Q&A with Dr. Samuel G. Fletcher, PhD, Speech and Hearing Scientist
Samuel Fletcher is a speech-language pathologist and audiologist with a specialty in instrumentation for speech pathology and audiology. He graduated with a BS in English and Speech from Utah State University in 1951, and an MS in 1957 and a PhD in 1958 in Speech Pathology, Audiology and Anatomy from the University of Utah. Dr. Fletcher also received postdoctoral training from the University of Utah and University of Oregon Medical Schools from 1958 through 1962, focusing on experimental psychology, statistics, learning principles and perception. Dr. Fletcher's impressive career in speech pathology and audiology has spanned more than 50 years. You can find his speech therapy tools at CompleteSpeech (www.completespeech.com).
Q: You have a varied background. How did you go from sports reporter to serving in the Office of Naval Intelligence?
A: I always enjoyed doing things that were different and also felt strongly about standing up for others against bullies. I became the marble shooting champion in elementary school and the wrestling champion in high school. I placed 2nd in the state in my boxing division and was on the 1st team in football. My high school English teacher recommended me when the local newspaper, The Preston Citizen, wanted a student to be a sports reporter. They paid me seven cents a linier inch and always printed everything I wrote.
I dropped out of high school half way through my senior year to join the Navy as I had heard they were soon going to dispense with the GI Bill. (I was not a full-fledged high school dropout since my school allowed my time in boot camp to qualify for PE credit and my grades were high enough that they gave me my diploma anyway.) Just as we completed the Naval Boot Camp, one to two young men were selected from each company and asked if we would be interested in being assigned to Naval Intelligence and told us that whatever we did would be top-secret. We jumped at that assignment and were sent to Washington D.C. An in-depth study of our backgrounds was done. Following that clearance they mostly had us doing guard duty to protect the secrets of the senior staff.
Q: What an experience! How did you transition from the Navy to school teacher and then SLP?
A: Not one to let grass grow under my feet, so to speak, I enrolled at Utah State University as soon as I was discharged from the Navy. I took my mid-term exams the next week. I had a heavy schedule after that and graduated with honors two-and-a half years later with a major in English and Speech, and a teaching certificate. As I began being interviewed by school superintendents, one of the superintendents asked if I would be interested in being a principal of a seven-teacher elementary school for one year. With great trepidation I accepted and had a wonderful experience.
The teachers under me had up to 22 years of teaching experience but showed no animosity toward this young whippersnapper. In fact they gave me great support. The next couple of years I taught English and math in a junior high school and also had the assignment of keeping their financial books. The next three years I taught fifth grade students. I also taught the students how to make puppets and helped them put on a school puppet play. I shot marbles with the boys and jumped rope with the girls. During the summers I went to school and decided that I wanted to major in speech pathology.
Q: What motivated you to become a speech-language pathologist?
A: It was a new field where I could make a contribution. While I was at USU, I wasn't successful in teaching a class of deaf students through acoustics and that was frustrating. So, I started working on a device that could help them see what was going on inside the mouth. This eventually became the CompleteSpeech Palatometer.
Q: What types of diagnoses do you encounter most frequently?
A: Deafness/hard of hearing and cleft palate.
Q: What are the greatest challenges you face as a speech therapist?
A: Enabling the hearing impaired to learn to speak using physiologically based instruments (Palatometer), and to learn through vision.
Q: When did you start developing speech instrumentation?
A: During the last year that I was teaching the fifth grade I got a letter from my major professor in speech pathology at the U of U with an offer to be a graduate student research assistant in the Pediatrics Department. I spent two years there as an undergraduate student and another year as a post-doctoral research fellow. Our studies focused on anatomy and physiology of the head and neck under the tutelage of Dr. James Bosma, a world-renown scientist in these fields. We were using cinefluorography (movie X-rays) as a major research tool. As I was using it heavily in my doctoral research, I wanted to make precise measurements. At the time there was no way to do that so I drew up a tracing cabinet and had it made. The design was apparently circulated around to other research centers. I graduated "with distinction" for both my master and doctoral degrees.
During the final interview for my PhD my advisory committee gave me strong advice to go on with my research and apply for a postdoctoral research grant. I applied to the USPHS and received a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, then a Special Research Fellowship at the University of Oregon Medical School in Portland. During that time my scholastic studies were in experimental psychology, statistics, and learning principles and perception.
Q: What made you pursue this path?
A: Oral motor control was a serious problem and no acceptable way existed to measure it. So, I developed a better way to measure rapid lip and tongue movements. This became the standard. I was also on committees to diagnose and treat children with disorders that included too much sound coming out of their noses. There was no way to measure and demonstrate it objectively. Surgeons made decisions on perception only, so I began playing around with an electronic stethoscope that was not being used. It had two microphones—it worked! This was the beginning of a new instrument ultimately called a Nasometer, which was marketed worldwide and was especially beneficial for diagnosis and treatment of cleft palates. During my last year as a special research fellow, I had the opportunity to teach some deaf kids under the direction of Alice Kent who was one of the greatest teachers of the deaf in the world.
Q: Can you talk more about the development of the Palatometer?
A: Shortly after I completed my postdoctoral work, I received a call from Utah State University asking me if I would be willing to come there and help develop a speech pathology program. I accepted and was able to pull together a group of outstanding students. I was serving as both a speech pathologist and audiologist. Four years later our program became the first one West of the Mississippi to be accredited in speech pathology and audiology.
Shortly thereafter a group of parents came to me and asked if I could help them find a way so that they could keep their children at home rather than send them to the State School for the Deaf in Ogden. I agreed to help. The local school district put up the money and our department provided a large classroom. I thought with my background in acoustics and teaching I could be a major asset to them but found out I was wrong. We failed just as others had failed for hundreds of years. I then realized that if these children were to talk, they needed to see and imitate what the tongue was doing in the mouth. In about 1960 I started that effort from scratch, which led to the development of the Palatometer, a device that enables greater success more quickly for those with speech problems.
Q: Do you feel that the role of speech professionals has changed over recent years?
A: The field has broadened both through therapy and through instrumentation available. There are more independent professionals today.
Q: What do you feel is of the greatest concern to speech therapists and audiologists today?
A: Communicative impairment or disorders.
Q: What do you like most about your job? What do you dislike most?
A: Working with people who have speech or hearing disorders. I dislike how long it takes to meet treatment goals.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
A: Seeing people learn to communicate orally much more rapidly as a result of using visual instrumentation.
Q: Can you share a memorable moment among your peers?
A: On recommendation of the Publications Board, ASHA presented Akira Hasegawa and me with the Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders Editors Award for the article of highest merit published in 1983. I also received honors of the association (ASHA) in 2007 in recognition of distinguished contributions in the fields of speech and hearing science.
Q: How has working in this specialty allowed you to grow professionally?
A: Both research and professional treatment opportunities have been developed over the years and I've been able to pioneer some of these.
Q: What advice do you have for others thinking of entering a speech profession?
A:. There are more positions available in my specialty than many other careers and it's a highly respected profession. So, choose one of the outstanding universities offering communicative disorders programs and get your certification to start practicing. Then get a CompleteSpeech Palatometer!
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