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Transcript: Hallowell Davis, 1977

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This is the beginning of the oral history interview of Dr. Hallowell Davis.  Dr. Davis is the retired director of research at the Central Institute for the Deaf.  This is dated April 1977.

Dr. Davis was born in New York City on August 31, 1896, and was educated at Harvard University from which he received both his bachelor’s and his doctor of medicine degree in 1922.  In addition to these degrees, Dr. Davis has many honorary degrees, such as those from Colby College in 1954, Northwestern University in 1962, and Washington University in 1973.

Dr. Davis, after his graduation from Harvard, joined the Physiology department at that institution in 1923 and stayed there until 1946 when he went through all the steps from instructor to associate professor.  In 1942 and 1943 he was acting head of the department.  In 1946 he came to Washington University as research professor of Otolaryngology and associate professor and later professor of Physiology as well as being the director for research and the research associate in the Central Institute for the Deaf.  In 1965 he resigned these positions to become professor of Physiology emeritus.

He has had many honorary appointments, such as being appointed as a member of Division of Medical Sciences of the National Research Council, a position which he held from 1947 to 1953.  He was executive secretary of the Committee on Hearing and Bioacoustics of the Armed Forces and National Research Council from 1953 to 1959.  He was treasurer, from 1941 to 1948, and president, from 1958 to 1959, of the American Physiological Society; president of the Acoustical Society of America in 1953; and president of the American Electroencephalographic Society in 1949.  He is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

This year he has received the National Medal of Science in October 1976, presented to him by President Gerald Ford.  Dr. Davis has been on the editorial boards of the American Journal of Physiology, Psychosomatic Medicine, Journal of Neurophysiology, and Excerpta Medica.

Some of his awards include the Shambaugh Prize, 1953; the Beltone Award in 1966; the International Amplifon Award, and as I just said, the National Medal of Science.

His research interests have always been in the central nervous and auditory/physiology sector.  In audiology, psychoacoustics, electroencephalography, the electric response to audiometry.  He has developed machines to measure the hearing of young children which combines brain wave machines with a small computer to get the brain’s response to sound.  Earlier in his life he worked on the galvanometer and on a recording needle for electroencephalography to record brain waves.  He is said to have been the first American to study brain waves in normal and abnormal situations.

You would like a copy of the biographical information?

I would like it.  Overall it is perfectly OK.  It’s just the choice of words— There was some, just in the last bit.

I’ll see that you get it.

Little changes [that] I’d like to make.  I was commenting on some of the committees that were mentioned, they said “honorary,” I think.  I say that maybe “honorable” would do, but they are not sinecures.

I’m sure of that.  Some turned out to be quite a lot of work, as I read the biographical sketches.

I might want to put it in the Committee on Conservation of Hearing of the AAOO [American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology], because I put in a lot of work on that.  Or some of the— The criteria for the impairment/handicap compensation that I worked out almost single handedly – the rest of the committee bought it.

That’s what usually happens.  A good committee is one where there are 3 people – one who has to catch a plane and the other one who’s out ill at the moment.  That’s the best kind of committee and obviously that’s the one you’ve been on.

We’ll be very happy to type this up and send it along and to add anything that you wish.  Could you tell me some of the things about which we mentioned there.  For example, as I pointed out in the list of questions which I wanted to ask you about, what decided you to go to Harvard?  You were a Brooklyn boy, weren’t you?

My family was [from] eastern Massachusetts – Cambridge and West Medford – my father and mother respectively.  My father was a Harvard graduate and his father and brothers.  It was a family tradition and on my mother’s side equally a family tradition, since 1861 – my grandfather Hallowell.  My mother attended what later became Radcliffe, known as the Harvard Annex at the time, so there wasn’t any thought—

I thought you came from New York State.

I was born there, but the family moved back to Brookline when I was about 15 years old and I finished [my] schooling at the Country Day School for Boys at Boston and entered from there to Harvard.  There was one year unaccounted for after getting the M.D. in 1922.  I spent a year in Cambridge, England working with Lord Adrian in electrophysiology.  That was when I made my decision to go into electrophysiology.

What brought you to Lord Adrian’s laboratory?

You’ll find a good deal about that in the – because it’s exactly the matter of some of these decisions along the way.  You’ll notice the title is “The Crossroads, Pathways of Discovery,” and it’s the influence of the various individuals along the way.  Michael Faraday was the first one I mentioned.

You then were interested in going into chemistry?

I started to be a chemist, then a biological chemist.  That was why I went to medical school – to get more biological chemistry.  After getting my A.B., which was in 1918, I thought then that I would take only two years of medical school and then concentrate in chemistry, presumably getting a Ph.D.  The war situation strongly influenced my decision to go to medical school in the first place and to go on and complete my medical degree.

And you spent a year in France as an ambulance driver?

Not a year.  It was only a couple of months, somewhere in 1917.  A lot of us left college early in May and were given credit for the year’s work.  I came back in October and was able to pick up and finish with my class.

Since the United States went into World War I just about that time, how did they feel about your doing ambulance work rather than being in the armed forces?  Was there much hard feeling?

I was a conscientious objector and being a birthright member of the Society of Friends it was all perfectly legal if I chose to claim that status, which I did.  I resigned my membership in the Society of Friends shortly before World War II because I decided that the Nazi threat – I could not go along with complete non-resistance as I had in World War I.

[ed. note:  Brief comments follow on Jewish pacifism.]

You said that when you were in medical school that Cecil K. Drinker turned you toward physiology, but he was working in physiology of the blood, was he not?

He was working in what we might now call applied physiology.  It included lead poisoning, I remember.  He was more interested in respiration and in circulation – problems of ventilation and such.  He was a strong personality and I was attracted and very much interested.  Dr. Cannon was not there; I did not have him as a teacher.  He was in Europe and the department was being run by a committee of younger members.  Drinker was sort of a visiting lecturer.

How did you get interested in neurophysiology?

I shared a laboratory with Wallace Fenn, later one of the great American physiologists.  He had obtained his Ph.D. degree but he was not much ahead of me.  I went into his laboratory and worked on something related to what he was doing, which was the behavior of white blood cells, the phagocytic action.  This was the topic on which he had received his Ph.D. and it was the electric charge on white blood cells that I set out to try to measure to see if would help explain why they would take up some particles and reject others.

Is this what led to your first article, which was “The modification of the surface charge on glass by serum?”

Yes.  That is the output from that study.  The white blood cells got left out because I found that the protein in the serum was doing things to what I was trying to feed to the leukocytes.  That needed investigation first and it turned out to be something that could arrive at a fair answer in that length of time.

That seemed to be the only article you wrote on this particular subject and then you changed your—

I went to Cambridge, England before I began that particular job the second half of the senior year.  I was still undecided whether to go into neurology as a clinical specialty or into physiology and whether the physiology would be electrophysiology or the physiology of the blood, which was Lawrence Henderson’s particular area.  He had rather replaced Dr. Drinker as my guiding star and was the man who had arranged for me to get the Sheldon traveling fellowship that supported me in England.

And how did Dr. Forbes come into this?

He was the electrophysiologist at the Harvard medical school with some of the best equipment of the time, which was a [inaudible].  He was also a very close friend of my mother’s family.  I believe his father and my grandfather had been college roommates.  We always regarded one another as cousins, although there’s no blood relation.  It was Forbes who knew Adrian well and made contact with him for Adrian to receive me, technically as a candidate for a Ph.D. at Cambridge.  They had just instituted the Ph.D. course there at that time to catch a few American students after the war.  I knew perfectly well that I was not going to go all the way through with it – that it would be a one-year postgraduate study, but with perfectly straight faces we both went about signing me up for it.  I was Adrian’s first Ph.D. candidate.

Was his laboratory as well-equipped as Harvard’s?

There was striking similarity between the two laboratories – Alex Forbes’s and John Adrian’s – both utter confusions.  Lord Adrian, as nearly as I could make out, never threw anything away, certainly not any lantern slides or plates that had been used in publication.  A large table in the center of the laboratory had an accumulation, some of it dating from Keith Lucas, who was Adrian’s predecessor.  When I went back, which was 20-25 years later and visited the laboratory again, not only were one or two of my wiring diagrams still tacked to the wall in the corner where I had worked, but nothing had been taken off that table.  It had been piled higher, literally three feet deep.  Keith Lucas was one of the innovators in instrumentation.  He had been brought up as a telephone engineer – his father was closely connected.  He had brought some of the engineering ideas and principles and techniques into the laboratory.  He and Adrian worked with the capillary electrometer, but Adrian’s laboratory and Forbes’s continued with instrumental developments.

That brings up the whole question of instrumental development.  I am very much impressed as I go through your work and Forbes’s work and Erlanger and Bishop and the rest to see how much of the instrumentation which we take for granted today was developed by your group.  Was this the general pattern of development?

No.  It was the way to keep one jump ahead of the rest of the fellows.

All of you seemed to have a question you wish answered, and you cannot answer it until you have done some instrumentation development.  And because many of you had backgrounds in engineering, radio telemetry, radio compass for Forbes, you were able to develop the piece of equipment which allowed you to take the next step.  Am I right in this?

Yes.  We frequently would enlist the help of an instrument maker or a machinist – someone acquainted with rather advanced instrumental design to put it into shape.

Were you the people who knew what you wanted and would have somebody else build it or did you go and say “This is what we need to have.  What would you recommend would do what we need to have done?”

I had a pretty good idea of how I thought it could be done and participated in some of the initial trial steps – the “breadboard stage” as they sometimes call it.  Later on, here in St. Louis, I knew what I wanted to accomplish and told Jerry Cox who was our electrical engineer and acoustics expert at Central Institute for the Deaf.  He thought about it and worked on the problem.  It finally took about three years because it was an averaging computer that I wanted for dealing with very small brain potentials.  I had thought it would be an analog instrument, something like Dawson’s, only done all electrically instead of electromechanical.  Jerry decided that digital was the way to go – that was just being developed at that time – and did it in that way.  He gave me about four times as much instrument as I had asked for in the first place, it cost four times as much and took four times as long.

Did it do four times as much work?

I’m still using it.  Just before coming over here I was setting up a student who is going to do some special work in his last half year and making use of it, which is a pretty good record for electronic equipment.

Is this the same Jerry Cox who then went to the Biomedical Computer Center?

Yes.  That was a sad thing for me.  He got so interested in the computer problem that we lost him.

We lost him here completely.  He’s now on the main campus.

I know, but he’s been a very good friend and he and his group have been very helpful since.  We were able to keep Maynard Engebretson who actually did the detail of design and assembly of this computer that I’m talking about under Jerry Cox’s direction.  He is still part-time at the Central Institute for the Deaf.

If I may go back to the business of first seeing the problem and then seeing how you need the instruments, do you feel that this is the way science goes in general in any new field which science opens?  It first has to have people who see the problem and people who can work out the instrumentation which give the data to solve the problem?

This is what I think is usually called the “breakthrough”, the combination of the idea and the way to do it that has not been exploited before, which may call for the application of a different technical principle of refining or modifying in some way and then finding that it works.

I was also impressed that at this time the work on electrophysiology of nerves was going on simultaneously in so many countries.  You mentioned Adrian and Lucas in England.  There was Kato and Ishawara (?) in Japan.  There were a few in France and then there was a whole group here in the United States; the ones at Harvard, the ones here at Washington University.  I wonder if you think that today we have the same kind of international network of people working in the same field?

Yes, I’m acquainted with several such networks.  A small example is the International Electric Response Audiometry Study Group, which we organized just after the London International Audiology Congress, about 8 or 10 years ago.  We have met every two years since then.  I’m expecting to go to Jerusalem this summer for one of those meetings.  It has met in England and France and Austria and there was a closely related meeting that sort of inspired it in Copenhagen.  The next one in all probability will be in the United States.

You call those “study sections.”  How is that different from the meetings you used to go to – the axonologists, for example?

The axonologists are a little different – let’s come back to them.  This study group is an informal group in the sense that it has no written constitution and the only requirement for joining is to express interest and to pay $15.00 per year for a subscription to the newsletter which is the big interim activity every two months.  The newsletter has advance abstracts submitted by the members which are a great help in getting information around quickly.  Occasional critical articles or summaries of symposia in one country are in that way made available immediately to the others.  Memberships are about $300-$350 now and [there is] the biannual symposium.  We’ve never changed any officers except the original editor of the newsletter had had enough of it and passed it on from Vienna to Bordeaux.

Is it published in English?

The whole thing is a one-language organization, but we have active members of the council in Japan, Poland, Scandinavia, France, of course.  It’s chiefly European and I mentioned going to Jerusalem – it will be in Israel next.

And at these meetings what do you do?

We discuss in English. (Laughs)  We have papers, as many as have volunteered, for about 15-minute presentations.  Others are contrived in the sense of picking a topic for a roundtable discussion.  Someone gets three or four colleagues and they divide up the field and plan a presentation.  There are plenty of informal discussions both among the panel members and the audience – quite lively discussion.  There are no conflicting session meetings, so everybody attends everything.

And how is it different from the axonologists?

The axonologists are purely social – well almost.  At one time we started by having an open discussion of a previously announced topic, but in time it was getting too big and too popular.  It started out simply as a group of friends sitting together for a meal – lunch or dinner – during the meeting of the American Physiological Society.

And anybody could come?

No.  It was simply a personal group.  There were 12 originally.

Were you one of the 12?

Yes.  I believe you have a list of the signatures of quite a number of that group.  We met in Boston after the Society had been trimmed back down again – officially had been disbanded.  It was a matter of one after another – other close friends of members of the group – all being invited in and then the word getting around about it.  A tremendous prestige factor developed.  It finally just got out of hand and was beginning to compete with the stated program of the American Physiological Society and that was no way to go.

In the Department of Physiology at Harvard you went through all the steps from the very beginning until you became the acting head of the department.  I assume that you became Acting Head during the war because Dr. Forbes was somewhere else?

No.  This was well after the war.  Dr. Forbes was not interested in being head of the department anyway.  He had an appointment there and he did his research there but he always turned back all of his salary and then some to the running of the department – he was independently well-off and was able to indulge his dozen other hobbies.  [As to] your original question about the department:  It was Dr. Cannon’s health – [he] began to have serious difficulty with the skin disorder.  I’m not sure they ever had an exact diagnosis but they suspected it of being a long-term aftereffect from x-ray exposure in some of his early experimental work.  In any case, he finally retired and I was the senior member who was there and available.  I had been seriously considered as Cannon’s successor, but I didn’t make it.  I was not clinically-oriented enough for the faculty at that time.

Who did become head?

Gene Landis.

You stayed there for two more years and then came here.  What made you decide to come to Washington University?

It was C.I.D [Central Institute for the Deaf].  Washington University was an added attraction, but it was primarily C.I.D.  The contact with C.I.D. came through the war work centered at the psychoacoustic laboratory in Cambridge.  That was under Smitty Stevens’s direction.  I joined that laboratory after I’d completed the job that came to me through the National Defense Research Committee of finding something about the tolerance of humans to loud sound in the military context.  And then I wrapped that up adequately and took charge of the project at the psychoacoustic laboratory of the improvement of hearing aids for the benefit of disabled veterans.  That was a fairly extensive project.  I think we had eight of us working on it – some on the psychoacoustics and some on the electroacoustics.

In order to get on faster, since speed was very much emphasized during the war, we scoured the country for additional unused talent.  Such talent was found here in St. Louis by Clifford Morgan, who was technical aide to Harvey Fletcher, the chairman of our section of the committee.  I remember his coming back and telling me as head of that particular project that there was in St. Louis a very competent electroacoustic individual and a fellow running this institute for the deaf who was an able bright fellow and that maybe they could be recruited to do some of the experimental work related to the design of hearing aids.  Of course these people were Bud Harrison who established Technisonic Studios which was for some time located in the Central Institute building.  He had been the electronics man for Dr. Max Goldstein.  The other one, taking care of the operation of the school, was Dick Silverman.  Helen Lane also entered the picture as the psychologist – someone with knowledge of experimental design and statistics.  We enlisted them and I got them a subcontract to try to answer certain questions which I posed, and came out two or three times a year to discuss methods, review results, consider next steps, and so on.  We became very good friends and I got an idea of what the school was all about.

I was casting about for just what my next move would be because it was clear that neurophysiology/neurology had gone into a deep eclipse at Harvard.  It had been a golden age and I think this is mentioned with some of the names [which you have].  It was a very active, very eminent group in neurology that scattered before or during the war.  The circulatory-respiratory interest in medicine and the approach— They chose Landis as the White Knight who had been in medicine as well as in physiology and well-known for his experimental work.  My friends all seemed to have left and I just wondered where, given my choice, I could do what I had now decided I wanted to do, which was to continue the study of the auditory system from the neurophysiological point of view and to make some application.  I was interested in application to direct personal problems – the hearing aid was the thing at the time.

Was this interest in hearing aids part of the results of your own experiments on yourself where you lost some of your hearing?

No.  I have a rather severe high-tone hearing loss which I am convinced is congenital because we found it was there the first time I took my audiogram in starting the experiments with the loud noise.  There was a minor change at one particular frequency at about 15 decibels, which is a just-significant change that resulted from one of the severe exposures.

In your report in Acta Oto-Laryngologica of your work on noise trauma and deafness you reported that as a result of these experiments you did have a temporary hearing loss that stayed with you for several weeks then got better to a certain degree, and then stabilized.  Do you think that this was—

Well, this is mixing two things, really.  The temporary impairments that we produced were all virtually recovered, most of them within two days.  We never experimented a second time with the same subject until at least a week had elapsed and he was well back to normal.  The extreme exposure they took was – most of it was recovered in a couple of days.  In the particular part of the spectrum that was considerably slower and applies to the recovery of a narrow fraction of the whole spectrum and in a region where the hearing was already impaired, hearing not normal by any means at that frequency, it got a little worse – right at the edge of the cliff where the audiogram drops off – it chipped off another little bit.

You were telling me about yourself and why you decided to come here and I interrupted you.

Dick Silverman and I discussed the future of the hearing aid problem and such things as the fenestration operation that Theo Walsh was doing here.  There was no research department at the Central Institute, but he intimated that the Board of Managers was flirting with the idea of expanding the clinical services and establishing some research.  He and Allen and Bud Harrison had been doing this wartime research for a couple of years by that time, so the pattern was in their minds that here is something else that C.I.D. might do.  Max Goldstein had established a tradition earlier when he took in [Rafael] Lorente de No, who worked for two, three, four years, whatever it was, when Rockefeller Foundation supported him.  He was one who worked with Helen Graham and George Bishop and that whole crowd.  He was one of that group.  So, as I say, the idea of research was not new to C.I.D. and I decided that if C.I.D. was interested that I now felt sure that I could get financial support from the Office of Naval Research with which we were closely associated and which supported the psychoacoustic laboratory.  So I knew people who knew their way around and I was one of the first film (?) committee of advisors in physiological psychology – the peer review business.  I was aware of a big opening there for research in this area.  There was a lot more going on in vision and vibration, cutaneous – Frank Godard (?), that was pretty well represented.  [Inaudible], Glen Wever and his group at Princeton and our group were about the only ones who were really showing much of a profile in the auditory field.  Through conversations one thing led to another and we’ve always dated it from the time that I was finishing one of my visits to St. Louis.  Down at Union Station, and by the time of the second martini I said, “If you can persuade the Board of Managers, I’m willing to listen to a proposition,” because I’d decided that would give me a completely free hand to develop what I wanted to do and thought I could get the support for.  It worked out exactly that way.

I’m a little nonplused to find that so few people were working on auditory apparatus at that time.  I would think in view of both the military situation and the industrial situation that hearing loss would be of great importance.

Communication is of great importance – that’s where the interest had been.  The Bell Telephone Laboratory had great leaders there but there were others who were contributing also.  In industry the problem of noise didn’t emerge until several years later.  We had been worried during the war about the military situation, which is much worse – much more severe – than the industrial.

I look back on history in general and there must have been terrible trauma – auditory trauma – during all wars since we had gunpowder going off.  Certainly a lot of people lost their hearing as a result of this.  How is that nobody had investigated it up to that point?

During World War I there was some investigation.  Stacy Guild was the fellow who exposed guinea pigs to pistol shots and examined the ears histologically.  But they didn’t have the audiometer at that time; that was developed later [in] 1920.  Sound was not brought under control until the 1920s.  The only thing you could do was make a big noise and say how you made it, not measure it, and then cut them open and look under the microscope.  And sure enough, some injury was found.  And it was known clinically that certain industrial situations – the boilermakers – that’s one of the names of industrial hearing loss popularly known as “boilermakers’ deafness.”  And that was about it.

When you were investigating this during World War II were you not also interested in whether the airman could hear with his helmet on?

This was another problem.  As I say, I was given— The National Sense Research Committee as Harvey Fletcher pointed out, is set up exactly the wrong way – a matter of conflict of interest and so on.  The military had this question, “Can sound be used as a military weapon?  And if so, how do we do it and how do we defend against it?”  Fletcher was the research director of acoustics at the Bell Telephone Laboratories, the one in on the original discussion, and was assigned the business of getting the answer to the basic questions about generating and transmitting sound and its effect on humans.  He tagged me and Vern Knudsen as two others and Fletcher, Bell Laboratories, will take the generation of sound – sound sources.  Knudsen took the transmission of sound – how it travels in the atmosphere – and also the matter of ear defenders – ear plugs for protection.  I was given the matter of how much sound it takes to hurt a fellow and how.

This did not disturb your conscience as a member of the Society of Friends?

I had already resigned from the Society of Friends and I was very glad to do this as I felt as though I hadn’t done quite as much as I might have in World War I and I was a little old for anything more active.  They were very glad to have some way in which my special experience could be used – that I could do something that I knew perfectly well nobody else could do as well.  We did animal experiments and we developed the first systematic human exposures to measure loud sound and measuring the recovery, pushing it up and up until we felt we were getting pretty close to a danger limit, to where it was pretty clear that if you were going to hit a fellow with sound much stronger than that you were in a position to hit him with something a lot harder.  [It was] a very inefficient, wasteful idea as a possible weapon.  Hitler wouldn’t let our opposite numbers in Germany quit  on the job.  They were still working on it at the end of the war, but we had decided that it was a wasted effort.  We raised the limit of where we thought danger occurred by about 20 decibels, which is a big jump.  It meant that it was reasonable to expect men to operate in intense sound fields like the flight deck of the carriers.  I did a lot of work with the Navy on that problem.  The ear plugs worked and the combination of the ear plugs and knowing that the sound was not going to be fatal and would not impair performance.

You mentioned the aviators and their communication.  That’s where the rub came – the communication.  The performance of a job like getting a plane off the ground, well-rehearsed teamwork that could be done by visual signals – that was all right.  Communication in some of these noises turned out to be a very important problem.  That was where the psychoacoustic laboratory came in.  They tested first the ability to perform a lot of psychomotor tasks of one kind and another corresponding to the business of flying an airplane and making judgments and found that noise like that in the bomber cabins did not impair performance but it did make trouble for communications.  They immediately switched over to what was their big problem all through the war – improvement of communication in noise.

Do you think this had anything to do with the two airplanes that collided in Tenerife airbase last week?

I think it’s very likely something the Air Force was concerned about after the war – a sort of winding down on some of these kinds of research – and that is code words, vocabulary for communication when more than one language is involved.  They had it well worked out for English, French, Spanish languages – words corresponding to letters of the alphabet.  [ed. note:  Brief comments follow on Tenerife crash.]

We were talking about your work in psychoacoustics.  That led to industrial acoustics and the matter of compensation for hearing losses.  That also led to your work with the hearing aid.  Could you talk about either one of those?

The hearing aid job was fairly well rounded up at Harvard at the psychoacoustic laboratory and the reports that I authored which were soon declassified and generally available, are still regarded as the basic guidelines.  I got a request from one of the members of the team who has been at the Bell Telephone Laboratories [asking] did I have another copy?  The one copy that they had there was just falling apart.   It’s still in demand.

The development of the hearing aid got into matters of manufacture, selection of aids, enforcement of standards.  The Veterans Administration was particularly concerned and I did not get into the Veterans Administration activity.  I was acquainted with it but I did not follow the hearing aid problem as such.  I was interested when I first came out here in the effectiveness of the fenestration operation.  Dr. Walsh was one of the early fenestrators, an enthusiastic one and a very good one.

One of the first projects we established was to test audiometrically patients before and after – follow-up.  I had the idea, from the exposure to the work at the psychoacoustic laboratory, of using words, using speech, as the test material for such auditory testing.  Articulation testing as they called it, had been done before the war at the Bell Telephone Laboratories to test equipment and it was used very vigorously in that way at the psychoacoustic laboratory for that purpose.  The communications systems are more noise, less noise, what percentage of words can be correctly heard [words inaudible].  My notion was to use the same technique but simply regard the ear of the listener, which is impaired, as the equivalent of the communication system – the system which might be at fault.  I simply took over some of the word lists and so on and we knew we had to standardize them as it would depend on the talker as well as on the listener.  We developed the recorded speech test now known as the CID test standardized and recorded, made by the Technisonic Studios and now commercially available.

The first sort of rough trial that was made while I was in the move from Boston to St. Louis we used strictly on an experimental basis.  Dr. Walsh was delighted with the results of this form of testing, which appealed very much to the patients.  They thought this amounted to something practical, something worthwhile – the ability to understand words, not just a faint little musical tone that they can barely hear.  This was the beginning of speech audiometry, which is now one of the standard methods of the audiologist for overall assessment of how well a person hears.

Unlike the equipment which the Bell Telephone Company was testing, when you come to humans did you not come into the problem of psychosomatic hearing?  Did not you learn about the Sutherland report that 60 percent of the patients claimed benefits from the fenestration operation when objective tests showed that only about 40 percent of them had—?

As a matter of what constitutes a benefit, the happiness of the patient is a benefit.  It’s an illustration of the placebo effect.  The effectiveness of any new form of therapy where you make a test of effectiveness and where the subjective sensation – the comfort, freedom from pain, ability to get around and so on – you regularly count on 30 percent being improved by the placebo effect.  Over and over again, that number comes out.

And you still find it today?

You take the difference there and refer to the better figure and you get very close to 30 percent.

Has the fenestration operation been generally accepted now?

It’s accepted as a hopeful step in the history of the development of something better.  It is very rarely performed now as stapes surgery – stapedectomy – is replacing the faulty stapes with a substitute – nylon, plastic, Teflon; a variety of kind of substance.  Stapes surgery has completely replaced fenestration.  Not only does it seem to be fully as reliable but it can give you a measurably better result.  In most cases of otosclerosis you can expect to get right back to normal hearing, which is a rare accomplishment when something is at fault, to be able to get it all the way back.

In order to test anything you have to have a standard from which you vary.  I notice you talk about the zero reference point.  Did you have any difficulty getting this accepted?  It seems to me there were several articles on that.

It took about 3 or 4 years and a heck of a lot of writing.  Some of the papers I’ve written have recounted this.  It was a very unfortunate situation that American audiometers got standardized and it turned out later to be a faulty reference.  Zero was derived from the results of the U.S. Public Health survey by John Beasley in the middle 1930s – 1936 or thereabouts.  There’s lots written about it.  This was a survey of the population done, not under strict laboratory conditions, but nevertheless well-done, with mobile sound-treated booths and good audiometers made by the Bell Telephone Co.

After the war the British decided to do a job of standardizing audiometers.  It had been in the hands of the manufacturers to get what they found to be experimentally normal hearing, but to get it so it didn’t have to be done over again biologically with the variations involved but to bring it to strictly physical measurements of sound, pressure and a properly designed standard construction coupler.  The British study came out about 10 db different from the American standard.  That’s pretty close to what the Europeans had been working on anyway and, as a matter of fact, very close to the standard of the original Bell Telephone Co.’s first two-way audiometer.  They had done a good job in determining normal threshold of hearing.

The original Bell Telephone calibrations, the British study and other studies that had been done, something like a dozen studies in six or seven different countries including the USSR – the American standard that was way out of line with all of the others.  We never have been able to find out just what went wrong in the American standardization.  Part of it was that the other studies, most of them, have been laboratory studies.

The most interesting comparison [was] done by [Aram] Glorig and his group at the Wisconsin State fair in two successive years.  The first year they had volunteers come in for testing their hearing.  They tested them somewhat casually.  It was hearing protection – the noise problem – that was really their interest.  The ones who had not been exposed much to noise turned out turned out substantially like the American standard.  But when they did it again the next year, treating them more as the subjects were treated in the British studies and our more carefully done studies – a little of the red carpet – they immediately got something like the British.  Their second-round data was one of several studies that were combined to an international standard.  The difficulty was to sell it in the USA because we were the ones who had to— It corresponded to going metric and doing it all of a sudden.  Industry was terrified.  Their legal departments [said] “Don’t let this happen.  Your records will be all broken, so to speak.  But even more so, it will make the amount of hearing loss, that is, the amount of deviation from normal, look bigger.  Referees and courts will therefore award larger damages or insurance will cost more.”  They blocked a standards meeting for several years.  I’m told that my maneuver was referred to as “tricky Hallowell’s end run.”

Do tell us how you did it.

By getting some of the important groups to start using the new standards.  And getting across gradually by repeated talkings and writings that the definition of what it is that gets the payoff in the compensation rules is actually just the same strength of sound as it was to begin with.  It’s simply got a different number on it.  And that the payoff does not relate to how far it is from that average “zero” but how much trouble it causes.  It’s the notion of the handicap that you pay off on and not on the decibels of the audiometric scale.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology/Otolaryngology, the Committee on Conservation of Hearing, which I belong to, was the first organized professional group to endorse it.  The American Otological went along at almost the same time.  Gordon Hoople was very helpful in convincing them that it was the thing to do and the way of the future.  [We succeeded in] getting the editors of the journals to require that hearing losses be expressed on the international standard even though the old value might be put in parentheses, the international value had to appear and had to be designated.  Then the American Speech and Hearing Association, that’s the audiologists, went along with us.  So that really got it into use.  Finally we got sort of quasi-legal acceptance of the principles in California and here in Missouri about the equivalence of the two ways of measuring.  By the time we got it that far, the industrial [sector] had calmed down a bit from the fears that the lawyers had blown up in them and went along with it.

Your present work in testing hearing in very young children in a way comes full circle to your first work.  I wonder if you’d like to talk a little bit about that.

Well, it does and I’m rather surprised the way it has done so.  When we first verified the reality of the electroencephalogram – the brain waves, the alpha rhythm and so on, I took time out from the study of the ear as such for about four years.  I had a student – Joe Hawkins was getting his Ph.D. and he kept the auditory traditional laboratory going.  But I had switched my attention to the brain waves.  I comforted myself with the thought that what I’m now studying is a system as a whole and I started to get the input to the system.  Now it would be a darn good idea to run around and look at the other end to see if we could see something in the way of output.  When it became apparent that the brain did have spontaneous electric output, that was really something to look at.  Both potentials had been what the discoverer of electrical activity of the brain, Richard Caton in animals back in 1875 [had studied].  He was looking for the electrical output from the brain – both potentials – and he found them.  But he found the spontaneous activity as well and had much more acclaim for that – the serendipity of explaining the rather obvious expected reality of the response was there.

It has worked out in just this way that the technique and the phenomenon that picked up from the electroencephalogram do turn out to be useful for the task that I started on deliberately in 1957 – I date it from then because that’s when I wound up one research project in the physiology laboratory with Dr. [Donald H.] Eldredge.  I was about to start off getting back toward my earlier chemical interests using chemical manipulations in the ear and studying the electrical output, which has all been done since.  I think I made a good choice in staying away from that one and turning to the other.  I remembered my serendipity, so to speak, at the Loomis Laboratory in Tuxedo Park when my wife noticed in our control records studying responses to sound in sleep – disturbance of the EEG in sleep – [that] some of the waking records showed very small but nevertheless, similar when they did appear, on effects and off effects.  She dug out from miles of records the best examples we could find and we wrote the paper.  She recognized and got the material out of the record and I drew the pictures and wrote the paper.

That’s very nice, if she doesn’t mind.  I take it she’s also an electroencephalogists—

She was one of the EEG’ers.  She died in 1942.  She assisted me in the laboratory during the early EEG days just as Erna Gibbs assisted Fred Gibbs.  It was a Gibbs, Gibbs Davis, Davis team on the first epilepsy paper.

[ed note: Short period of conversation with Dr. Brodman follows about an upcoming lecture Dr. Davis plans to give in Amsterdam.  He mentions a blue-bound monograph and a separate reprint which he has shown or given to her.]

In 1957 I decided that this would be a better bet because I remembered what we had seen at Tuxedo Park – the 1939 paper.  And I remembered seeing Dawson’s electromechanical averaging computer in London about 1952.  In 1957 the Dutch engineer-audiologist, Spoor spent two or three months with us here and I set him to try photographic averaging of these things.  I superimposed traces on top of the oscilloscope.  That showed it was not just exceptionally, as it had been at Tuxedo Park, but everyone he tried it on; he got recognizable responses that were similar from one to another and detectable down to very low levels.  In other words, it was immediately obvious to me that if we used a decent average or something as good as Dawson’s, it would be duck soup and it was.  But Jerry Cox got bemused with his computers and that slowed us down getting into business.

Back in 1926 you said the outstanding developments in the last decade in the study of nerve impulse had been associated, for the most part, with improvements in technical procedures.  But you’ve just indicated now that even with the improvement in technical procedures you have to have the prepared mind to see what you’re getting out of that.  It isn’t just the technical procedure.

Yes.  The technical procedure itself has got to be mated with a problem that is otherwise trackable also; a problem that is ready to be solved.

Now you are working with very small children.

Very small responses, too.  The responses we are now using are as small as were first described in humans in 1970, I believe it was, in Science.  I suppose those are real but they never can be any use – they’re so damn small – down to a tenth of a microvolt level.  It’s harder to do with them.  You have to add up a lot more of them – add up 2000 is routine at the hospital now.  You can feed them in pretty fast so it only takes two or two and a half minutes to add up enough so that it’s recognizable if you have the child completely relaxed, either deep natural sleep or sedation.

Have you found anything surprising in the results you’ve gotten?  Are there more children with hearing loss than you expected, for example, or is it a different kind of hearing loss – high tones, low tones?

That’s not really the problem that we look at.  It’s a difficult and somewhat expensive procedure so it’s not a screening procedure.  It’s not the sort of thing you apply to the [general] population.  It’s the court of final appeal and it is worth doing only when the child cannot be tested satisfactorily by any cheaper, more conventional method.  That means that it’s particularly useful for the children under 3 years of age and for the hyperactive or emotionally disturbed, otherwise uncooperative children.  It’s important doing the job – paying the money – because the correct management of those at this age who are hearing-impaired makes a tremendous difference in the development of their language.  If we can get amplification on and otherwise handle them so that they get whatever residue there may be for all it’s worth, but to get them to begin to just naturally learn lip reading and the idea of communication by something that’s around the face.

This is what Audrey Simmons-Martin has developed so beautifully at Central Institute – the parent/infant program as we call it – getting these young children, [and] getting the parents to bring the child in once a week if it’s under two or thereabouts – and be taught how to handle the child at home, to keep the hearing aid working and begin developing the natural learning of speech reading, lip reading, whatever you want to call it, and communication in general.  The improvement – they talk so much better by the time they get older and they get them in the school.  [There is] a fluency, a flow, to their talk that those that have been allowed to go for four, five, six years before trying to teach them speech – they never acquire it.  This was the objective.  The motivation was to decide definitely whether a child needed a hearing aid and how much of a hearing aid so you could really put the pressure on for this kind of intensive training.

How long have you been working with these children?  Do you have a large enough span of ages so you can tell what the results are when they get into school?  Or haven’t they gotten to school yet?

They have now been coming through into the school and you should get Dr. Simmons-Martin in and also see some of the videotapes of their performance and development in the parent/infant program and then as we get them later in the school.

I would like to talk about two other small parts of your work.  One of them has to do with your interest in the transmission of scientific information and the other has to do with your interest in population.  How did you get involved in either or both of these.

“Transmission of information” – I’m not sure what you’re referring to.

I’m referring particularly to your paper for the physiologists on the organization and communication of scientific communication.

I’d forgotten that paper, but glancing over it I see it’s a real good one.  (Laughter)  I still believe those things.

You said, “Several times, I myself have happily but incidentally avoided detailed reading of bulky literature by moving into a new area.”

I’m still doing it.  I’ve moved from one part of the evoked responses into another.  Brain stem responses were first described in 1970.  I’ve still got three or four years before it gets too crowded.

I particularly like your recommendation that they share the writing of reviews and that the reviews be selective, not just a pile of IBM cards.  I was impressed by the fact that you wrote this great review in Physiological Review in 1926 when you were just four years out of medical school.  That is certainly a very unusual record.  How did you get to know so much in such a short period of time?

[By] working with Adrian and Forbes.  Things happened about that time.  That was just when the first chemical studies on nerve metabolism – oxygen consumption, carbon dioxide output, heat output – they’d just been made.  It was from friends and teachers – George H. Parker was my teacher in zoology, Alex Forbes, of course, Adrian, Ralph Gerard – well, it was just what me and my friends were doing.

You knew the best people.

I was very lucky that way.  But looking back, I have rather marveled at being given the chance to do it.  I’m not sure who it was, whether it was Alex Forbes or Alfred Redfield or possibly Walter Cannon that recommended that I had the stuff and could write reasonably well.  Another bit, published but not recognized today:  I’ll pass the word to you about the White House Conference on Child Health and Development.  This was Hoover’s conference in 1929, sort of a [unintelligible word] survey of child health and development, medical care and so on.  One section of that, Growth and Development, headed by Kenneth Blackfan, who is Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital, and [during] the preparatory period of the year or more the committee to survey what was happening in some aspects of growth and development.  I believe it was Edwin Cohn that told Kenneth Blackfan, I guess on this basis of this review that you referred to, that I could do a good editing, summarizing job, and I was given that job.  My name does not appear anywhere in the volumes [however], I was the editor of that section.  Somebody else was secretary and Kenneth was chairman.  What I did do was to ghost write the speech which he presented to the general convention.

There are so many other questions which I would like to ask you.  Would it be too much to have you come back?

Population – right now we should come back to because I’ve been concerned about this for a long time.  Only just now does there seem to be anything like a reasonable amount of attention being given to it.  [ed. note: short discussion about Nu Sigma Nu presidential address]  This is one that was not published.  It was when I talked at the national convention of Nu Sigma Nu, one of the medical fraternities.  I was national president for several years.  Upon retiring [I gave] a presidential talk there and it included a look at the population and the energy problem.  That was 1953 or thereabouts.

You were prophetic in your discussion about the difficulties with the have and have-not countries.  We haven’t gotten around to asking you a great many questions.

[ed. note: discussion about preparing this first interview for review by Dr. Davis.]

I’ll be very glad to come down for an hour or so.


PART II - April 28, 1977

[ed. note: preliminary discussion and greeting of Dr. Davis]

I’ve made a list of the people you mentioned on the tape last time and you may want to look those over to see if you’ve left out anyone who should be mentioned.  [General discussion of spelling of names follows.]  Last time you were beginning to talk about your present work and then I was going to ask you some questions about subjects which are not really central to your work, such as population and pollution control and then what you think the future work will be.  Those are the three main topics which I wonder if you would talk about today.  You had mentioned in your last talk about the averaging computer technique which you say in one of your publications, “Principles of electric response audiometry” – you mentioned that this was a great breakthrough that came in after 1972.  You mentioned Yoshisoma, Feinmesser, Aaron and LeBurt.  I wonder if you’d tell us a little bit about the averaging computer and how it has changed things.

The idea of averaging in order to detect a repeated signal in the presence of noise is an old one.  We actually used a form of it back in the 1930s to detect the cochlear microphonic or the regular discharge of nerve impulses in the auditory nerve by simply triggering the cathode ray oscilloscope in step with, in phase with, a continuing pure tone or to the stimulus that evoked the action potential.  The sweeps rapidly, one after another, are fused by the eye.  There’s enough persistence in the eye and it can be given a longer persistence through setting up types of screen on the oscilloscope.  In this way we get effectively perhaps half a dozen, perhaps 20-25, repetitions, always in the same position, same form, on the screen, while the background noise is random and simply averages to a blurry baseline.  This is simply done visually.

The same kind of thing can be done photographically, repeating over and over again.  We actually did that at CID a bit later.  Spoor did that as a trial to see if it was worthwhile developing an electronic device – to make sure the phenomenon was really there and robust – and it was.  The advance came with the introduction of electronics – a computer that could add these things up in the memory and add not 20 or 40 but 1000 or 2000 or as many as might be needed, which is quite beyond anything that can be achieved just with the oscilloscope or photography or superimposing tracings – that was another old trick.  It was the ability to add a much greater number that allows a much greater improvement in the signal to noise ratio, digging smaller signals out of the mud.  And that was what was needed.

I’m not sure that I understand what you mean when you say you could see it by the naked eye or photographically.  What were you seeing?

A wave form.  The cochlear microphonic in response to a pure tone is a sinusoid.

And what were you looking at?

The screen of the oscilloscope.  I could see the sinusoid carrying the noise level along with it or emerging from it.

And the next step was for you to put a photographic camera there so that you could make a copy of it?

The maneuver that Spoor used of repeated photographs of isolated but similar events, we had to use because the things we were looking at then – the potential from the brain, the vertex potential, has a very long recovery period.  You have to wait several seconds in order to get an approximately full-sized one again.  So we can’t do it by simple opticals – visual fusion.  You have to fix the image of each one on the photographic film.  But they can be superimposed and the effect is not quite the same as what happens with the adding of the responses in the computer, but effectively it improves the signal to noise ratio.

And then from all these various superimposed wave nodes you could get an average one which is the ideal, I suppose of all of the—

The average is a representation.  We won’t argue about ideals.  (Laughter)

What the computer did was allow you to do it more efficiently because you could get greater numbers?

Greater numbers and add them up indefinitely.

The theory, you say, had been worked out earlier?

Well, a simple form of it was actually familiar previously – to intensify the particular thing that is repeating over and over again while the background is diffused.  But it’s a big step to be able to actually add the responses so they get bigger in amplitude, not just more intense on the photographic film.

So it really adds one on top of the other.  If I remember correctly from our last discussion, this is what you are using with children now.  Is that correct?

Yes, exactly – at the St. Louis Children’s Hospital.  It’s a commercial instrument that’s based on these same principles.

Using the digital computer that Jerry Cox had devised or using a different one?

Well, simply general state of the art.  Details have varied considerably; the introduction of the transistor, of course, made possible the putting together of many circuits that was quite impossible with vacuum tubes.  Space, amount of heat generated – we won’t go into all that.

Is anybody else working with children in the way you are doing at Children’s Hospital, Dr. Davis?

Yes.  There are now quite a number of other clinics – otological or some pediatric, perhaps audiological— There’s a good deal of interest and activity not only in the U.S.A. and Canada but in Europe.  There’s been rather more interest in Europe than in the U.S.A. for quite a while but things are evening up now.

Why do you think the Europeans became more interested in it than the Americans?

That gets us into the whole relation of audiology to laryngology and the place of research and the necessity for it and getting professorships in the European universities.  It would take us a long time to go into all that.  But the medically-oriented research – and much earlier the European otolaryngologists frequently had as a member of their staff a physicist.  I suppose one of the early ones was Dean [name is unintelligible] [who] took on Scott Rieger as audiologist [and] who was one of the first to do that kind of thing – make that kind of arrangement – in the U.S.A.

I’m a little surprised to hear you say that the Europeans went in more for experimentation and research than the Americans.  After World War II the American government poured so much money into research that the usual complaint is that American research has—

This is a tradition from way back.  At the beginning of century in Europe, the length of time that a candidate for the professorship would work for his advanced degree – our Ph.D. would take us three years, they’d take six or seven for the corresponding work.

On the other hand, this work that you’re now doing with children that we’re describing is post-war material and I would have thought that the Americans would be equally—

I’m speaking of the tradition, and otolaryngology simply wasn’t there during our middle era between the wars.  There was modification of requirements for residency introduced after World War II that got otolaryngology back up on a par with some of the other medical specialties.

The groups that are now working with testing hearing in children and using this averaging technique in a computer – are they doing it mostly as a research project or has it now gotten into the ordinary examination of a child?

I’m afraid it has not really got free of necessary support from research.  To have it another way – of its being operated anywhere as a financially self-supporting operation.  A lot of audiology is in that same state – the notion that an audiology clinic has to have a Ph.D. to run it.  That means that he’s expected to do research, and that means to get funds for research.  All of this was fine until a few years ago when the expansion and pouring money and developing medical research came to an end or at least it plateaued.

You mentioned that in your report in 1974 to the Society for Neurosciences when they were having a discussion in honor of Ralph Waldo Gerard.  I want to come back to that if I may.  But in this new method that you’re using at the Children’s Hospital, is this routine for examining children or is it done only under very special circumstances and if the latter, what are the circumstances?

It’s a special, rather complicated, relatively expensive form of hearing test that is justified only when other, simpler methods won’t work – do not give a clear result.  That means that children who are too young to cooperate in the conventional audiometry, or too hyperactive or emotionally disturbed, mentally retarded – these are some of the conditions that make conventional testing impossible or at least not giving consistent, reliable results.  The children should be thoroughly screened and an attempt made to do it the regular way first, the ears examined from the otological point of view to make sure there are no infections – something that may be temporary, that can be treated and cleared up.  But we do have it available as one of the services of the hearing clinic at Central Institute for the Deaf.

You say it’s complicated and expensive.  In what way is it complicated and why is it so expensive?

Because it requires a computer and associated equipment that controls the stimulus.  But the integrated unit that we buy – that was a $20,000 investment.  Then the place to do it that is sufficiently sound-proofed and electrically shielded – not always easy in a hospital – that’s a considerable additional investment.  That’s the capital investment.  Then it takes two at least, although as a routine there are three of us that work together – one to take care of the child, who has to be sedated and under constant surveillance while sedated; putting on electrodes, if necessary holding the earphones in place.  One or two to operate the instrument and decide on the stimuli and interpret the results as they go along.

Do you think that this could be made less complicated?

That’s part of our research – to extend its range as far as we can, a matter of getting useful information and making it reliable, simplifying it, getting the procedure down to the most efficient way of gathering the information, establishing clear criteria so judgments are not so difficult to make.

What other research do you think is going on in the field now that you think is very exciting and has hope for the future?

The particular field of using these averaged responses has applications in neurology as well as problems of hearing.  Lesions in the brain stem – it provides another way of getting information that may be quite a useful adjunct for neurological diagnosis.  There’s almost equal interest among neurologists as there is among the audiologists.  We’re using it for the problem of the deaf child.  Then there are these neurological applications and the particular application to otoneurology – between otology and neurology.  The differential diagnosis of an acoustic neuroma as opposed to something that is just in the ear like Ménière’s disease.  That’s a difficult but very important differential diagnosis.

Is anybody here working on that or people in other parts of the country?  Are you working on it?

Dr. Coben (?) in the Department of Neurology is working on the neurological aspect.  David Crowley is working with him.  The neurologists are using visual stimulation as well as auditory.  It may be that the electrical stimulation of nerves will be added to that.  They’re appropriate for that purpose.

It seems to me that you’re proving the old saw that a really good piece of research widens out and becomes useful in many different fields and provides questions—

Yes it may, in raising questions, and the study of those questions opens up things that might have been a long time coming otherwise.

In your talk about Dr. Gerard you talked about some future work which you thought should be done.  You talked about the physical chemical neurological substrate of memory, the mind-body problem and what you very amusingly called “What are the wild waves saying?”  Could you tell us a little bit about those?

Very little – that’s why they’re the problems of the future.  If we could find the neurological/physical/chemical substrate of memory that would be the great breakthrough that they’ve been working toward as a clearly-considered goal [for] many neurophysiologists. The neurosciences program – I believe they can find passages in the early statements and discussions there.  That was avowedly a frontal attack on the problem of memory.  They haven’t talked so much about it lately.

They’ve come up against a blank wall?

Not completely blank but [they’ve] seemed to come to the limit of available techniques.

Do you think that they will find that any one of these is important or that it’s a mixture of the physical, chemical and neurological?

At the level where the secrets seem to be you can’t distinguish.  You’re getting down to a physical-chemical-molecular level in neurological structure.

Who besides Ethel Schmidt is working on that now?

Well, I can’t run through the whole roster of neurophysiologists now.  It’s generally acknowledged that this is the great problem; that if we could crack that one so many other things would come right along with it automatically, you might say.

When you talked about the mind-body problem you said that it was a subject that people didn’t like to discuss; that they thought that mind was one thing and body was another thing, and that you felt differently.  Do you still feel that [way]?

There are real phenomena, psychological as well as phenomena that are physiological.  As long as you stay clearly in one realm of discourse you can talk scientifically about the subjective phenomena – that’s a branch of psychology – sensation and many other aspects.  The difficulty comes when you begin trying to explain the phenomena of experimental psychology in terms of neurophysiology, anatomy and so on.

Sometimes a great deal of insight can be gained by studying the limitations of the sense organs, for example.  The constraints that they put on input to the central nervous system, the material from which the central nervous system builds up its memories.  And the memories have the two aspects, that is, the unknown physical-chemical basis that we would like to find, [and] then there’s the psychological – things that can be demonstrated by procedures of repeated trials: recall, identifications and so on.  There’s a vast amount of psychological work on memory, that is, the laws  of memory studied scientifically as a psychological phenomenon.

[ed. note:  Commentary from Dr. Brodman follows regarding antipathy of serious science toward mind-body research]

Yes.  There’s so much philosophical confusion and nonsense and I think it got contaminated by theology as well.  It became such a metaphysical mess that psychology particularly, in order to gain respectability as a science, simply refused to touch it.  Something creeping back in, so to speak.

What do you think the “wild waves” are saying?

The “wild waves” being the brain waves – the spontaneous electrical activity that we can record through the skull.  I think they represent the housekeeping processes that are going on in the brain, the continual adjustments – the continual flow of activity between one part and another.  They are modified according to the physiological state of activation.  The clearest example is the difference between the waking and the sleeping.  I won’t go into the technical details – that’s not the point.  Put another way, the effort to find in the brain waves some electrical signals that relate to sensation or thought, I think that’s an impossible expectation.  The neural patterns involved are going to be so complicated and dispersed in place and time and orientation that it’s not going to add up in a way that it’s feasible to detect them.  Although I do believe that sensation, thought and so have a substrate in neurophysiological activity of nerve impulses, potentials, chemical transmitters and so on.  But things that we see, I think, are related to much broader generalized activity than keeping the brain organized and going as a going concern.

More and more we find that the normal resting state of the tissue is not no activity but a steady activity at a moderate level.  It may be that the reason that we need sleep is because waking, with more of this steady activity that is going on all the time, that the process of being awake and alert, of staying right side up, requires expenditure of chemical energy and asleep things go into a lower level of activity; rates of activity slow down.

Perhaps some of the circuits may stop but I think it’s probably a matter of rate rather than complete on or off, and that it’s a reflection of this different level of activation that we’re looking at in the brain waves.  There may be a reflection of regulation in there – that’s the idea I express in this particular article that you referred to.  Regulatory feedbacks keeping nervous tissue active but not overactive.  Anything as delicate as that requires a regulatory mechanism.  I suspect that it is that in some way that we see at work.

And you think of brain waves as the governor of the activities of the brain and the rest of the neurological system?

Governor in the sense that they regulate like a thermostat but not governor in the sense of the fellow that sets the thermostat.

It’s interesting to me to see how the same problem has been examined in different ways over the years.  [ed. note: Dr. Brodman mentions several previous brain researchers.]  It’s extremely interesting now to hear you talk of the wave impulse as being the governor of the rest of the body.

It’s that traffic that generates the changes in potential, yes.

Do you think that there is anything in the brain that sets the thermostat from the outside impulses or is that still unknown?

When someone is wakened up by an external stimulus, this is a case of changing the setting as a result of external input.  Our own will and maybe unconscious emotions can generate states of further heightened activity or [unintelligible word].  I think there’s now some pretty good evidence that transcendental meditation can produce, not every time but in a good many of the meditators, some change in the background activity and the occasional appearance of different rhythm.

Is this going back to the mind-body problem?

This is one way in which the effort of the will [is] modifying the physiological activity.  I think we’ve been living with a great deal of this kind of thing in psychosomatic medicine for a long time while only half recognizing it.

[ed. note: short discussion of Platonic dialogues and mind-body connection.]

The last subject which I would like to ask you about is what you feel is the future for such societal changes as are going on in population and pollution.  You seemed to be worried about it long before other people were, and you talked about the economic and political structures weakening as a result of excess population or pollution and that there is nothing but conflict or enforced domination in the future.

It’s a very sobering thought and terrifying and the question is what the chances are that civilized man will prove to be civilized enough to find a better way.  I think the likeliest way is the totalitarian state but it might be utter destruction through competition of nuclear warfare.  I see the best hope in world order through law, the best effort in that direction at the present time being the United Nations, but they need a great strengthening or something superimposed on it with real power and authority involving yielding of sovereignty by nations.  And that’s going to be difficult.  I’m a member of the World Federalist organization and was at the annual meeting just last week.  [Unintelligible words] my ideal hope.

[ed. note: Dr. Brodman speaks here about her recent travels in Southeast Asia and how all the former democracies she visited are now ruled by totalitarian governments.]

I’m afraid democracy may have been a temporary luxury that we could afford when we had unlimited resources and space.

Both India and Pakistan seem to be revolting against the excesses of the dictatorship.  Do you think that shows any future hope?

I don’t know just how grim the negatives may be – that this is some of the Malthusian controls beginning to work.

The other thing has to do with the pollution and population control.  I don’t see any large-scale change in population dynamics.  Do you see any changes that you think will change the picture of the population problem?

I think that there will be changes in a favorable direction, that is, toward reduction in increase of population in most parts of the world.  But I don’t think it’s going to be enough to avoid the crises.  It’ll slow things down – these exponential curves that have been going up and up, obviously can’t continue that way.  I think we’ll see them bend over gracefully, but not sharply enough.  I’ve been watching the numbers as the population matured and that’s a pretty clear overall picture.

I was interested in the report which the CIA made to President Carter just recently on the possibility of our oil and other energy resources drying up, in which they said if this happens we may expect to have armed conflict.

This is one of the first places I’ve seen this stated in an official document.  This has been my conviction for many years.

Can you think of anything that could be done to at least put it off for some time if not do away with it completely?

I suppose the best single thing that is perhaps within reach is a better universal contraceptive.  In other words, a technique that is simple enough, effective enough, cheap enough so that it could be employed in some countries.  India has made a try, China is moving in that direction.  There are a lot of people involved when you take those [countries].

If you could get a contraceptive which you could use just once.

One shot or an annual shot – something like that.  This, I think is not far in the future.  I think that’s the most likely important next step.

How do you get around people’s view that this is genocide?

It would have to be that they recognize the problem internally.  That means you have to be a little strict about all-out assistance by simply pouring resources in.

Who is pouring resources into what?

Feeding the hungry everywhere just because they’re hungry.

That’s not a very popular view.

No, it is not.  It leads to [the] requirement of modification of inborn habits of thought.  People are going to have to grow up with the idea, at least one of the ideas that they carry in mind.  It will not be old people changing their views on that.

I would think also it would require a lot of changes in the external world, such as assurance that the death rate is going to stay low so that if you only have two children that you will have two children; economic changes so that if you don’t have children somebody will take care of you; changes in working conditions so that your children aren’t thought of as extra hands in your fields and factories.

Again, you’ll have to have people grow up with these ideas, institutions last long enough so that it’ll be convincing, meaning that it’s the way it was when I was young.

The other thing that you suggested which is even less acceptable to many people is the non-egalitarian theory that not everybody is equal and that not everybody can be able to learn and to lead.  How do you see the future in this?

I think that people are going to get somewhat more realistic about it.  I think it’s already recognized that the mentally retarded are not equally competent for jobs of responsibility and leadership as the average person.  Also, some people show that they can do certain things and they are elected to office and so on and boards of managers and run operations and so on.  It’s perfectly clear that people’s abilities are not equal.  Where the difficulty comes in is how you determine this in advance – who is likely to be – and even more so, how much of it is hereditary.  That gets into the really touchy, emotional area.  As a biologist I’m very much stronger on biological, inborn differences and hereditary differences, probabilities of one kind and another.

The English, as you probably realize, a few years ago tried to test every child at eleven years old and then decide whether he would be able to go into college or university or whether he should be in a school-leaving group.

Yes.  I think France has been doing virtually the same thing for a long time.

It got very bad publicity and I think they have decided to widen it and not be quite so aggressive about it.

The moral is democracy insures mediocrity.  (Laughter)

[ed. note: Dr. Brodman mentions being called for jury duty, and the types of people who are chosen to serve on juries.]

As your comments point out, you and Dr. Skinner have some ideas in common – the psychologist, Dr. B. F. Skinner.

Yes.  He’s an old friend.

What do you think of his ideas about the ways to influence people?

I’ve heard him talk a couple of times in the last 10 years; I have not read very much directly of what he’s written.  If you would be more specific about particular ideas of his I might be able to give you an answer.

His latest books have as their thesis that beginning with children one should mold people to whatever society needs and not let them grow in all directions.

I think that’s a good idea if you know what the mold should be that society really needs.

Yes.  That, of course, is one of the arguments against it – who is going to decide.

That certainly is what the Russians and the Chinese are trying to do.

[ed. note: Discussion of Pavlov’s philosophy and its application in Russia.]

This brings us to the last problem, which is the government.  You mentioned one part of it when you said democracy is a luxury which the human race may no longer be able to afford.  You also mentioned that the government is cutting down on research.  What do you feel is the future of the government in the United States and in its relation to scientific research?

There’s bound to be reliance on government financial support.  I think it’s pretty clear that the government is getting enough of what used to be free-floating available capital that turned up as philanthropy and if we’re going to have research that it has got to be financed in major part through government and, presumably, federal government.  It’s going to be in competition with a great many other demands.  That is what has happened now.  They had an extraordinary period initiated by Sputnik and appealing to national pride and fear.  This made us go all out for science, that is, the reply to this particular threat, imagined or real.  Now things are getting back into balance.  I think these things always oscillate; I think it’ll oscillate too far in the matter of reducing support for research.  I think particularly of medical research [since] that’s what I am closest to.  It’s likely to swing too low and I’m concerned about the budget this year and the amount proposed for the NIH, National Science Foundation.  But there are other competing demands and the demands for doing things for people individually: “Uncle Sam, what have you done for me lately.”  Everybody’s got to have as much as everybody else and we’re not ready for quite that much leveling off.

Two things that people complain about in the government is the targeted research.  Not only that they don’t get very much money but they’re told what they’re going to have to do research on.

It’s a misconception of research – that is development to do it that way.

If you have more and more [the] government providing the money for research, isn’t that likely to be so – that they’re going to say what it is they’re willing to give their money for?

This is the danger, yes.

Where is this going to leave pure research?


Where do you think it will go?  Or disappear?

It won’t disappear but it’ll have to be done in much less volume and incidental to other developments.  There may be particular areas where money can be obtained in big enough chunks that wise administrators can do a little sequestering of things, the way the FBI and CIA have been supported in the budget over the years – things that are hidden here and there – but they get done nevertheless.  I do not know how much pure research is carried out by the military in the arms race.

The old ONR is not in existence anymore and they really took a wide view of—

Yes.  I worked for the ONR and was a member of the first panel in physiological psychology.  They were the ones who really grubstaked me at the Central Institute for the Deaf.

Is there anything in any of the things which we asked that you would like to say further, or did we leave anything out that you think is important, that should be on the record?

I’m sure there are things that were left out that should be on the record and I’m looking forward to seeing a written version of this some day.

Do you really want a written version.  It’s very expensive to produce a written version.  If we gave you the tapes would they not do?

I can try to make do.

[ed. note: Dr. Brodman encourages Dr. Davis to make do without a written transcript of the interviews.  Following is a revised introduction to this oral history interview.]

This is the end of Archives Oral History Interview number 27.  The interviewer was Dr. Estelle Brodman, librarian and professor of medical history at Washington University School of Medicine.  The interview was conducted on April 6 and on April 28, 1977.  The following is a revised version of the biographical sketch found at the beginning of the interview:

This is the beginning of the oral history interview with Dr. Hallowell Davis.  Dr. Davis is the director of research emeritus at the Central Institute for the Deaf.  This is dated April 1977.

Dr. Davis was born in New York City on August 31, 1896, and was educated at Harvard University from which he received both his bachelor’s and his doctor of medicine degree in 1918 and in 1922.  In addition to these degrees, Dr. Davis has honorary degrees, such as those from Colby College in 1954, Northwestern University in 1962, and Washington University in 1973.

Dr. Davis, after his graduation from Harvard Medical School, joined the Physiology department at that institution in 1923 and stayed there until 1946.  He went through all the steps from instructor to associate professor.  In 1942 and 1943 he was acting head of the department.  In 1946 he came to Washington University as research professor of Otolaryngology and associate professor and later professor of Physiology as well as being the director for research and research associate in the Central Institute for the Deaf.  In 1965 he resigned these positions to become professor of Physiology emeritus and director of research emeritus.

He has had many honorary appointments, such as being appointed as a member of Division of Medical Sciences of the National Research Council, a position which he held from 1947 to 1953.  He was executive secretary of the Committee on Hearing and Bioacoustics of the Armed Forces and National Research Council from 1953 to 1959.  He was treasurer, from 1941 to 1948, and president, from 1958 to 1959, of the American Physiological Society; president of the Acoustical Society of America in 1953; and president of the American Electroencephalographic Society in 1949.  He is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

This year he has received the National Medal of Science in October 1976, presented to him by President Gerald Ford.  Dr. Davis has been on the editorial boards of the American Journal of Physiology, Psychosomatic Medicine, Journal of Neurophysiology, and Excerpta Medica.

Some of his awards include the Shambaugh Prize, 1953; the Beltone Award in 1966; the International Amplifon Award, and as I just said, the National Medal of Science.

His research interests have always been in the central nervous and auditory/physiology sector.  In audiology, psychoacoustics, electroencephalography, and electric response audiometry.  He has developed machines to measure the hearing of young children which combine a brain wave machine with a small computer to get the brain’s response to sound.  Earlier in his life he worked with a string galvanometer and later developed an ink-writing electroencephalograph to record brain waves.  He is said to have been the first American to study brain waves in normal and abnormal situations.


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