Dave Fabry: Thank you for taking the time with us today, Fred Bess, PhD. You were a founding member of the Academy, and our second president after Dr. Jim Jerger. You had been very active with the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), and had a burgeoning professional role at the Bill Wilkerson Center at Vanderbilt, with your teaching and research career there. What was your reasons for focusing your energies on the formation of a new professional organization?

Fred Bess: The mid-1980s was a very difficult time for audiology. There was a lot of discontent, unhappiness, and unrest in the profession. I think that audiologists felt that they had no organizational home at that time, and that they had no control of their own destiny. You have to remember that, during that period, ASHA was governed primarily by speech-language pathologists. Often, they made decisions about audiology that audiologists did not agree with.

Yes, and although they had a large member base, approaching 100,000 members (at the time), audiologists represented a small fraction of the overall total. I think that there was a general sentiment that they were taking audiology for granted; in their defense, I often heard that in terms of member resources per capita, the commitment to audiology far outpaced that devoted to their speech-language pathologist members. In addition, I think that they have made numerous attempts to correct that perception over time.

There is no question that ASHA tried to correct the problem, but the general feeling was that it was too little, too late. I think that the biggest issue for me during that time centered around the discussions that took place regarding the development of a new Institute on Deafness with National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

In the initial stages of those discussions, ASHA opposed a separate institute on deafness, and if you were an audiologist, you had to ask the question of why? Why would our own professional organization oppose the creation of an institute that would be so important for the profession of audiology and for those who we are here to serve? 

Almost every organization that had anything to do with hearing favored the new institute. Speech-language pathologists, however, did not; they were content with their current home at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

Eventually ASHA came on board and supported the effort. However, their initial reluctance to support the institute sent a huge message to all audiologists that something was very wrong, and that audiology was not being well represented by their professional organization.


Of course, we all know about the important meeting that occurred in November 1987, at the ASHA Annual Convention in New Orleans. At this meeting, Rick Talbott hosted a group of leaders in the profession to discuss the future of audiology. There were a lot of people in attendance, including many of leaders in the profession. I don’t know whether you were there or not. 

I was there, although I most certainly was not a leader in the profession!

Well, Jim Jerger, Chuck Berlin, Jay Hall, George Osborne, and Lucille Beck were on the program. When Jerger spoke, somewhere during that speech, he noted that perhaps it was time for the profession of audiology to develop an organization of, by, and for audiologists—the room literally came alive in response to Jerger’s comments.

It was electric.

That’s a great word for it—it gave me chills. 

It’s giving me chills as I think about it right now. It’s as if, at that moment, he put it in all in words that we could understand and that we were waiting to hear.

We were waiting for it, and we were so ready to hear it. It was terribly exciting, and at that point, I was ready to go to the wall. It didn’t take very long, maybe a matter of weeks, when Jim Jerger contacted some 32 audiologists, and they all gathered in Houston and began to deliberate on the development of an organization. Interestingly, the first name that I think we came up with was the American College of Audiology, but it was later changed to the American Academy of Audiology. At any rate, that’s what brought me to the table—the NIH issue, and then that meeting. Unfortunately, before the Academy was developed, we lost some really great people during that period because they were so unhappy, and they moved on to some other form of work. These were good people who wanted to stay in the hunt, but they didn’t feel like there was any future. 

Certainly, the “of, by, and for audiology,” and the transition to the AuD were areas where ASHA had a bit of a quandary. Its largest member base, the speech-language pathologists, didn’t really feel that there was a need to transition to a doctorate as a first professional degree. While a lot of people got the first part, there was a lot of discussion and debate, even into the early-90s, about the need for the doctoral degree. I think that it is important for students and new members today to understand that this is an important part of our history, but in the big scheme of things, it is also relatively recent. The important thing is that the early leadership had a vision for where they saw the profession going, and were not afraid to deliberate with others, even in the midst of controversy. This carried into the early days of the Academy, and you were in the midst of it serving as the Academy’s version of John Adams as our second president.

Well, I think that it was probably some of the most exciting years that I had in the profession, because we knew that we were doing something very, very important, and we reached a point where we knew that the Academy was going to happen. Every member of that executive committee in those early years would have done anything, and would have expended whatever effort needed to get this movement off the ground. Actually, it was pretty incredible. 

In addition to creating a professional home for audiology, a central goal of the Academy was to upgrade the profession to the AuD. In retrospect, there is no doubt that the AuD degree has significantly enhanced the presence and prestige of audiology in the health-care community.

Wayne Olsen, one of my mentors, was in the group, and in the early days when I joined the Mayo Clinic it was exciting to live vicariously through what he could report back to us.

It’s interesting that you mention Wayne—to be sure, he was one of the finest in our profession. Wayne probably found himself in a bit of a difficult situation because of the years and years of work that he had done with ASHA—after all, he grew up in ASHA. To be a part of a meeting that would form a new group independent of ASHA had to be awkward for Wayne, but I think he knew that it was probably the right thing to do. Many of us had allegiances to ASHA; I did—part of my responsibilities at Vanderbilt was to represent speech-language pathology as well as audiology. Nevertheless, in my view, there was an important need for a new professional home for audiology. 

Well, you’re right, and I know for many of those founding members of the Academy, including Wayne and others, politics was not something that they signed up for, or that came easy for them. You had attended the AudiologyNOW! 2015 meeting in San Antonio after a several year absence to honor both Brad Stach and Gary Jacobson, when they received their Distinguished Service Awards for the Academy. What did you take home about the changes from the early Academy meetings?

Well, it was so much larger than anything that I ever could have imagined! The number of people that attended and the size of the exhibit area were overwhelming, and the meeting was so well organized. You know, we used to do the meetings ourselves—we didn’t have a professional staff. Kiawah Island, New Orleans is where the first four or five meetings were done by us. I was very impressed by how far the Academy has come, and (laughing) I was impressed with how young all the members were!

I completely understand! I like to say that I’m a classic Baby Boomer, in the sense that I like to think of myself as one of the young “kids,” until I look in the mirror, and I think, “what the heck happened!”

There were a lot of young people at the meeting. The only thing that I noticed from a programmatic point of view was that there seem to be fewer “research” sessions than what I would have expected, but then again, it is an organization of mostly clinical audiologists now, so perhaps that is to be expected.

That serves as a convenient segue into the next question, and also onto your earlier statement regarding the importance, even with the transition to the AuD, that we don’t forget about our research roots. To that end, one of the things I’ve noticed over the years is that attendees of AudiologyNOW! have become more courteous and polite, less argumentative than when I was growing up professionally.

Yes, I think that is true. 

My first presentation was at an Acoustical Society conference, and the audience comprised Margo Skinner, Josef Zwislocki, Bob Bilger, Harry Levitt, Lou Braida, and a bunch of other people who should have intimidated the heck out of me, if I’d had any good sense. But my advisor, Dianne Van Tasell, had ensured that I was prepared to handle any question they could ask, and they asked some hard ones in the discussion period. I remember some time ago you shared with me a story about your first presentation. 

Yes, my first presentation was at ASHA in 1965, when there probably weren’t more than 400–500 audiologists in the United States. The people who attended those meetings were not just audiologists, but included psychologists, engineers, speech scientists, linguists, and neurobiologists. Anybody who was interested in the topic of hearing would attend that meeting. There must have been 500 people or more in attendance at my first presentation. I presented a paper on aural harmonics in normal-hearing listeners. I probably had seven or eight people stand up to ask questions, and to be honest, I wasn’t too nervous about it because I didn’t know any of the people who were asking the questions. I learned later that some of the attendees who stood up were Ira Hirsh, Dixon Ward, Joseph Zwislocki, and Raymond Carhart—at that point in time, I was very nervous! 

The next year, I presented a paper on aural harmonics in hearing-impaired listeners, and I was nervous because this time I knew who was asking the questions. In those days, meetings in hearing science were well attended and presenters were often challenged in part because the attendees represented such a diverse group of scholars.

I think that is a very good point.

With a more homogeneous group of primarily clinical practitioners, I think that it is very different now from that standpoint. Today, I see attendees asking questions of clarification, but not challenging methodology or interpretation of results the way they did in the early years.

Can you share the story about Joseph Zwislocki, who was the moderator of the session during your second presentation?

My second paper presentation was in Washington, DC, and at that point in time people thought my paper was controversial. Some investigators didn’t really believe that I was measuring aural harmonics, and when I finished my paper, around eight or nine people stood up to ask questions. Joseph Zwislocki, who was moderating the session, said, “before we get to the questions, I have a few slides that I’d like to show.” I was so nervous that I couldn’t believe it. He started out by saying that, “Last year, I really didn’t believe that he was measuring what he said he was measuring, but I happened to be in Ann Arbor at Kresge, and I visited his lab. I ran the test that he’s been talking about with his equipment, and I do believe that he’s measuring aural harmonics and here’s why.” Then he showed two or three slides and said, “Would anyone like to ask me any questions?” Nobody said anything, and I took a big sigh of relief.

That story has stuck with me for a number of years, because I think that it captured the essence of that environment, with the strong need for evidence-based replication of the data as “truth,” with the strange juxtaposition of a very challenging environment with the unwritten rule that you didn’t “eat your young” unless they were engaging in behavior that was unbecoming for a scientist. He knew that you had prepared, that you were working in an area that was still controversial, so he checked it himself. He was willing to take a public stand to shut down any additional discussion regarding whether the data were valid. I love that he did that.

Yes he did. He just basically validated the presentation and I’ve always been grateful for that.

Can you talk a little more about your days at Michigan? I thought another thing that was interesting was that when you were in New Orleans in 1987, you were at a special place during a special moment. You have also reflected on your time at Michigan in similar fashion.

Yes, the University of Michigan was a special place. Actually, I visited Michigan prior to making the decision to go there—the faculty member I met with during my visit was Bob Bilger. I chose to attend Michigan thinking that Bilger would be my advisor and mentor. When I arrived there, he had already moved on to Pittsburgh. Nevertheless, there were some wonderful opportunities at the University of Michigan; it was not the traditional type of audiology program. Most important was the Kresge Hearing Research Institute, where I had the chance to spend time with outstanding people such as Merle Lawrence, Bill Stebbins, Joe Hawkins, Dean Clack, and several other investigators—it was an incredible experience. 

I understand completely. It was the multidisciplinary aspect of the experience that probably made it so exciting.

Looking back, it’s probably the best kind of training that you can have. I really enjoyed it, although I never thought that I would be using any of that information or experience because I was working as a traditional audiologist. But I found that I drew frequently from those experiences throughout my career. Students at Michigan were allowed to take courses at other state schools at no additional cost. Hence, I was able to take several classes at Wayne State University with John Gaeth, one of Carhart’s first PhD students. This turned out to be a very meaningful opportunity for me. Much of my “clinical” audiology at the doctoral level came from Gaeth. 

All in all, my experiences at Michigan prepared me well for my first audiology position at Central Michigan University—another special place that I will always look back on with fondness, admirations, and respect.

It’s surprising how often John Gaeth’s name comes up as having made a significant impact on their careers.

He was a fabulous teacher. 

Moving to Bill Wilkerson Center and Vanderbilt University; you have to be so proud of what you’ve helped to build. I’ve had the good fortune to visit over a broad span of years, dating back to your old “grant proposal closet,” and culminating in several recent visits to beautiful facility today that is a part of the Medical Center campus. Is there anything at all that you miss about the early days?

The new building is wonderful, but there are some things that I do miss about the old building. I miss my office and my old desk. I went to school there myself back in the 1960s. Dr. Wesley Wilkerson, who was an otolaryngologist that founded the Bill Wilkerson Center, was in that office and sat at that desk. Dr. Freeman McConnell, the first center director, my mentor, and my friend, also occupied that office. So for me, it was a very special place—a place with great history and tradition. 

I also miss the mail room at the old center. It was special in the sense that it was the one place where you met everybody, at least once each day. There were only three floors in that building. Now it’s very different—there are five floors in the new building and just one of those floors has more square footage than all three floors combined at the old center. As magnificent as the new Bill Wilkerson Center is, I continue to miss the old building. 

So, with all of these accomplishments over a 40-year career, what are you up to these days?

I am involved in a research project concerned with listening effort, stress, and fatigue in children with hearing loss and the possible impact of these constructs on listening and learning. I first became interested in this topic several years ago, when I was sitting outside a conference area with Mark Ross taking a break from a meeting. Mark is a well-recognized pediatric audiologist who happens to have significant bilateral hearing loss. Mark began to talk about how tired he was from listening all day. He noted that it was difficult for him to focus and concentrate for long periods of time in noisy sessions—in essence, he was exhausted from listening and he planned to go back to his room and rest.

I never forgot that conversation. When I stepped down as the direct of the center, I began to look into stress and hearing-related fatigue in children with hearing loss. I was fortunate to receive a four-year grant to explore this topic. We have completed our data collection and are now in the process of writing up our findings. Thus, listening effort, stress, and fatigue have been my focus over the past several years. It has been a very exciting and fulfilling initiative.

Well, I can’t tell you how much we appreciate your taking time out of your schedule to chat with us today, and thanks so much for all that you have done for the profession of audiology.

My pleasure. 

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