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The legacies of Ira Hirsh and Robert Jirsa

Formby, Craig PhD; Musiek, Frank PhD

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000399911.62271.c9
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Figure. I

Figure. I

Ira Hirsh died on January 12, 2010, at the age of 87. Hirsh is widely recognized by the audiology community as one of the pioneers and founders of the profession. To place Hirsh's career and professional contributions in perspective as these relate to the development of modern audiology, one must appreciate that audiology as a profession did not exist in the United States until after World War II.1 Given this fact, Hirsh enjoyed a serendipitous and uncanny series of early fortuitous exposures to academic luminaries who would prepare him for his brilliant career in speech and hearing and, ultimately, share with him the distinction of being one of the founding fathers of audiology.2

A native of New York City, Hirsh received his BA degree in 1942 from the New York State College for Teachers (Albany). One of his rhetoric instructors there was William G. Hardy, who, after the war, went on to establish the first hospital-based speech and hearing clinic and training program in audiology in the United States at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Upon graduation from Albany, Hirsh accepted a scholarship to the Northwestern University School of Speech where Raymond Carhart redirected him from his initial pursuit of a broadcasting and drama career toward speech and hearing studies.3 After completing his master's degree in 1944, Hirsh served for two years in the Army Air Force as an instructor in the Communication Officer's School.

During this period, Hirsh was assigned as an aural rehabilitation officer at Hoff General Hospital in Santa Barbara, CA. He was placed under the supervision of S. Richard Silverman, who at that time was also the Director of the Central Institute for the Deaf (CID) and, subsequently, would become Hirsh's long-time boss and colleague at CID. After WWII, Silverman encouraged Hirsh to pursue a career in hearing and deafness and recommended him for a position in the Psychoacoustic Laboratory (PAL) of S.S. Stevens at Harvard. This opportunity, in turn, led to Hirsh's doctoral studies in experimental psychology at Harvard, where his thesis topic would become the basis for the phenomenon that we know today as the Masking Level Difference (MLD).4

Between 1948 and 1951, Hirsh served as a research associate in Stevens' PAL. It was during this period that Hirsh penned his classic textbook, The Measurement of Hearing.5 The project was undertaken at the behest of the Committee on Hearing of the National Research Council, which Hallowell Davis chaired. His groundbreaking book would serve as a bible for clinical psychoacoustics and audiology for the next 30 years. Hirsh developed a professional relationship with Davis over the course of planning and preparing his book that eventually led to his recruitment in 1951 to join Davis at CID. Hirsh would spend his entire illustrious academic career at CID and Washington University in St. Louis.

The breadth of Hirsh's academic and administrative appointments is staggering. He served as both CID's assistant director and director of research, while simultaneously rising through the academic ranks at Washington University to become a professor of psychology, dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences, and chair of the Department of Psychology. He also served as a professor in CID/Washington University's graduate training program in Communication Sciences, while holding virtually every administrative leadership position at CID at one time or another, including service as the director of CID and membership on CID's Board of Managers. He concluded these latter administrative positions and an appointment as the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Audiology in 1994.

Hirsh was honored with numerous awards over his remarkably productive and spectacular half-century career, including the Biennial (Lindsay) and Gold Medal Awards of the Acoustical Society of America, the Honors of the American Speech and Hearing Association, Lifetime Achievement Awards from the American Audiology Society and the St. Louis Academy of Science, Distinguished Alumni Awards from Albany and Northwestern, multiple awards from psychology groups and, most importantly, election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1979.

His record of professional service is equally remarkable. Hirsh served as president of the Acoustical Society of America; chaired both the National Research Council Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education for the National Academy of Sciences and the Bioacoustics Committee of the American National Standards Institute; advised or consulted for the Office of Noise Abatement, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Bureau of Standards; and served as a member of the Committee on Hearing, Bioacoustics, and Biomechanics.

Hirsh's academic achievements are highlighted by more than 100 scholarly publications. About one-third of these publications are clinical in nature, and most of these address problems specific to audiology, including reports dealing with hearing aids, auditory training and deafness, effects of noise, site-of-lesion testing, hearing measurement, and speech audiometry. He is universally cited for his contributions to the latter, including the development of recorded speech awareness and recognition threshold test materials (CID Auditory tests W-1 and 2); sentence recognition measures; and recorded speech discrimination tests (CID Auditory Test W-22, famously spoken by Hirsh beginning with the carrier phrase, “Say the word _____”). Hirsh's significant contributions in this area have led many to consider him the “Father of Speech Audiometry.”

Citations in modern audiology textbooks reflect the breadth and influence of Hirsh's research contributions on the profession of audiology, including contributions to auditory masking, bone conduction, the MLD and the binaural advantage, auditory training, and speech test measures. In addition, Hirsh's published reports on topics concerning temporal psychoacoustics, particularly those associated with his studies of temporal acuity, order, and processing, are classics.6–8 These are widely cited and influential studies across many disciplines, including audiology.

Perhaps Hirsh's greatest legacy to the profession of audiology and the field of speech and hearing is the large number of students, post-doctoral fellows, visiting scientists, and colleagues, who trained or worked at CID under his research leadership from 1965 to 1983.9 During this “golden era” for CID research, Hirsh directed a long-running, continuously funded NIH-sponsored program project grant that supported the primary research mission of the institute. Many of these individuals, recognized in a historical CID monograph, have gone on to enjoy highly successful research and academic careers of their own after CID.10

Green and Watson succinctly summed up Hirsh's career in their tribute to him on the occasion of his Gold Medal Award by the Acoustical Society. They concluded... “Ira's career is an impressive blend of original scientific contributions, able administration, and prudent and discerning application of scientific knowledge to various applied areas, especially hearing impairment.”3 To this, I would add that he left an irreplaceable legacy as a teacher, mentor, and role model for the profession of audiology.

For those interested in learning more about Ira Hirsh, his career, and professional contributions, a special monograph was prepared and edited by Judith Lauter, PhD, to honor him on the occasion of his 80th year.11 This monograph offers the best and most comprehensive presentation of Ira Hirsh and a glimpse into his extraordinary life.

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I had heard of Robert “Bob” Jirsa relatively early in my career; in fact, I may have actually met him a few times in our “younger years.” However, I did not really begin to know him well until I moved from Dartmouth to the University of Connecticut in 2002. By that time, I knew much of his work and realized that we had some common interests in the field of audiological research. As Bob and I became closer friends, I learned more of his academic background.



Bob received his doctorate from the University of Kansas in 1970. He worked in the Midwest at Nebraska and then the southeast (North Carolina), making numerous contributions to our field. Bob's research involved a variety of areas of audiology, but it was always clinically relevant. He published papers in pediatric audiology, hearing aids, and diagnostic audiological assessment. Bob began his studies of central auditory processing disorder when he was in North Carolina. When his career took him to Southern Connecticut State University, Bob was well entrenched in investigating the central auditory nervous system.

When I moved to the University of Connecticut, I knew that Bob and I would likely collaborate or at least exchange ideas and have discussions about our common interests. That was certainly true, but our interactions were far more than I expected.

Bob and Jim Dempsey (Bob's colleague at Southern Connecticut) were most welcoming and open to me. Perhaps the most striking event, at least to me, was when I was sponsoring a lecture to kick off a bi-yearly series. I was unsure what kind of attendance we would have. Being concerned, I contacted Bob to see if he could attend and bring a student or two. Bob showed up the night of the conference with what appeared to be most all of his students! He had collected the students and made transportation arrangements for the event. This was the first of many instances where Bob supported our audiology efforts at UCONN. He had committed an unwavering allegiance to the support of audiology. In recognition of this commitment, and many other contributions, Bob was awarded the honors of the Connecticut Speech Language and Hearing Association in 2006.

One of Bob's major contributions was to the professional governance of audiology at both the university and national levels. While at Southern Connecticut University, he served on or chaired most of the critical committees on campus. Among his most cherished professional activities were his service on the Faculty Senate and the University Promotion and Tenure Committee. Bob was highly respected and well known across campus for his administrative contributions—always promoting audiology whenever he could. He also served many years on the ASHA legislative council.

Bob was a wonderful teacher and clinician. His students were proud to be in his classes. Bob paid special acknowledgement to the key historical figures in our field, making sure students knew about them and their contributions. He developed a contemporary auditory processing clinic at Southern Connecticut that provided a fine service to the community and learning environment for students. It is difficult to appreciate the many hours of work that Bob invested in this clinic. However, knowing Bob as I did, I am sure, if asked about it, he would say, “Well, it was a lot of fun.”

In the last half of his career, Bob became interested in auditory processing disorders (APD) and related clinical research. He was involved in both behavioral and electrophysiological approaches to advance the field of APD. One of his key contributions was a paper he published in 1990.12 Bob reported how the late auditory evoked response components N1 and P2, as well as the P300, were decreased in amplitude and delayed in latency for children with APD compared to a control group. This was one of the first studies to highlight the use of cortical auditory evoked responses in children with APD.

Bob followed this study with another that had some profound implications.13 This investigation showed that auditory training applied to children with APD resulted in improved P300s. This study preceded some of the more well-known studies confirming objectively improved central auditory function with auditory training.

Bob continued a similar line of research showing how high rate ABRs (maximum length sequences) might be useful in defining children with APD.14 Most recently, Bob helped me with a chapter on auditory evoked responses, for which I remain thankful and privileged. Bob's research was often based upon questions that originated in the clinic or where there were gaps in the research literature. He had the courage to investigate challenging areas and brought a forward thinking approach to the experimental design.

I often thought that some of Bob's innovativeness was related to him being such a Star Trek fan. He was quiet and unassuming about his research, but was always eager to acknowledge others' contributions.

The sound booth that he used reflected this, as it was adorned with images of this famous TV program. His lectures were replete with quotes from Star Trek episodes; and the “live long and prosper” hand gesture was his typical greeting. Bob passed away on July 8, 2009. He is survived by his ex-wife and best friend, Deryl C. Holt, his three children (Amy, Emily, and Curtis), and one son-in-law. Audiology has lost a dear friend in Bob Jirsa. He certainly will be missed.

The profession of audiology was developed and has prospered for more than 60 years as a result of the substantial efforts of a relatively small number of prominent hearing scientists and clini cal scholars. Sadly, within the past few years, we lost some colleagues who had an enormous impact on audiology and audiologists. Two sessions at the recent 2011 American Academy of Audiology Convention in Chicago were devoted to informative, educational, and sometimes entertaining perspectives of six recently departed major contributors to our profession by audiologists who know them well. In this issue of The Hearing Journal, we pay tribute to two of the six luminaries.

Dr. Craig Formby summarizes the career and contributions of Dr. Ira Hirsh. One of the many students mentored by Dr. Hirsh, who subsequently went on to an illustrious career in clinical research, Craig describes Dr. Hirsh's remarkable role in the development of clinical audiology, especially speech audiometry.

Dr. Robert Jirsa's many contributions to audiology included some of the earliest published papers describing electrophysiological abnormalities in auditory processing disorders, and objective doc umentation of benefits of intervention. Dr. Frank Musiek shared similar research interests with Dr. Jirsa, and interacted with him often professionally. Frank offers an up-close perspective on Dr. Jirsa's career.

Later issues of The Hearing Journal will highlight the remarkable professional contributions of Robert Galambos, Judy Gravel, Roger Ruth, and Margo Skinner. I encourage you to read each of these brief tributes to colleagues who gave so much to audiology. Then, pass the articles along to Doctor of Audiology students or young audiologists so they, too, will appreciate the impact of these six audiologists on our profession.



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1. Formby C, Gagné J.P: Ira Hirsh as a Pioneer in Audiology: His Contributions to the Clinical Measurement of Hearing and Hearing Impairment. Sem Hear 2004; 25(3):281–287.
2. Advance for Speech Pathologists and Audiologists 1994;4:1(cover).
3. Green DM, Watson SS: Gold Medal Award Citation for Ira Hirsh. J Acoust Soc Am 1992;91(4):2405.
4. Weisenberger JM: Ira Hirsh and the Acroymns of Auditory Perception. Sem Hear 2004;25(3):215–218.
5. Hirsh, I.J. Measurement of Hearing. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1952.
6. Divenyi PL: The Times of Ira Hirsh: Multiple Ranges of Auditory Temporal Perception. Sem Hear 2004;25(3):229–239.
7. Grant KW, Greenberg S, Poeppel D, van Wassenhove V: Effects of Spectro-Temporal Asynchrony in Auditory and Auditory-Visual Speech Processing. Sem Hear 2004; 25(3):241–255.
8. Watson CS: Temporal Acuity and the Identification of Temporal Order: Related, but Distinct Auditory Abilities. Sem Hear 2004;25(3):219–227.
9. Clark WW: Personal Glimpses of Ira Hirsh: Covariance of Perception and Reality. Sem Hear 2004;25(3):209–214.
10. Eldredge, DH, Calvert, DR: Developing Research Careers for Scientists: Report of Forty Years Experience at Central Institute for the Deaf. St. Louis, MO: Central Institute for the Deaf, 1987.
11. Lauter JL: All in Good Time: A Tribute to Ira Hirsh. Sem Hear 2004;25(3).
12. Jirsa R and Clontz, K: Long latency auditory event related potentials from children with auditory processing disorders. Ear Hear 1990 Jun;11(3):222–32.
13. Jirsa R: The clinical utility of the P3 AERP in chidren with auditory processing disorders. J Speech Hear Res 1992;35(4):903–912.
14. Jirsa R: Maximum length sequences-auditory brainstem responses from children with auditory processing disorders. J Am Acad Audiol 2001;12(3):155–64.
© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.