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Leo Doerfler, audiology pioneer, dies

Kirkwood, David H.

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000292844.26568.29
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Leo G. Doerfler, who helped launch audiology in the 1940s and then spent much of his career battling to keep his profession on course, died on July 7 in Oyster Bay Cove, NY, at the age of 85.

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In his work during World War II with Raymond Carhart, the “father of audiology,” Doerfler was one of the field's true pioneers. At Carhart's urging, he went to Northwestern University, where he became the second person to earn a PhD in audiology. In the 1970s, the former president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) bucked the establishment that he had led and began dispensing hearing aids for profit. He was also the founding president of the Academy of Dispensing Audiologists (ADA) and an early leader in the movement to make the AuD the professional doctorate in audiology.

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ALWAYS A non-conformist

From an early age, Leo Doerfler shunned the conventional path. Born June 25, 1919, in New York City to Anna (Steiner) and Gustav Doerfler, he earned degrees in English literature from New York University and Columbia, but then accepted a scholarship at the Central Institute for the Deaf (CID) and earned his master's degree in deaf education. At CID, he also met Alice Turechek, a young teacher of the deaf, who was to be his wife for nearly 57 years until her death in 2000.

In 1941, Doerfler took a job at the Iowa State School for the Deaf, then enlisted in the army in 1942. He showed an early willingness to challenge authority when we went AWOL to be with his wife while she was undergoing an appendectomy. Fortunately, his friends covered for him and his absence went unpunished.

In 1943, the day before he was to be shipped to Germany, Doerfler was instead assigned to be an acoustic officer at Deshon General Hospital in Butler, PA. There, he and three others treated soldiers with hearing losses. They were soon joined by Carhart, and the work they did during the war helped lay the foundation for audiology.

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FOUNDED PITTSBURGH PROGRAM

In 1948, after receiving his PhD in audiology, Doerfler established an audiology program at the University of Pittsburgh, the first in a medical school, and directed it for 28 years.

During the academic period of his career, Doerfler rose in ASHA, which was the only major professional organization in audiology. He served on the executive council, and was then elected vice-president and, in 1967, president. As the first chairman of the American Board of Examiners in Speech Pathology and Audiology, he guided ASHA's efforts to accredit audiology programs.

Despite his prominence in ASHA, Doerfler was frequently at odds with the establishment. He began a dispensing program at the University of Pittsburgh, despite, as he later told The Hearing Journal, being “threatened with excommunication or disembowelment” by ASHA.

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entered private PRACTICE

In 1976, at age 57, Dr. Doerfler left academia to start a private dispensing audiology practice in Greensburg, PA, outside of Pittsburgh. In 1977, he and seven like-minded audiologists met in Colorado Springs, CO, where they launched the Academy of Dispensing Audiologists. Doerfler was elected president and presided over the first ADA convention in 1978.

Writing on ADA's web site a few years ago, Doerfler recalled that tumultuous time: “My academic friends did not support the concept of the ADA and let me know at ASHA conventions and through the mail. Most are now dispensing, although none ever admitted being wrong.”

A 1978 Supreme Court ruling in an indirectly related case forced ASHA to lift its ban on dispensing, and Doerfler resumed being active there. In the 1980s, he fought to have ASHA recognize audiology as a separate profession from speech pathology and later urged ASHA to endorse the AuD. He lost those battles at the time, but lived to see the association reverse its position on both issues.

Doerfler helped establish the Audiology Co-Op, one of the earliest buying groups, and served as its first president and later chairman of its board. In 1988, he was one of the 31 audiologists who joined James Jerger, PhD, in founding the American Academy of Audiology.

Doerfler was one of the first to embrace the AuD. In 1988, he and 24 other audiologists attended the ADA-sponsored Conference on Professional Education in Chicago, where the campaign for the professional doctorate began. Afterwards, he helped create a model curriculum for the AuD and served on the board of the Audiology Foundation of America.

Doerfler received many honors and awards, including AAA's first Career Award in Hearing in 1994, and ADA's 1991 Wernick Award in recognition of outstanding educational contributions. Last year, ADA created the Leo G. Doerfler Award to honor excellence in clinical practice.

He is survived by three sons, Dennis of St. Louis; Donald of Burlington, NC; and David of Latrobe, PA; a daughter, Ann Laura Doerfler-Horn of Oyster Bay Cove, NY; his three daughters-in-law and son-in-law; and 11 grandchildren. The family has suggested that memorial contributions be made to Pittsburgh Vision Services, 311 Station Street, Bridgeville, PA 15017, www.johnfslater.com.

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