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Obituary: Oliver Bloodstein

Nan Bernstein Ratner | 01.09.2010

Author of the classic work A Handbook on Stuttering, now in its sixth edition, Oliver Bloodstein passed away in July 2010.

Oliver BloodsteinOliver Bloodstein, a major founding father of the modern field of speech-language pathology, and an internationally respected expert on stuttering, died on July 4, 2010 at the age of 89.

He was born on December 2, 1920 in New York City. He received his Bachelor of Arts from the College of the City of New York in 1941; at the time, dissuaded from a potential career as an English teacher because of poor employment prospects, he was counseled about the emerging field of speech-language pathology, and traveled to the University of Iowa to study with Lee Edward Travis.

Travis was widely credited with developing the discipline of speech-language pathology by merging and extending work from fields such as psychology, medicine, traditional speech studies (rhetoric and oratory) and linguistics. Although Travis had actually left Iowa prior to his arrival, Bloodstein stayed to work with Wendell Johnson, another major early figure in the field. He received his Master of Arts degree in 1942, and his Ph.D. from Iowa in 1948.

At the time that his first publication appeared(1), Bloodstein was far from the ivy-covered walls of academe, serving in the 37th infantry division of the US Army, in the Solomon Islands. For years, his vivid depictions of life as a young, physically small and slight, pale, city-bred and rather 'bookish' foot soldier serving in the War in the Pacific (including campaigns in the Philippines as well as the Solomons) entranced both family and colleagues.

A Handbook on Stuttering

After graduation, Bloodstein took a post at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, where, for over 50 years, he taught, researched, and published. A colleague, Robert West (the first president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association), who came to Brooklyn College shortly after Oliver arrived, asked him to prepare a pamphlet on stuttering for physicians. Thus, in 1959, the first Handbook on Stuttering appeared. It is now in its 6th edition, the most recent of which (2008) was co-authored with Nan Bernstein Ratner.

The Handbook, his life legacy, has been called "the most significant single publication in the entire field of speech pathology"(2), "the most important book on stuttering in print" and the "Bible" of stuttering research(3). In a day when one can keep abreast of all emerging publications relevant to stuttering from a home PC, it is easy to forget that the thousands of research reports in the current and past editions of the Handbook were gathered by hand, in endless and tireless quests at brick-and-mortar libraries.

An influential teacher, he counted among his students other major future leaders of the field, such as Gene Brutten, and Gerald Siegel, who in turn produced their own generations of influential scholars in communication disorders. His Handbook co-author Nan Bernstein Ratner attributed her own decision to work in stuttering to admiration for Bloodstein's early articles proposing that stuttering in young children begins as a problem in language production, and is only later shaped into the complex behaviors, attitudes and reactions that characterize later stuttering and make it so challenging to treat. Literally, generations after Bloodstein first proposed this theory, completely in the absence of modern brain imaging techniques, current research has in fact discovered many of his insights to be correct - imaging and psycholinguistic studies continue to find subtle (and likely inherited) differences both in language processing and speech motor coordination between people who stutter and those who are normally fluent.(4)

The Handbook is unique as a reference in speech-language pathology for its depth of coverage, scope and impartiality. Bloodstein preferred to save his own personal valuation and interpretation of the massive body of research that he reported for a late and rather short chapter in all editions, rather then filter his coverage throughout. Thus, it is not surprising that, regardless of the many controversies that continue to characterize both stuttering research and its treatment, all authors in the field reference the Handbook, regardless of philosophical allegiance to a particular viewpoint on the disorder. The Handbook is, quite literally, the 'neutral zone' of stuttering research.

Bloodstein embraced and reported research in stuttering but advised professionals to "be wary of laboratory experiments that purport to be analogues of everday living"(5), as he said in one of many commentaries on current research that he frequently published as letters to editors of major journals. He was distrustful of generalizations derived only from laboratory paradigms, and insisted that any stuttering treatments that claimed to be effective had to pass a number of tests imposed by the everyday challenges of communication in society. These 'tests' of stuttering therapy effectiveness are now considered the gold standard for reports of treatment outcomes. Rigorous but not rigid, Bloodstein readily admitted that many of his own beliefs and even his influential models of the underlying problem in stuttering (as in his Anticipatory Struggle or Continuity hypotheses) were changed over the years in response to listening to and observing his patients and their families.


Bloodstein retired from Brooklyn College in 2002, and became an emeritus professor. In addition to A Handbook on Stuttering, and scores of major research articles, he also wrote vividly about the long quest to discover a cure for stuttering in Stuttering: the Search for a Cause and Cure, and authored the major text Speech Pathology: an Introduction. In 2007, he was interviewed by the Journal of Fluency Disorders(6) to capture his unique life history, which spanned that of his profession. To date, it is the only time that the Journal has published a personal interview.

An active member of numerous professional societies, Bloodstein helped to found the New York State Speech-Language-Hearing Association; he received the Honors of that Association in 1970. In 1989, Bloodstein was awarded Honors of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), its highest award. This was followed by the prestigious Malcolm Fraser Award from the Stuttering Foundation of America in 1999.

An influential advocate of the development of Specialty Recognition in Fluency Disorders, which credentials speech-language pathologists with specific expertise in the treatment of stuttering, he continued to publish major, original research articles into his eighties. Professionally, Oliver Bloodstein was active until just shortly before his death, responding to email discussions about stuttering research from any and all correspondents, in his inimitable concisely to-the-point, yet gentle, style.

Oliver Bloodstein loved nature and literature. Although he aspired to become a poet, he undoubtedly touched as many if not more hearts and souls through his clinical work with those who stutter and their families, and through his research and teaching, and writing. Among his hobbies were a love of chess, and he was proud to report that he engaged in correspondence chess with players from Kissimmee, Florida, to Walla Walla, Washington.

He met his wife of 69 years, Annette, in a high school public speaking class; they were married in September of 1941. He is survived by two children (Daniel Bloodstein and Judith Blackstone) and two grandchildren (Corey and Ben), as well as Annette. The family requests that memorial donations or contributions be addressed to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation at www.ashfoundation.org

References:
1. Bloodstein, O. (1944). Studies in the psychology of stuttering: XIX. The relationship between oral reading rate and severity of stuttering. Journal of Speech Disorders, 9, 161-173.
2. Martin, R. (1970). Review of A Handbook on Stuttering, Exceptional Children, 469-470.
3. Amazon reviews.
4. Buchel, C. & Sommer, M. (2004). What causes stuttering? PLoSBiology, 2(2), 0159-0163.
5. Bloodstein, O. (1988) Letter to the editor. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 53, 347.
6. Onslow, M. (2007). Oliver Bloodstein: reflections on a career. Journal of Fluency Disorders, 32, 330-7.

Nan Bernstein Ratner, July 2010

Extended version of article in the Autumn 2010 edition of Speaking Out, page 19.