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Edith Whetnall, ENT Surgeon, auralist and pioneering audiologist

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 24 February 2012

WHETNALL, Edith  (1910-65)

Edith Whetnall was an ENT surgeon and a pioneer and world authority in paediatric audiology. The daughter of a Wesleyan minister, Edith Whetnall was born in Hull. She trained as a doctor at King’s College Hospital, possibly being inspired to specialize in otology because deafness was diagnosed in her three-year-old niece (Ballantyne). During the war years she was an assistant to the great laryngologist Victor Negus. In 1947 she set up the Deafness Aid Clinic at the Royal National Throat Nose and Ear Hospital, London, (the Golden Square Hospital), the year before the NHS was set up. This unit developed into the Nuffield Hearing and Speech Centre in 1963 and she was appointed its first Director. The centre was purpose-built for the diagnosis, assessment and development of hearing and speech in deaf children.

Whetnall realized that some deaf children were ‘holding their own’ in school, and she discovered that this was because the mothers had ‘drawn the child close’ and spoken into the ear (Ballantyne). In the Edith Whetnall memorial lecture for 1978, H.A.Beagley said,

it was part of Edith Whetnall’s philosophy that all, or practically all, children who were clinically deaf had a useful residuum of hearing which could be exploited by early diagnosis and appropriate management. Edith Whetnall’s sweeping generalizations on this point have proved to be amply justified in view of the fact that only a minute fraction of deaf children are totally deaf, and these usually as a result of bilateral cochlear agenesis or severe complications of cerebrospinal meningitis. It is now generally accepted that some residual hearing almost always exists, and sometimes this remnant of hearing is very useful indeed; but without early diagnosis and management such children were virtually doomed to a life of little or no verbal communication or even muteness.

In 1948 the new NHS ‘Medresco’ (MEDical RESearch COuncil) hearing aid was introduced. Ballantyne says this made it possible to train the child’s residual hearing, which was found in the majority of children born deaf or with early acquired deafness. This puts Whetnall on the oralist side of the debate over Deaf education, though hers was what would perhaps be called an auralist approach to deafness, emphasizing the child’s (residual) hearing, rather than oralist  when the emphasis was on speech. Ballantyne again;

Though somewhat sensitive, Edith was fiercely determined and she preached her message with missionary zeal; but throughout her professional life her work was opposed by a vociferous minority of people who held that deaf children should be allowed to develop non-orally within their own ‘deaf culture’. Although this controversy continued for some years, the principles espoused by Edith Whetnall gained widespread support.

Whetnall married Dr Robert Niven in 1939. She was badly injured in a car accident in 1945, following which she suffered from poor health due to myasthenia gravis which eventually ended her life in October 1965 aged only 55. She was co-author with D.B.Fry of The Deaf Child, (1964), and also of the posthumously published Learning to Hear, (1970) which was edited by her husband Robert Niven. Every year there is an Edith Whetnall lecture at the RNTNE Hospital to commemorate her legacy.

Beagley, H. A.  Edith Whetnall’s contribution to British audiology.

GOULD, G. A history of the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital 1974-1982. Journal of Laryngology and Otology, 1998, Suppl 22, 45-47.


Obituary. Hearing, 1965, 20(12), 364. (photo)

John Ballantyne, ‘Whetnall , Edith Aileen Maude (1910–1965)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/57669, accessed 24 Feb 2012]
Note: To the confusion of many, not least myself, the terms Oralism and Auralism seem to have been used fairly interchangeably. Natural Auralism  is a more recent development of these approaches, with “maximal use of residual hearing; the need for meaningful input; view of child as a learner”. I will just add that we do not take sides in these issues – we merely present the sources as clearly as we can.