What's Audiology and Who is an Audiologist?

You might be wondering why a Personal Page begins with an answer to a question about audiology. The reasons for my selection of audiology as a profession or, more accurately, the chance events that led to my inadvertent and unlikely discovery of audiology were mostly personal.


Finishing up college with an undergraduate degree in biology, I had never heard the term audiology nor met an audiologist. My grandfather (James W. Hall, Sr.) was an optician by trade who was literally grandfathered into optometry in the 1920s when the American Optometric Association was formed. In the photograph below you'll see my grandfather as he undergoes an eye and ear examination by his young grandson (me) while my grandmother Blanche McLean Wood Hall looks on.

My father (James W. Hall, Jr., O.D.) was formally trained in optometry. He began Pennsylvania College of Optometry after high school in the early 1940s, but with U.S. entry into WW II my dad dropped out to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps. After spending several rather warm years in the North African desert, Jim Hall enrolled in the Illinois College of Optometry in Chicago, graduating in 1948 just weeks before I was born. Incidentally, ICO was formed in 1872 as the first school of optometry. I remember wearing a navy blue Illinois College of Optometry sweatshirt throughout high school.


When I was a child growing up in Putnam in far northeastern Connecticut (population about 8000), it was assumed that one day I too would be an optometrist. That was fine with me at the time. I often dropped by "the office" on my way home from school where I enjoyed visiting with my grandfather and father, and helping out in the lab. I won't go into details here, but I was very much influenced by first hand observation of my father's confidence as he examined patients, his wonderful bedside manner, and the obvious appreciation patients had for him. My dad was clearly having a very positive impact on the lives of many persons, from young children to elderly adults. Unlike places in the western part of Connecticut near New York, Putnam is not a wealthy town. My dad always provided superb vision services equally to all, regardless of ability to pay. Ironically, he was one of the early clinicians to utilize "visual training", especially with young children, to take advantage of the plasticity of the visual regions of the brain. I know recognize his work then as the visual counterpart to what we audiologists do with children who have the diagnosis of auditory processing disorders.


Fast forward to 1970 when I was about to graduate from American International College in Springfield Massachusetts with a degree in biology and with no idea what to do next.

After much deliberation and soul searching, I decided to break the news to the family that optometry was not for me. For a year after graduation, I did some simple carpentry work and substitute teaching while thinking about the next step. My wife-to-be was thinking about speech pathology as a possible major in college. I was attracted to the pathology part of the phrase, as I had worked in the laboratory of the local hospital during high school. The work began in the Housekeeping Department where I was proud to master the use of a powerful rotary floor cleaner and buffer (after initially smashing into walls and terrorizing some unsuspecting passers by). Hearing about a position in the lab, I applied and soon was learning the fine art of urine-analysis (in the field we referred to it as "unrinalysis"). One summer, I asked the pathologist John Meyer if I could fill in when his assistant took a customary 2-week vacation. I was thinking fondly of those incredibly exciting and educational days assisting in autopsies when I decided to apply to schools for graduate study in speech pathology. The lucky opportunity to work in the hospital lab was a personal experience leading directly to a career decision that in turn led to audiology.


Knowing very little about speech pathology, and with limited access to information about the profession and graduate programs, I applied to three universities (Case Western Reserve University, Northwestern University and the University of Connecticut (which was about 20 miles away). I accepted an offer from Northwestern University not because it was steeped in audiology tradition and even then (as now) a powerhouse program. Remember ... I still hadn't met an audiologist or heard of the profession. I chose Northwestern for three simple reasons: 1) I was offered a full tuition scholarship plus a modest stipend, 2) Related to #1, NU valued applicants like me who had undergraduate backgrounds outside of communicative disorders, and 3) my dad promised that I would really enjoy living in Chicago, as he had 20 some years earlier. It was an exciting time. 


We were married in July of 1971. A little more than a month later we packed a small rather beat up UHAUL truck, hooked a tow bar to my 1969 BMW 1600 (cost new = $2900), and followed Horace Greeley's famous advice ("Go West Young Man").