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Hearing and Speech Sciences celebrates 70 years of service

Apr. 13, 2022, 1:37 PM

VUMC Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, which has called the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center home since 1997, is celebrating 70 years of serving people with hearing, speech, language and related disorders. (photo by Erin O. Smith)

by Emily Stembridge

The Vanderbilt Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences is celebrating 70 years of serving people with hearing, speech, language and related disorders.

In the early 1900s, Wesley Wilkerson, MD, practiced medicine as an eye, ear, nose and throat doctor in Nashville. His primary interest was pediatric patients with hearing loss, and he was frequently frustrated with the lack of intervention services for deaf and hard-of-hearing children, who were expected to live at home or an institution and ended up having very little independence as adults.

Wilkerson set out to create a place where any child with hearing loss could come to learn to speak and communicate, leading to a better education, employment and life. In 1949, Wilkerson organized a board of directors and chartered the Tennessee Hearing and Speech Foundation. In 1951, the foundation opened a clinic with audiologist Freeman McConnell, PhD, as its first director. In a secret meeting, the Tennessee Hearing and Speech Foundation voted to name the clinic after Wilkerson’s son, Bill, who was killed during World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, as a memorial and tribute to the Wilkerson family.

Soon after, Wilkerson worked with Vanderbilt University to start training and research programs for hearing and speech professionals. During the next few decades, the center created a permanent facility, expanded the scope of its mission to treat those of all ages with communication disorders, started the Pi Beta Phi Rehabilitation Institute and expanded its research and education programs.

In 1997, the Bill Wilkerson Center, including the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, merged with Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Partnered with the nationally ranked Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, the combined clinical programs are now known as the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center.

“When I look back over the history of the department, I am struck by how many ‘firsts’ we have achieved,” said Anne Marie Tharpe, PhD, chair of the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences. “From constructing the first building in the country built specifically to house a hearing and speech clinic, to providing therapy to the first child in Tennessee to receive a cochlear implant, to having two graduate education programs ranked No. 1 by U.S. News and World Report, the center has seen a lot of firsts. But those achievements pale in comparison with the daily firsts our amazing clinicians evoke every day — a child’s first word, a grandparent hearing ‘I love you, Nana’ for the first time, or a stroke survivor saying hello to a friend.”

Although the original mission of the center was providing intervention to individuals with hearing or speech problems, the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences now serves those who have a broader range of communication and other disorders associated with brain injury and progressive neurological disabilities, balance and vestibular disorders, feeding and swallowing problems, and more.

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