Stuttering Study Plaintiffs Settle with State of Iowa

A recent ruling brought closure, formally at least, to a tragic experience that changed the lives of many young people in Iowa during the 1930s.

The State of Iowa has settled with six plaintiffs who were part of a study conducted by University of Iowa researchers in 1939 for an amount of $925,000. The study, which has come to be known as the "Monster Study," involved a group of 22 teenage children at the Iowa Soldiers' Orphans' Home who were goaded and mistreated in order to attempt to induce speech impediments.

The study was run over a period of six months by famous speech pathologist Dr. Wendell Johnson, whose staff performed a variety of humiliating and belittling tests in order to determine ulterior origins to stuttering. Many children among the group were told that they had speech impediment problems, even though they did not, and that the techniques being used were designed to treat and help them overcome stuttering.

In their suit, the plaintiffs claimed that both the invasive techniques and the years of deception by those who conducted the experiment mentally and emotionally scarred them. In fact, the details of the study were not revealed to the participants after the fact, until much later.

A story that exposed the operation was published in the San Jose Mercury News in 2001, based largely on information provided by a former research assistant who helped run the study, Mary Tudor. After these details came to light, the University of Iowa issued a formal apology in 2001. The lawsuit was introduced in 2003.

The settlement was especially important for the state, even beyond the money eventually saved from a potential jury award; since the study was conducted such a long time ago, witnesses to testify on their behalf would have been difficult to produce, making their case almost impossible to present.

The settlement will be distributed among the six plaintiffs included in the case as follows: $900,000 to five of the plaintiffs, Hazel Potter Dornbush, Kathryn Meacham, the Betty Romp estate, the Clarence Fifer estate and the Phillip Spieker estate, as well as $25,000 to Mary Nixon.

The settlement was approved by Johnson County District Court Judge Denver Dillard, but must still be ratified by the State Appeal Board on Sept. 4.

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