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Iowa to pay subjects $925K for stuttering study

/ Source: The Associated Press

The state has agreed to pay $925,000 to unwitting subjects of an infamous 1930s stuttering experiment — orphans who were badgered and belittled as children by University of Iowa researchers trying to induce speech impediments.

Johnson County District Court Judge Denver Dillard issued an order approving the settlement Friday morning; it still must be ratified by the State Appeal Board, which next meets Sept. 4.

The six plaintiffs, who said the experiment left lifelong psychological and emotional scars, had originally sought $13.5 million.

“We believe this is a fair and appropriate settlement,” Attorney General Tom Miller said in a statement. “For the plaintiffs, we hope and believe it will help provide closure relating to experiences from long ago and to memories going back almost 70 years.”

He said it was a prudent outcome for the state because of the high costs of litigation and the difficulty of finding witnesses to events so long ago. He noted that the settlement provides a resolution for plaintiffs who are now in their 70s and 80s.

‘The Monster Study’

The 1939 experiment has come to be known as “The Monster Study” because of its methods and the theory researchers set out to prove — that stuttering is a learned behavior that can be induced in children.

Over a six-month period, Dr. Wendell Johnson, a nationally renowned pioneer in the field of speech pathology, and his staff tested his theory on 22 children who were in the care of the state-run Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home. Some were subjected to steady harassment, badgering and other negative therapy in an attempt to get them to stutter; the rest served as a control group.

According to the study, none became stutterers, but some became reluctant to speak or self-conscious about their speech.

Hazel Potter Dornbush, 84, of Clinton, who was 15 when she was chosen for the study, said she is relieved the case is settled.

“It was awful stressful all these years. I’m just glad it’s over,” she said. “How would you like to have them turn over all your past for the last 80 years?”

Dornbush said she recalls 22 children being taken from the state-run Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home to be used in the research. She said many of the children were told they stuttered even if they didn’t, and the researchers said they were there to help them stop.

“I call that brainwashing. I don’t care what anybody else calls it, that’s my language. I was wise to it right away, but I cooperated. You know we weren’t in no position to argue with nobody. We had nobody to lean on to help us out.”

The university kept the experiment and its methods from the former subjects for decades. It was not until 2001 when the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News published an investigative story about the study and its methods did the former subjects learn about the experiment’s true purpose. The newspaper based its story on statements made by Mary Tudor, one of Johnson’s former research assistants, who lived in California at the time the story was published.

The university apologized for the experiment in 2001; the plaintiffs sued in 2003.

The settlement pays $900,000 to five of the plaintiffs, Dornbush, Kathryn Meacham, the Betty Romp estate, the Clarence Fifer estate and the Phillip Spieker estate. The state also will pay $25,000 to the sixth plaintiff, Mary Nixon.