SULLIVAN: Marion Downs lived long enough not only to see the universal screening implemented, but also to watch the children she tested grow up and lead lives never thought possible when she began her career. Here's Downs one more time back in 2011.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DOWNS: I got a letter just recently from a 50-year-old man who said thank you for having identified me at birth as having a hearing loss and being deaf because I've done very well.

SULLIVAN: Marion Downs passed away in November. She was 100 years old. Becky Sullivan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.