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What is the Monster Study?

We’ve heard several stories of how Nazi Germany experimented on children back at the height of their reign. But did you know that there was an experiment on orphans as the Second World War started?

An experiment on orphans was done at the University of Iowa in 1939. Normal-speaking children were put under immense psychological pressure to induce stuttering. This is the very reason it was called the Monster Study.

What Was The Experiment About?

The Monster Study is a stuttering experiment conducted on 22 orphan children. This study was headed by Wendell Johnson and Mary Tudor at the University of Iowa in 1939. Johnson was a psychologist that has innumerable contributions to the field of speech and language pathology.

Tudor carried out the experiments under Johnson’s tutelage. Half of the children in the study received positive speech therapy. They got praised and rewarded for their fluency. The other half received negative speech therapy. They were belittled for their imperfections. Several normal-speaking orphans who received negative treatment suffered from severe psychological issues, and some even retained their speech problems even after the experiment.

At the end of the study, they found out that the children who received negative therapy did not develop a stutter. Instead, they felt self-conscious and were very reluctant to communicate verbally. (Source: CBS)

How Were The Subjects Selected?

The study began with the selection of the 22 subjects. The orphans were picked out of a veterans’ orphanage in Iowa. None of the subjects were told that they were part of a study. They were under the impression that they would be getting speech therapy.

On the first visit, the children’s IQs were tested. The researchers also checked whether they were right or left-handed. The working theory was that stuttering was caused by a cerebral imbalance that is influenced by hand dominance.

If, for example, a person was born left-handed but was using their right hand, their nerve impulses would misfire, affecting their speech.

Mary Tudor

While Johnson didn’t believe in Tudor’s theory, they still factored it in the selection and experiment. He believed that stuttering was a learned behavior and was often influenced by external factors such as criticisms from parents. (Source: CBS)

What Was the Controversy Behind the Study?

Eleven orphans were subjected to immense psychological pressure during the experiment. One of them is Mary Nixon. After sixty-four years, she still experiences the trauma and stings of the study. Court documents show that Nixon spent her entire life believing that she had a speech problem and severely struggled with insecurities.

Studies like this and many others paved the way for better ethics and protocols.

I don’t think anybody today likes the idea of seeing orphans, children, used that way, but it’s really important to keep things in historical perspective.

Jane Fraser, President of the Memphis-based Stuttering Foundation

(Source: CBS)

Were the Children in the Experiment Ever Compensated?

In August 2007, seven of the eleven orphans in the study were given a total of $1.2 million by the state of Iowa for the emotional trauma and lifelong psychological issues they have faced during the 6-month experiment. (Source: CBS)

The spokesperson of the University called the Monster Study regrettable. Even Mary Tudor expressed her deep regret in her role in the research. But she also said that Johnson should’ve made an effort to reverse the negative feedback the orphan children received after the experiment. (Source: Iowa University)

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