The Dark History of Research: The Monster Experiment

Contributed by Grandee Dang, Class of 2019

Throughout the course of history, great strides in medicinal discoveries have led to longer life spans and disease prevention. From Jonas Salk who developed the polio vaccine that nearly eradicated the crippling polio disease, to the varicella vaccine still used to day, such monumental discoveries will continue to leave a beacon of hope within the field of health and science (1). However, on the borders that lie beyond that bright beacon of hope are dark patches in medicinal history that so many have either forgotten or have yet unearth. One dark patch is an Iowa study that was also known as the “Monster Experiment” in which several orphan children with speech impediments underwent a social experiment in hopes of correcting their stuttering behavior (2).  The outcome of such experimentation brought forth the ethical issues regarding case studies and the subject matter being observed. Furthermore, the fact that children were the primary participants, the controversy of long term or irreversible psychological damages became the forefront of debate and conversation.


The Soldiers and Sailors Orphanage (4)

In 1938 at the University of Iowa, American psychologist Wendell Johnson and his subordinate Mary Tudor conducted an experiment to observe how different approaches in social therapy would affect a child’s outcome within their speech (2). The pools of twenty-two participants were selected from Iowa’s “Sailors and Soldiers Orphanage,” in which the children were led to believe that they would undergo a form of “speech therapy” (2). Five of Mary Tudor’s colleagues agreed to act as judges in encouraging any positive behaviors or isolating any negative speech patterns (2). Ten children from the pool of twenty-two that were deemed as “stutterers” from the orphanage were subdivided into two subgroups, group 1A and group 1B. Those who have fallen under group 1A were told that “they were not stutterers” and those under group 1B were “endorsed the label” as “stutterers” by the judges (2). The remaining twelve children had no history of speech impediments, but were subdivided into two groups (2A and 2B) that underwent the same labeling and behavioral encouragement from the judges. The study was designed to observe how direct encouragement and “labeling” would affect a child’s speech patterns (2).  Essentially Tudor wanted to see if labeling a child as a “stutterer” or “non-stutter” would have any changes to those who had a speech impediment versus those who had normal speech behaviors (2). The judges would encourage positive reinforcement among the 1A and 2B sub groups while the 1B and 2A sub groups were often isolated or directly projected as having “a great deal of trouble” in speech regardless whether or not they had a speech impediment (2).

The experiment ultimately left several of the children with detrimental psychological effects. Norma Jean Pugh was a six-year-old participant with no speech impediment prior to the experiment, however after the studies were conducted, she “could barely speak” (3).  Nine year-old Elizabeth Ostert among other children noticed a “plummet” in academic performance and became recluse due to “fear of speaking” (3). The monster experiment showed when issues of ethics are not navigated thoroughly, the ending results can fall off course into inhumane consequences. The foundation of new therapies and medicinal advances is rooted in cases studies and experimentation. However, when the progress of medicine overshadows human ethics, the field of health and sciences becomes the very monsters they wish to eradicate.


  1. “About Jonas Salks – Salk Institute for Biological Studies”. Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Retrieved 2016-10-25. <;
  1. Tudor, Mary (1939).An Experimental Study of the Effect of Evaluative Labeling of Speech Fluency. University of Iowa. Retrieved 2016-10-25. <;
  1. Dyer, Jim.”Ethic and Orphans: ‘The Monster Study'”. Mercury News. Mercury News. Retrieved 25 September
  1. “Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home”. Wikimedia Commons. Free Media Historic Repository. <;

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