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The Northwestern University Center for Audiology, Speech, Language, and Learning is a multifaceted university-based non-profit clinic whose mission is to provide and expand the highest quality, evidence-based, speech, language, learning, and hearing healthcare to the community.  This mission is accomplished by providing outstanding direct healthcare to the community, training future clinic professionals, participating in clinical and translational research, and providing healthcare-based educational opportunities for the surrounding communities.   

The School of Communication at Northwestern University had its beginning in 1868 when Robert Cumnock accepted positions on the faculties of Garrett Theological Seminary and Northwestern University. He developed a curriculum that led to a degree in elocution. The curriculum was so popular that by 1894 he secured permission to raise funds to build his own building.

Cumnock turned over the school to his successor, Ralph Dennis, in 1913. Dennis broadened the curriculum and introduced modern rhetoric and public speech, theater and drama, children’s theatre, speech re-education and, in 1928, the speech clinic. In 1936 the Speech Re-education Department produced the school’s first PhDs, Raymond Carhart and Paul Moore. Both men became major influences in their fields. Dr. Moore remained at Northwestern until 1961 and was famous for his high-speed movies of the human larynx during vocalization. Dr. Carhart remained at Northwestern his entire career, except for military service, and went on to create the nation’s first university academic program in audiology at Northwestern University in 1946.

Today the School of Communication and the Center for Audiology, Speech, Language, and Learning are located in the Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communications Sciences and Disorders in the School of Communication.

The Birth of Audiology

C. C. Bunch, the developer of an early audiometer, came to Northwestern in 1941 to teach, supervise the construction of an audiometric laboratory, and enlarge the speech and hearing clinics. Unfortunately, Bunch died in June 1942, but Dr. Carhart switched his focus from speech to hearing and carried on to great success the development of what evolved into Northwestern’s audiology program.

Immediately following the end of World War II, the Speech and Hearing Clinic received an impetus when the Veteran’s Administration appointed Northwestern University as “the first of several agencies in the nation for aiding in speech rehabilitation of war veterans.” The post-war program available at the Speech and Hearing Clinic ranged from retraining damaged speech muscles to instructions in lip reading and fitting of hearing aids. This was a striking improvement over the post-war treatment experienced by World War I veterans.

By 1944 the clinic had treated more than 4500 patients and the alliance with the VA had supported an emphasis on developing treatments for hearing disorders. During the 1945–46 academic year, eighty-five students took courses in hearing as part of their programs. By then eight students were on their way to earning their PhDs with specialization in hearing. In 1946 Northwestern was the first University in the country to establish and offer an academic program called audiology. In that year, the department stated that its primary goal was to develop “as active and vigorous a program in audiology as possible.” In the school announcement of courses, the Speech Re-education Department was referred to as Speech Correction and Audiology and Dr. Carhart became professor of audiology with indefinite tenure. Thus the profession of audiology was born and Northwestern became a leading center for education of specialists in audiology and hearing. Under Dr. Carhart’s leadership the department had a dual emphasis on “research and clinical services to benefit the hard of hearing and to provide experience for clinicians”—An emphasis and culture that continues today at Northwestern.

Clinic and a new home

By 1967 the Communicative Disorders Department at Northwestern University suffered from a severe lack of space. Architect Walter Netsch was commissioned to begin designing a new building that broke ground in 1970. The Frances Searle Building was completed on December 7, 1972. This building housed clinics on the first floor and research on the second floor, with reverberation and anechoic chambers located in the basement.

At the turn of the 21st century, the clinical professions of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology had greatly expanded their scope of practice and knowledge base. They integrated digital technology into their services and created new skills, techniques, and procedures. By 2011 it became clear that the forty-year-old clinics in the Frances Searle Building were outdated and too small to accommodate the growth of the patient base and the student demand for training in the clinic.

In 2013 construction began on a new parking structure adjacent to the Frances Searle Building, and under the leadership of Dean Barbara O’Keefe, plans were made to construct a combined Center for Audiology, Speech, Language, and Learning on the first floor of this new structure. The new facility doubles the size of the Searle clinics and provides state-of-the-art services. The Center includes one of the country’s few Audio Environment Simulation Rooms. This sophisticated room allows clients to test hearing devices against a range of background noises and real world environments to fine-tune and personalize fittings. Speech-language and learning clients may also benefit from practicing communication strategies against a range of background settings. The new Center opened in January 2015.