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“Just What We Need”

May 21, 1959


At the 1959 annual meeting of the most prominent organization concerned with mental retardation in the country, a cheerful 40-year-old University of Kansas speech clinician named Dick Schiefelbusch lobbed a bombshell into the audience of directors of institutions and physicians assembled in Milwaukee.

“In acknowledging that speech specialists in the past have generally discouraged the prospect of speech therapy with mentally retarded children, he observed slyly, “one might in a sense of poetic justice also acknowledge that mentally retarded children in general have successfully rejected the methods employed by speech specialists.”

Schiefelbusch and his research team reported that they were researching the communication of children with mental retardation at the Parsons State Hospital and Training Center in Parsons, Kansas. Their endeavor was going to be known as the Parsons Language Project.

This was virtually unheard of in 1959. Almost no scientists were researching mental retardation and only a handful of scientists belonged to the American Association of Mental Deficiency (AAMD). The AAMD audience of institutional administrators and physicians that thronged around the Kansans after the presentation immediately recognized that this was, “just what we need.”

Although the KU team had tenuous research credentials and their findings were preliminary, the Parsons Language Project set the course for KU’s Bureau of Child Research, now the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies, to become one of the most influential authorities on mental retardation and language development in the world.

The Kansas group contended that what they called the “language behavior” of children (after B.F. Skinner’s 1957 book, Verbal Behavior) could be analyzed, measured and changed. In short, they were suggesting that it might be possible for children with even severe mental retardation and almost no language to learn to communicate if the precepts of behavioral psychology were applied correctly.

“We have assumed,” said Schiefelbusch in Milwaukee, “that language used by most mentally retarded children is inappropriate even for children with their ability levels and that institutional environments tend to perpetuate the deficiencies.”

At the time, most children in the United States with mental retardation lived in large institutions. Those who lacked verbal, or in some cases even functional nonverbal communication, were essentially warehoused — humanely if they were fortunate. But many passed their days forgotten, in filth and fear.

The administrators of institutions saw the potential practical application of the Bureau’s first research project – better communication would mean better care and management of these children who often could not use the toilet, feed or dress themselves. The KU team of budding behaviorists was more ambitious: they began to talk among themselves about actually being able to cure mental retardation.

That Schiefelbusch’s “crack” scientific team only had one member with research design experience didn’t dim their aspirations and didn’t seem to matter to the membership of the AAMD. They were as eager for the young science of behavioral psychology to be applied to mental retardation as were the audacious Kansas researchers.

Dr. Howard V. Bair, a physician with psychiatric training and the director of the Parsons State Hospital and Training Center, was one of these administrators. Schiefelbusch had sought out Bair, “the man of the future in institutional work in Kansas” to join him in a venture called a federally funded research grant. This was something so unorthodox in the social sciences that KU’s Psychology Department had declined to participate and some in the University’s administration frowned on the idea and didn’t know how to manage it.

Other KU faculty members expressed outright hostility to staging research outside the University and getting federal dollars to do it. Even years later, Schiefelbusch recalled, he overheard two colleagues discussing him:

“When did all the bad stuff start?” asked the first one. “I don’t know,” responded the second, “but the guy sitting right over there started it all.”

The tenacious Schiefelbusch would not be discouraged. He would have his research institute even if that meant that he would have to teach himself the art of grantsmanship and locate his research center off-campus at the Parsons State Hospital and Training Center 140 miles away from Lawrence in Parsons, Kansas.

Schiefelbusch’s partnership with “Doc” Bair, his willingness to plunge into the world of federal funding on his own, his belief in his young scientific radicals and his own robust optimism were the winning formula for the Bureau of Child Research to actually become a research institute.

At the Milwaukee meeting of the AAMD, Schiefelbusch was vindicated.

Ironically, this critical success— and all that followed during the remainder of the twentieth century—almost didn’t happen.

In 1954, Dick Schiefelbusch was about to take his recent PhD in Speech Pathology from Northwestern University to a tenured position at the University of Illinois. He had succeeded in establishing KU’s first speech and hearing clinic for children beginning in 1949 (now the Schiefelbusch Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic), and he was developing KU’s first graduate program in speech and hearing.

KU Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences George Waggoner and University Chancellor Franklin Murphy didn’t want to lose him. Murphy asked Schiefelbusch what kind of program KU needed to do child research. Believing that he was leaving KU, Schiefelbusch bluntly told Murphy that the University needed to create a natural environment for child research—a children’s care center or the like— that would allow researchers from many disciplines to collaborate and teach their students.

Schiefelbusch was extrapolating from what he knew about a series of demonstration nursery schools, such as the one at 1100 Missouri Street – not far from KU’s Lawrence campus – that his deceased predecessor, Dr. Florence Brown Sherbon had helped establish with varying degrees of success.

He pointed out that the best clinical experience KU was offering to speech and hearing students, for example, was limited experience with three or four children. He said that children’s services offered by several departments on both campuses were housed in makeshift off-campus buildings and that the lack of space was constricting both service and teaching.

Murphy, one of KU’s most insightful chancellors, apparently expected what he heard from Schiefelbusch – and liked it. In short order, he offered Schiefelbusch the directorship of the Bureau of Child Research, which Schiefelbusch accepted in the fall of 1955. Murphy must have guessed that he could appeal to Schiefelbusch’s visionary bent with the Bureau directorship and get him to stay at the University of Kansas.

Taking on the Bureau would take a great deal of vision, since it essentially did not exist. Murphy had revived the Bureau in 1954 by authorizing $30,000 from funds that had been allocated to KU by the legislature for research. This amount was to include salaries of the director, assistant director and two clerk-typists. Only about $5,000 was left for research. Schiefelbusch also would have to continue to fight for a two-campus speech language graduate program at Lawrence and the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas, as well as direct the speech and hearing clinic. The Bureau didn’t even have a place to locate its offices until Dean of the School of Education George Baxter Smith grudgingly designated two rooms in Bailey Hall in 1956.

The Bureau had been inactive after the death of its longtime director, Florence Brown Sherbon in 1944. She was a member of the KU Home Economics faculty, a physician, and a social reformer who had pushed for the creation of the Bureau in 1921 by testifying before the Kansas legislature:

“I grow weary knowing about the yearly increase in appropriations for research on the care and feeding of livestock knowing that we appropriate nothing for research on the care and nurture of children.”

For all her passion, Sherbon accomplished very little in the way of research in her 20-year tenure as Bureau director. She was stymied by administrative neglect, miniscule funding and perhaps because she found her natural scientific allies among national figures in the eugenics movement that even by the 1930s was beginning to lose favor in the scientific world. (After the horrors of the Nazi’s racial purification policies became widespread, eugenics became anathema to nearly everyone.). Both Sherbon and Schiefelbusch were clinicians, not bench scientists, a lack Schiefelbusch sometimes felt keenly during his first years as the Bureau director. They both needed to find a scientific context and collaborators for child research, but only Schiefelbusch was successful.

Chancellor Murphy didn’t initially see the Bureau as conducting research, but rather as coordinating the twelve KU units involved in child research and services at Lawrence and Kansas City, Kansas.

Schiefelbusch called together a coordinating committee made up of representatives of these programs ranging from the Pediatrics, Cleft Palate and Cerebral Palsy Clinics at KUMC to the Speech and Hearing Clinic, Home Economics Preschool, Clinical Psychology Department, and Schools of Law and Social Work and Government Research Center at the Lawrence campus. The designated representatives of this group dutifully met five times until they ran out of things to talk about.

It became clear that Chancellor Murphy’s plan for the Bureau as a coordinating entity wasn’t going to work. Without its own funding base, the Bureau would not have the influence or the authority to coordinate the research efforts of so many departments and projects.

But what did come out of those meetings was the recommendation that the Bureau of Child Research should become a research development unit rather than the coordination department that Chancellor Murphy had envisioned.

Schiefelbusch had colleagues, consultants and a few well-wishers at KU, but no participants in his new Bureau. Out of sheer necessity, Schiefelbusch pioneered interdisciplinary group research at KU when he cobbled together his first research team from non-faculty members who were professionals in speech pathology and social, educational and clinical psychology in a state institution 140 miles south of the University in a small railroad town.

That very first research project for the newly revived Bureau of Child Research, the Parsons Language Project, made the Parsons State Hospital and Training Center a KU research and training center that continues to this day—started with a handshake between two men who typified a generation that came out of World War II as pragmatic humanists, determined to right old wrongs.

Schiefelbusch, a former WW II POW whose B-24 had been shot down by German fighter planes into the Baltic Sea in 1943, and Howard Bair, a child psychiatrist who had been a US Army battlefield surgeon, simply shook hands on a working arrangement from which KU would build an international reputation in behavioral psychology, speech and hearing, and child research. Both men cared deeply about children with mental retardation and rejected the contemporary scientific lassitude toward them.

In 1958, Schiefelbusch and Bair, applied for and won their first grant – a $56,000 project funded by the National Institute of Mental Health for hospital improvement optimistically titled “A Language Program for Mentally Retarded Children.”

Bair had the south wing of the hospital building at Parsons remodeled for the project. The KU research initiative would be one of a handful in the country operating in an institution for the mentally retarded. This would further distinguish the institution he was overhauling to be a model school for the hundreds of “trainable” and “educable” children who had been transferred there from Winfield and other state institutions in the early 1950s. Bair had hired a clinical psychologist, speech pathologist and many other therapists as well as regularly bringing in consultants in psychiatry and neurology from the world-famous Menninger Clinic in Topeka.

But these professionals, whose therapies depended on the understanding of speech, would be of little help to another group of children who also had been transferred to Parsons in the early 1950s. These were the children with severe and profound retardation who usually did not speak or understand speech.

Enter the KU team.

Joseph Spradlin, who was one of the members of the original research team and went on to be the director of the Parsons operation, among many other roles at the Bureau, wryly described himself and his cohorts on the Parsons Project as, “two unemployed psychologists, a retread school teacher and a speech clinician.”

In reality, Seymour Rosenberg, one of the “unemployed psychologists” and the field director of the Project, had a solid background in research design, conceptualization, equipment construction and statistical analysis. He was a social psychologist who worked on improving the communication of aircrews during combat; a problem that cost many lives in World War II. Rosenberg had explored dyads – or two-person communication units – for the US Air Force and this was put to good use at Parsons.

Spradlin, a young clinical psychologist who was working on his dissertation from the prestigious Peabody College in Tennessee, had worked at Winfield State Hospital and had seen how futile Freudian inspired psychoanalysis and other contemporary therapies were for people with intellectual disabilities. Under Rosenberg’s guidance and Schiefelbusch’s benevolent oversight, he had one of the most productive years of his career.

Rosenberg and Spradlin hit it off immediately. They were both admirers of B.F. Skinner and began to put into practice the theories put forth in Skinner’s 1957 Verbal Behavior. Rosenberg had been at the University of Indiana—when Skinner had first gained national attention—and was familiar with Skinner’s experimental approach.

Ross Copeland, director of the Parsons hospital’s speech and hearing clinic, and Dorolyn Ezell, an educational psychologist, rounded out the first team. Copeland would eventually take the number two administrative spot at the Bureau.

Many experts in retardation and language in the 1950s did not believe that the communication of children with retardation could be influenced by changes in their environment – including existing treatments and therapies. In fact, the Parsons team found that the field was in chaos with very few scientifically reliable studies or a theoretical framework.

This allowed the researchers and their hospital cohorts, sometimes joined by neurologists and psychiatrists from the Menninger Clinic, to give their creativity free rein in developing the Parsons Project.

They began to bond. Schiefelbusch, Bair, Rosenberg, Spradlin, and Copeland loved flying and, in keeping with their reputation as scientific outlanders, they often flew to conferences in a Beech Bonanza and a Piper Tri-Pacer. After hours, the ideas and cold beer, martinis and scotch flowed freely in the dark, cool basement of the old Parsonian Hotel or in someone’s home, often well into the night. The discussions ranged freely from research methodology and conceptualization to sex and flying. In addition to establishing this tradition of informal research meetings, the staff was encouraged to prepare working papers from their first “poorly formed notion” to polished manuscripts for publication.

As Spradlin recalled, “the new research environment fostered a spirit of humor, camaraderie, adventure and purpose.”

The Parsons team started by defining verbal behavior as behavior that is rewarded through the actions of other persons.

The team theorized that the verbal behavior of children with mental retardation had been “unrewarded” by their families and, later, by the institutional environment, but that it was possible to measure and determine what could increase their communication.

First there had to be some way of reliably testing the children’s verbal behavior. Spradlin developed what was called the Parsons’ Language Sample – a set of items designed to test verbal behavior of children with mental retardation based on Skinner’s classifications.

Rosenberg considered the effect of the independent or interpersonal variable in increasing a child’s verbal behavior, the other person in a two-person “assembly,” studying the effect on children’s language with adults and other children with varying degrees of mental retardation.

Copland and Ezell experimented with the best treatment methods to stimulate language to determine if hospital aides could maintain such a method over time.

Carefully, tentatively but surely, the Parsons team probed the silence of profound mental retardation and found a possible passage to communication when they proved that these children could learn. The results of these early experiments and training by the KU researchers, based on Skinner’s reinforcement principles, seemed almost miraculous, recalled Spradlin.

“Bair, who wanted a progressive treatment hospital for children, had a problem for which even Menninger could offer little help. Schiefelbusch had a way of getting money for funding a grant to improve Bair’s program, and researchers influenced by animal learning experiments had an effective tool for teaching children who neither spoke nor understood speech.”

It would be several years before these and later KU researchers, along with others from across the country and world, would expand, refine and confirm the suggestions of these earliest studies at Parsons. But their hypotheses about the communication and behavior of children with mental retardation began to give the field a scientific basis and have stood the test of time.

After the presentation in Milwaukee on May 21, 1959, news of what the Parsons group was achieving—proof that people with even profound retardation could learn—began to spread by way of presentations, publications, and word of mouth. A stream of visitors came to Parsons including contingents from other states, countries and several prominent behaviorists such as Nathan Azrin, Sidney Bijou, Charles Ferster, Donald Baer and Ogden Lindsley, who acted as consultants to the group beginning in 1960.

By 1960, an entire monograph supplement of the Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders was devoted to the Parsons Project.

On the strength of the success of the first Parsons Project, a second federal grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) was awarded in 1961 with a 50 percent increase in funding. A research-training grant for pre-doctoral trainees was added in 1962. The next year the indefatigable Schiefelbusch put together a proposal that won the largest funded research grant KU had ever seen up to that time. It was a $2 million grant with provisions for research on three campuses—Parsons, KU and the KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas. Again, NIMH awarded the grant, but the new National Institute of Child Health and Human Development would be managing it.

Ogden Lindsley, who had done pioneer studies with Skinner and coined the term behavior therapy, came from Harvard in 1965 to coordinate research at the University of Kansas Medical Center’s Child Rehabilitation Unit – that with Parsons and Lawrence formed the now three-campus Bureau of Child Research. In the same year, Schiefelbusch, with Frances Horowitz, one of the second wave of Parsons researchers, and then acting chair of the Department of Human Development and Family Life at KU, pulled off a coup that recruited some of the hottest young behavior shapers in the country, R. Vance Hall, Donald Baer, Todd Risley and Montrose Wolf, away from the University of Washington in one fell swoop.

But Schiefelbusch didn’t stop there.

In 1967, he managed a successful bid for KU to become one of the first of a national network of mental retardation research centers made possible by legislation signed on October 31, 1963, by President John F. Kennedy. Kansas would be part of the effort that signaled a turning point in the nation’s attitude and commitment to citizens with mental retardation.

By 1972, in a definitive Psychology Today article, Lindsley, along with the Washington group, Baer, Hall, Risley and Wolf, were cited as five of the most influential names in applied behavior analysis, and now they were all at the University of Kansas. They all gave weight to the magazine’s description of KU as “probably the world leader in applied behavior analysis.”

The University of Washington group, which became known as the Kansas Mafia, was taking applied behavior analysis to the streets. Now, the Bureau’s Juniper Gardens Children’s Project, located originally in the basement of a liquor store in one of the meanest neighborhoods in Kansas City, Kansas, was sharing the national spotlight with Parsons as the fourth Bureau of Child Research site. These younger KU researchers began to develop scientifically sound approaches to the problems of school failure and went on to address juvenile delinquency and even larger community issues. But it had all started in Parsons.

In 1985, the reputation of the Bureau of Child Research in Kansas was such that Dick Schiefelbusch was invited to give a paper at the Royal Society of London, Britain’s version of the National Academy of Sciences in the US.

What made it all work? According to Spradlin, behavior analysis needed a context and content and special education and speech pathology needed tools. “It is a very powerful combination and has shaped our strengths today.”

“We didn’t start with acres of literature,” said Schiefelbusch, “but with the idea of helping people. We could and did improvise science. Most people would have run away from doing research at Parsons State Hospital. Some must have thought we were out of our minds.”

That first Parsons Language Project would not lead to a cure for mental retardation as some believed in those early years. Indeed, huge advances in genetics and neuroscience in the last 15 years have impacted the scientific direction of the Life Span Institute and the prevention and treatment of developmental disabilities. The Parsons Project was, however, the genesis of an inspired interdisciplinary scientific approach to child development at the University of Kansas that has unquestionably made it a world leader in discoveries that have changed the lives of millions.

Karen Salisbury Henry
Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies

Source Notes

Interviews by author:
Richard Schiefelbusch, Ph.D., January 5, 2005; January 20, 2006; January 25, 2006.
Joseph Spradlin, Ph.D., February 2, 2006; February 7, 2006; May 24, 2006; July 18, 2006
Edward Zamarripa, Ed.D. January 23, 2006
Michael Wehmeyer, Ph.D., February 4, 2006`
Steven Warren, Ph.D., January 23, 2006
Richard Schiefelbusch, personal papers and memorabilia.Schiefelbusch, R.L., & Schroeder, S.R. (Eds.) (in press). Doing science and doing good: A history of the Bureau of Child Research and the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.Kansas Legislature. L. 1921, ch. 282, § 1; May 25; R.S. 1923, 76-316-318.Fitter Families for Future Firesides: A Report of the Eugenics Department of the Kansas Free Fair, 1920-1924, American Philosophical SocietyViola J. Anderson, Department of Home Economics: The First 50 Years, 1910-1960, The University of Kansas, 1964Florence B. Sherbon Collection, Personal Papers of Florence B. Sherbon, 1895-1945, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas LibrariesBureau of Child Research Papers, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas LibrariesParsons Research Project, Papers presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of Mental Deficiency at Milwaukee on May 21, 1959 by members of the project. (unpublished)Program of Research in Communication Disorders of Mentally Retarded Children, proposal MH 08146-01 to Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, (no date)Notification of Grant Award, In reply to OM-111, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, November 27, 1957Establishing an Interdisciplinary Research Team in a Training School, R.L. Schiefelbusch, American Journal of Mental Deficiency, Vol. 65, No. 2, September 1960.Language Behavior of Mentally Retarded Children, Medical Times, September 1960, Richard L. Schiefelbusch, Ph.D., Howard V. Bair, M.D.Joint Setting for Research: Training School and University, Richard L. Schiefelbusch, Ph.D., Howard V. Bair, M.D. Mental Hospitals, American Psychiatric Association, 1960.

Language and Communication, Journal of the Kansas Medical Society, Volume LXI, Number VI, 1960, R.L. Schiefelbusch, Ph.D. and J.E. Spradlin, 1960

Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, Monograph Supplement Number 10, January 1963, Language Studies of Mentally Retarded Children, A Report of the Parsons Project in Language and Communication of Mentally Retarded Children.

Frederick Seaton, The Long Road Toward “The Right Thing to Do”: The Troubled History of Winfield State Hospital, Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 27 (Winter 204-2005):250-263

Steven Selden, Transforming Better Babies into Fitter Families: Archival Resources and the History of the American Eugenics Movement, 1908-1930, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 149, No. 2, June 2005
Frances Degen Horowitz, Donald M. Baer Remembered, Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 2002, 35, 313-314

Donald K. Routh, Historical Reflection on Advocacy in the Psychology of Intellectual Disability, Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 2005, vol. 34, no. 4, 606-616

Roger Ricklefs, A Helping Hand: New Programs Enable The Retarded to Lead More Normal Lives, The Wall Street Journal, June 13, 1979, page 1.

Kansas Special Advisory Committee for the State Mental Hospitals, Report and Recommendations, December 29, 1948

Project News, Parsons State Hospital and Training Center, February-November, 1965, October 1966, March 1967

Robert Hoyt, Thursday’s Children and Yesterday’s Heroes, Bureau of Child Research.

Transcript of interview by Richard L. Schiefelbusch by Calder M. Pickett, February 12, 1991, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries

Operation Behavior Modification, (film) The Bureau of Child Research, 1967

Kenneth Goodall, Field Report: Shapers at Work, Psychology Today, November 1972, Vol.6, No. 6