Howard Hughes – The Road To Hearing Loss, Part I

Forty-two years after the first US oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859, a wildcatter known as Captain Anthony Lucas was convinced there was oil beneath the salt domes near Beaumont, Texas.  His 1901 discovery of oil at Spindletop, near Beaumont, Texas, marked the birth of the modern petroleum industry.  News of the new “Oil Boom” drew the attention of the son of a Lancaster, Missouri Judge, Howard Robards Hughes Sr.  While his brothers and sisters were becoming opera stars and novelists, Howard Sr. dropped out of Harvard and Law School at Iowa State to become a self taught attorney in his father’s law practice.  The study and practice of Law was too confining for young Hughes, Sr. who said, “I soon found the law a too-exacting mistress for a man of my talent, and I quit her between dark and dawn, and have never since been back. I decided to search for my fortune under the surface of the earth.” 

Hughes, Sr.  first went to the Dallas area to experiment with the oil business and later to East Texas where he would try his luck as a wildcatter. In that first decade of the century drilling was an arduous task, as drilling into hard rock formations rocks took the drills forever to penetrate. After becoming frustrated by these difficulties of drilling with the standard “fishtail” drill bit, Hughes, Sr. devised a superior two-cone bit, which made drilling easier and virtually revolutionized the oil industry. Hughes patented the technology in 1909 and, with partner Walter Sharp, formed the Houston-based Sharp-Hughes Tool Company to manufacture the bit. After Sharp died in 1912, Hughes, Sr. bought his interest in the company. When he in turn passed away in 1924, Howard Robards Hughes, Jr., an only child whose mother had died two years earlier, inherited the thriving company and became a millionaire. Hughes, Jr., then only 18-years-old dropped out of Rice University, let others manage the oil-tool business and set out for Hollywood in 1925. 

This begins what Nix (2015) describes as a lifetime journey for one of the world’s wealthiest men who became a Hollywood filmmaker, record-setting aviator and business mogul who once owned a big chunk of Las Vegas and controlled a major U.S. airline (TWA) and other interesting ventures such as the Spruce Goose and looking for sunken Soviet submarines off the US coast. Later in life, however, he became an eccentric recluse who feared germs and shunned personal hygiene. And, as with many men of his generation, he embarked on a road to severe hearing loss.  

While the road to hearing loss probably began with his initial flying lessons as a teenager, the real damage most likely occurred during the shooting of the movie “Hell’s Angels“.  At the time, the most expensive movie ever made at 3.95 million (57,000,000 in 2016 dollars) and after a couple of unsuccessful box office showings, Hell’s Angels needed to be a success.  This was Hughe’s first attempt at movie directing after two directors quit because of his rants of “not enough realism”.  He and the other pilots were exposed to huge amounts of machine gun and explosion noise during the dogfighting scenes.  While references do not indicate the medical specifics, it is known that as a pilot in the movie, Hughes crashed of one of these WWI vintage planes and suffered a skull fracture.  Click on the picture of the WWI fighters and the movie poster for how real this footage was presented.  These days these movie shots would be done with models in a laboratory, not with real planes. This was only the beginning of the noise exposure for Hughes. After the movies, major business interests lay in aviation, airlines, and the aerospace and defense industries. Learning to fly as a teenager, Hughes along with many of his generation was a lifelong aircraft enthusiast and pilot. He set many world records and commissioned the construction of custom aircraft for himself while heading Hughes Aircraft at the airport in Glendale, CA. While there is no doubt that his noise exposure piloting the aircraft of this era greatly contributed to his hearing loss, further damage to his hearing would also have been the 3 other airplane crashes after the one while filming Hell’s Angels.  Even His girlfriend, Katherine Hepburn (Kate Blanchet in the movie Aviator) knew of the hearing loss, click on the movie clip to hear her say it!   These crashes would be while setting the 1935 air speed record in the Hughes Racer, at Lake Mead in 1943 where the propeller snapped killing two others, and his Beverly Hills near fatal crash of the Hughes XF-11 in 1946 that probably contributed substantially to his hearing loss.  He was expected to die from the multiple fractures and burns over 78% of his body, leading to the liberal administration of morphine and the beginning of his lifelong addiction to opiates, particularly Codeine to ease the pain.  His physicians would tell us later that he took as many as 20-30 aspirin tablets and 40 codeine tablets a day. These days we know much more about drugs than in 1946.  For example, a study described by (2009), carried out by Australian researchers found that regular users of codeine risk losing part or even all of their hearing. According to the study, far from all codeine users suffer hearing loss, but this serious side-effect seems to strike randomly, suddenly and permanently. In extreme cases, use of codeine at recommended doses over 1-4 years can result in total deafness and Hughes used Codeine for 30 years.


Getting the Hearing Aid for Use By Howard Hughes

Later as he aged, Hughes became Obsessive Compulsive (OCD) and therefore was eccentric about many things especially germs being everywhere.  According to Bartlett and Steele (1979), the instructions for detailed for removing his hearing aid from the bathroom cabinet. “Before the hearing aid could be removed its storage place for use staff had to use between six and eight new tissues as a barrier when turning the bathroom door knob, the door is to be left open so there will be no need to touch anything when leaving the bathroom.  The same Kleenex may be used to turn on the spigots so as to obtain a good force of warm water.  This Kleenex is then disposed of.  A new set of six to eight Kleenexes were used open the cabinet containing the soap and a fresh bar of soap that has never been opened is used.  All Kleenex that has been used to this point is disposed of.  The hands are to be washed with extreme care, far more thoroughly than they have been washed before taking great pains that they hands did not touch the bowl, spigots or anything else in the process. Great care should be exercised when setting the soap down on the soap dish or whatever it is set on so that the hands do not come into contact with anything.  A new set of 15-20 Kleenexes are now used to turn off the spigots and these Kleenexes are now thrown away.  The door to the cabinet is to be opened with a minim of 15 fresh Kleenexes. (Great care must be exercised in the opening and closing of the cabinet doors.  They are not to be slammed or swung hastily so as to raise any dust, yet exceeding care is to exercised against letting insects in)  Nothing inside the cabinet is to be touched–inside the doors, top of the cabinet the sides–No other objects inside the cabinet are to be touched in any way except the sealed envelope to be removed.  The sealed envelope with the hearing aid is to be removed with 15 new Kleenexes if both hands are used that 15 Kleenexes are used for each hand.”  Now THATS REAL OCD!

No wonder he did not use his hearing aid very often; by the time they were able to get the device ready, the conversation was over!  Next week we will review the hearing loss itself.


Althucher, J. (2017).  About the time I went Deaf.  Altucher Report.  Retrieved November 13, 2017.

Bartlett, D. & Steele, J. (1979). Howard Hughes:  His life and Madness.  Norton & Company.  Retrieved November 13, 2017.

Breo, D., (1979). Howard Hughes’ Doctor Gives a Chilling Description of His Strange Patient’s Final Hours.  People.  Retrieved November 13, 2017. (2009). Codine can cause hearing loss. Retrieved November 14, 2017.

Nix, E. (2015).  7 Things You May Not Know about Howard Hughes. History.  Retrieved November 12, 2017.

Wellman, D., & Musick, M. (2015).  Boxes:  The Secret Life of Howard Hughes, 2nd Edition.  WriteLife Publishing.  Retrieved November 13, 2017.

Wolf, R. (2011).  How OCD affected Howard Hughes. Health guide  Retrieved November 13, 2017.

Yberra, M. (2001). Author Climbs Inside Strange World of Howard Hughes.  Los Angeles Times.  Retrieved November 13, 2017.



About Robert Traynor

Robert M. Traynor is a board certified audiologist with 45 years of clinical practice in audiology. He is a hearing industry consultant, trainer, professor, conference speaker, practice manager, and author. He has 45 years experience teaching courses and training clinicians within the field of audiology with specific emphasis in hearing and tinnitus rehabilitation. Currently, he is an adjunct professor in various university audiology programs.