In a couple of months it will be 41 years since the young future editor of Hearing International first met Dr. Marion P. Downs, then a Professor of Otolaryngology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. That fateful day she had been assigned to be one of my internship supervisors, responsible for a very green aspiring audiologist. Little did I know at the time that my mentor was a premier international pediatric audiologist and the pioneer of the world’s first newborn hearing screening program in 1962. Those of us who had the opportunity to be instilled with Marion’s principles and her goal of bringing newborn hearing screening, early intervention, and programs for the hearing impaired to the world will never forget the opportunity to work with her in the clinic and her infectious enthusiasm for the field of audiology.
Marion Downs was born Marion Pfaender, January 26, 1914 in New Ulm, Minnesota. New Ulm, known locally as the City of “Charm and Tradition,” is nestled just 90 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, in the heart of the scenic Minnesota River Valley. These days they are known as the “Christmas City” and still celebrate Oktoberfest with zeal the second week of every October.
Marion’s first language was German, but she began to learn English as the effects of the “Great War” came to the USA and her family, third-generation American, were subjected to the anti-German sentiment of the time. She has always felt that changing to another language at the age of four accounted for her difficulty in understanding accents, particularly, deaf speech, which was one of her regrets throughout her career.
After graduating from high school as her class valedictorian, Marion entered the University of Minnesota where she no doubt rooted for the Golden Gopher football team, which won its first national championship in 1934. After her junior year, she married George Downs and they had three children. Being a wife and mother interrupted her education, but she completed a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and English in 1948 at the University of Colorado. Many people over the years have asked Marion what led her into Audiology and then to focus on children’s hearing problems. In her book Sones From An Old Sound Room, she tells the true story of how she decided to go to graduate school:
“After 15 years of being a housewife and raising three wonderful children to school age, I did have sort of an Epiphany: one day as I was finishing washing dishes (by hand in those days), I suddenly saw a Valedictorian in High School, a Phi Beta Kappa (Junior Year) in college, a Poetry-Reading contest winner, an editor and writer in various publications, and a 35 year old woman who would leave nothing in this world but three children to whom I had given my best, but who no longer would be under my tender ministrations! That morning the newspaper had announced registration at the University of Denver for Fall classes…..”
She continues,“I tossed off my Mother Hubbard and quickly put on something I thought might be appropriate, and dashed over to the University of Denver registration – fortunately only a mile away. I trotted into the field
house, only to see thousands of people bobbing in endless lines waiting to register in different departments.”
That had to be quite a sight for young housewife looking to register in a discipline that was appropriate for her undergraduate background, possibly pre-Law, English, Psychology, Speech and Drama, maybe even Debate. As fate would have it, all the registration lines were very long, since as the GI bill had recently been passed and WW II veterans were surging onto college campuses across the country looking for an education. Always resourceful, Marion decided to join the shortest line, which was for Speech Pathology and Audiology.
Again, in Marion’s own words:
“At the end of that short line was John Gaeth, [who was] one of the recent PhDs from Northwestern University, on his first teaching job. He was a great teacher and researcher who would develop the theory of Phonemic Regression. He persuaded me to enter the program – no, not persuaded – allowed me to enter before I knocked him over with fervor! That’s how I got into Audiology…….”… a lesson [from Marion]: It doesn’t matter what you decide to do, as long as you give it your total application and devotion”.
Upon finishing the program at the University of Denver (DU), she promptly went to work at DU, teaching audiology and directing the audiology clinic from 1951 to 1959. While there, she supervised a contract with the Veterans Administration, conducting all the veterans’ speech pathology exams, audiology exams, and hearing aid assessments. In those days, the charge for an audiology exam was $10 and for a hearing aid assessment $25. In 1959, she went to work as an audiologist in a new otolaryngology clinic at the University of Colorado School of Medicine where she worked until she retired in 1982.
There, in defiance of the conventional wisdom among audiologists at the time, she and the late Doreen Pollack began fitting hearing aids on infants as young as six months of age. She believed that the earlier remediation began, the better auditory function would result. Of course, time has proven she was right. Back then, most children got their first hearing aid at the age of three or four years.
Marion describes working with Doreen Pollack, former director of Denver’s Listen Foundation, and a staunch advocate for an auditory-oral method with hearing impaired children:
“Doreen Pollack came to the University of Denver when she first came over from England. She had worked with children early on and she showed me that children could be tested as babies. That was fairly shocking 50 [now 60] years ago! She and I used to test babies all over the place. We were an awfully good pair. We found hearing losses in very young babies and we put hearing aids on them ’cause we figured they needed it. The children turned out wonderfully, and the earlier we put hearing aids on them, the better they turned out. You couldn’t help but to realize that the earlier the better. A lot of people were saying there were critical periods for language development and the stimulation has to start very young. Being an extremist, I said very young means at birth, and that seems to have stood the test of time.
In 1962, Marion developed an observational test on newborns, which she reported in 1964. In the 1980s and 1990s, neurological reports confirmed her theory that the earlier remediation began and the younger children could hear, the better they would develop speech and language. She then spent more than 30 years trying to convince her peers to adopt newborn testing in hospitals and to place hearing aids on infants who showed hearing loss.
She also worked to alert the medical world to the developmental problems associated with childhood deafness. Largely as a result of her efforts, 95% of all newborns in America today [and a significant portion of children worldwide] are screened for hearing loss.
Dr. Downs devoted her professional life to the promotion of early identification of hearing loss in newborns, infants, and young children and to helping those handicapped by hearing impairment lead fulfilling lives. She is recognized internationally for her work in pediatric audiology, and her publications and lectures have brought worldwide attention to the importance of early intervention for hearing loss. She has published two books and over 100 articles on hearing and hearing assessment of infants and young children in the United States and around the world.
One of these books, the classic Hearing in Children, was the product of her long partnership with Dr. Jerry Northern, a colleague at the University of Colorado Medical Center. First published in 1972,the book, often referred to as “Northern and Downs,” is now in its 6th edition.
Currently, this internationally renowned pioneer in newborn hearing screening is Professor Emerita at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. She has moved back to her native Minnesota, and lives in Minneapolis. However, she will be in Denver for her 100th birthday on Sunday, January 26. That night she will be the guest of honor at at “Celebrate the Legacy”, a Black Tie Gala featuring a performance by Donny Osmond. The gala, which will be attended by hundreds of Marion’s countless friends, will raise funds for the Marion Downs Hearing Center and Foundation. This foundation is dedicated to providing culturally sensitive services, resources, education, and research to support the needs of individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, or hearing, their families, and hearing care professionals. All its programs value individual/family choice in communication and the use of technology in striving to optimize the quality of life for all that it serves.
Marion, on behalf of all your former students, I want to thank you for your guidance, spirit, inspiration, and the research that has led to a better life for millions of hearing impaired children around the world. To the lady of Audiology that taught us all to “Shut Up and Live”…….Your trip to the shortest registration line at DU all those years ago has definitely led to a worldwide legacy in Pediatric Audiology and Aural Rehabilitation.