Robert J. Briskey, Pioneer Audiologist and Friend, Dies on May 12, 2012

It is with sadness that I am interrupting my normal blogs to report on another hearing discipline leader’s passing.

Robert J. Briskey

Robert J. Briskey, December 4, 1924 – May 12, 2012, was the elder statesman in leading audiology into the hearing aid industry.  It was Bob, more than any other audiologist, who pioneered the role of audiology in the hearing aid industry, and all audiologists who function in the industry as audiologists owe Bob their collective appreciation.  He was essentially the first audiologist employed by a hearing aid manufacturer, starting in 1962, at a time when audiology had not developed sufficiently to grasp the significance of this interaction, and the national Association (ASHA) actively opposed such involvement.

Bob graduated from Wayne State University in Detroit with a M.A. degree in 1947, where he was a colleague of another recently-departed leading audiologist, Robert Sandlin, Ph.D.  Unlike many audiologists today, when he eventually joined industry, he brought with him significant experience.  He continued on the faculty at Wayne State University for four years after receiving his degree, and then accepted a position as Director of a fledgling new audiology clinic at Wisconsin State College in Milwaukee.  He remained at the newly-named University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for another eleven years, during which time he also set up what would become the audiology clinic.  During this time he also established, perhaps for the first time anywhere, a collective Statewide meeting of audiologists, called the “Wisconsin Audiology Group.”

It was in 1964 that I first met Bob.  He had been invited to present to the graduate audiology class at the University of Wisconsin – Madison by Dr. Claude Hayes.  He spoke on the rationale for the development of the Zenith Vocalizer and also invited us to attend the gathering of the Wisconsin Audiology Group which was to be held the next day in conjunction with the Wisconsin Speech and Hearing Meeting. Listening to Bob was the first time that I appreciated that there was a distinct future in audiology and that is where I would be heading, with a little prodding from Jim Curren, my office mate, and Claude Hayes.

Bob’s involvement in audiology and the then-existing referral system to hearing aid dealers for hearing aid fittings led him to develop training programs for the hearing aid dealers to help them improve upon their skills and knowledge.  This was noticed by one of the leading companies at that time, Zenith Radio Corporation, located in Chicago, who invited Bob on several occasions to join their hearing aid division.

So, after ten years at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, he finally accepted a position as Director of Rehabilitation Services and Senior Research Audiologist for Zenith Radio Corporation.  He remained in this position for thirteen years through the transition from Zenith Radio Corporation to Zenitron, an independent company separated from Zenith.  During this time he set the stage for the role that audiologists were eventually to play in the industry, including education for dispensers and for audiologists, and working with engineers in research and product development.  While at Zenith he helped develop several hearing aids, for which he received two US patents.  One was the Vocalizer, designed especially for the profoundly impaired.  This may have been the first true attempt within the industry at trying to meet the hearing needs of a very specific population.

Some additional “firsts” at Zenith (and perhaps for the industry) that Bob was responsible for included:

  • A first dealer meeting dedicated entirely to testing and fitting hearing aids
  • A company in-house hearing clinic to test and experiment with new ideas and products using hearing-impaired adults as subjects.
  • The development of a continual contact program with dealer offices to provide educational materials and to help explain new ideas and applications.
  • Bob developed a 20-unit training course for dealers, and incorporated the services of Aram Glorig, M.D. to review the content.  Many in audiology used these in their University training programs as well.
  • Another “first” was the collection of ideas relative to hearing aid fittings from the dealer population, and then distributing a complete file of the materials received to everyone who submitted an idea.  This made its way to the audiological community who used this information as a basis for hearing aid selection procedures they were developing.  One in particular that was widely used related to understanding and measuring tolerance threshold for output.
  • Bob established the recognition of audiological contribution to hearing aid and audiology meetings by his numerous presentations.

A major change occurred at Zenith when the hearing aid division of Zenith Radio Corp. was sold and evolved into a private hearing aid company, Zenitron.  Bob found the work environment not as conducive and was encouraged to contact Beltone, an established hearing aid company also located in Chicago.

In 1975, he became Director of Educational Services at Beltone Electronics, from which he eventually retired.  His job was similar to what he had done at Zenith, with a few minor changes.  A primary change was the development of an extensive series of visual training materials for the dealer organization, and a two-day dealer training session to be used in the field.  He wrote an informative 22-series colloquy covering various topics and these became an extension of the dealer training program.

During his more than 50 years in the hearing industry, Briskey published over 50 articles on hearing aid related topics, wrote several chapters for audiology texts, and gave more than 400 platform presentations in the field of hearing all over the world.

Random Remembrances

I was fortunate to have known Bob since 1964.  After I left University teaching and joined the hearing aid industry, Bob was a frequent contact – either through our frequent appearances on programs at various meetings, or through self-initiated contacts to “learn” from the industry audiology mentor.

It was Bob who first introduced me to Drs. James and Susan Jerger in an airport lunch area in some long-forgotten location many years ago.  He was a charter member of the American Audiology Society (later to become the American Auditory Society), and its first journal editor – “Hearing News.”

Bob counseled me wisely (on a car trip back to Knoxville from Gatlinberg, TN) on how to deal with the Executive Director of ASHA who had made it his personal goal to make certain that no person could maintain ASHA certification and be an audiologist if they worked for a hearing aid manufacturer.  In 1974 and 1975 we worked together, along with other colleagues, on a NHAS/HAIC{{1}}[[1]](National Hearing Aid Society and Hearing Aid Industry Conference – both previous names of what are now the International Hearing Society and Hearing Industry Association[[1]] Joint Education Committee to develop a draft curriculum model for both a traditional two-year college format and also a modular format for use by colleges implementing an “open university” concept of education for those who wanted a career in hearing aid dispensing (4-year program).  The Committee also provided an educational program geared to those who were currently engaged in selling and fitting hearing aids.  The latter was ready for presentation and voting to the membership at a NHAS meeting in Chicago in 1975 or 1976, but the Executive Director of NHAS refused to bring it up to the membership at the meeting.  So, the educational direction improvement suggested, died.

We were involved, along with the other audiology-trained industry individuals at that time, in an industry-sponsored education program for hearing aid dispensers.  And, after he retired, I solicited Bob to help me in the evaluation of those allowed to be licensed to dispense hearing aids in the State of Minnesota, where I held the contract.  This included both traditional dispensers and audiologists.

He was always helpful to those of us who formed the initial group of 7 audiology-trained individuals in the hearing aid industry.  We essentially had something to base our directions on – Bob’s lead, even though each of us went our own ways.  As Karl Strom wrote in his report on Bob’s passing,  “…he was a prominent force in hearing-related education from the 1950s through the 1990s, attending and speaking at most of the field’s important events during that period.” The interested reader is encouraged also to read Bob’s retrospective look at his career and important contributions to the discipline of hearing and hearing aids. Unfortunately, his promise of additional and important historical blogs will not be realized.

About Wayne Staab

Dr. Wayne Staab is an internationally recognized authority on hearing aids. As President of Dr. Wayne J. Staab and Associates, he is engaged in consulting, research, development, manufacturing, education, and marketing projects related to hearing. Interests away from business include fishing, hunting, hiking, mountain biking, golf, travel, tennis, softball, lecturing, sporting clays, 4-wheeling, archery, swimming, guitar, computers, and photography. Among other pursuits.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for the kind words about my father. Growing up, I knew he worked hard to support us but it wasn’t until this past week that I learned what an impression he made on everyone else. When he called home when I was 4 and I answered the phone and told Mom no one was there, he came straight home from the university, got me and disovered I had a perfect unilateral loss. I will never forget getting tested by all his students after that.

  2. I also met Bob at about the same time as Wayne and Jim did when I was a grad student at the University of Wisconsin. He knew so much about hearing aids. I was particularily intested in working with kids with profound hearing loss and loved the Vocalizer. It was a big step up for my kids. Only recently, because there was no choice, I gave up on body aids. They made a big difference in little kids because of the separation between the mic on the aid and the receiver in the ear. We could turn the aids up louder without feedback. Bob helped me understand a lot about that. Although I never worked for industry (except as an occasional consultant) I also got into trouble with the professional association when Angela Loavenbruck and I wrote a book called Hearing Aid Dispensing for Audiologists. It was something we just were not supposed to do. What Bob did took a lot of guts, especially being the first audiologist to do it.

  3. I think I first met Bob about the same time Wayne did. A group of us at the University of Wisconsin were conteplating dispensing then and, needless to say, Bob was extremely encouraging, but also warned us of the difficult road ahead. Immediately after I joined industry, Bob and I happened to find ourselves on a plane ride together, to where or from I don’t remember, and he asked me to take his place the next month to give a talk at a dealer meeting in Memphis. I was petrified at the prospect, for I had never done this before. Needless to say, he talked me out of my anxiety, and he spent the rest of the trip and in many phone calls later advising me how to construct a meaningful presentation. So he had a massive effect on my career, and I’ve always been grateful for his confidence in me. He was always a mentor, and always had the answer, for he had done it all long before the rest of us. I will remember him as a scholar first, and then as an uncompromising advocate for amplification, and finally, as a loyal and effective representative for his company. It is impossible to acknowledge the debt that audiology owes him, for he took the very first brave steps that led us out of the non-dispensing wilderness of early times, and into the autonomous profession of consequence we are today. Ave atque vale!

  4. Diane:

    It is sad that we seem to be losing these pioneers at an ever-accellerating pace. It was bound to happen at some time, and that time is now.

  5. Thanks for an interesting and informative look at the past. I wish our younger audiologists were more aware of our past and the many contributions that the “hearing aid dealers” ( now Hearing Instrument Specialists) made to dispensing.

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