• Visit our partners: Our Partners:
  • Visit our partners: Our Partners:

Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

The Monster Study: The Scientists Who Intentionally Bullied Children

Written by Laura Davies


In 1939, Mary Tudor walked into an orphanage in Iowa and selected 22 children for her “Monster Study”. She spent the next 6 months bullying and tormenting them until they began to stutter, withdraw from friendships, and nosedive academically. None of these children recovered emotionally, and they carried the low self-esteem and lack of confidence, that Tudor had instilled in them, for the rest of their lives. At least this is what Jim Dyer, the journalist who broke the story, and countless psychology professors would have you believe. But is it the truth?

Wendell Johnson

Although Mary Tudor conducted the study, it wasn’t her idea. She was just the grad student selected to carry out the methods designed by psychologist Wendell Johnson, who, himself, had a stutter. He often said, “I became a speech pathologist because I needed one.” His life’s mission was to find the cause of or a cure for stuttering, and it’s undeniable that his work changed many lives.

He first attended the University of Iowa as a student, with an extreme stutter that he’d had since he was five. He was nicknamed Jack, after the heavyweight boxer, Jack Johnson, because when kids teased him for his speech, he punched them.

When he arrived at the university, they were leaders in the field of speech pathology, and Johnson would firmly cement this position. His first contribution was to offer himself up for human experimentation. He endured having pebbles placed in his mouth, cold water baths, hypnotism, psychoanalysis, and various electrodes stuck to his body, all in the pursuit of finding a cause for his stutter. He even had his dominant right arm placed in a cast to help prove his professor’s theory that using the wrong hand caused a stammer as it created an imbalance in the hemispheres of the brain. Nothing worked.

By 1936, he started to doubt that there was a genetic cause for a stutter. He started interviewing parents with stuttering children and, in all cases, discovered that the kids had been labelled at a very young age. This led him to believe that perhaps “stuttering begins in the ear of the listener, not in the mouth of the child.”

Essentially, children don’t learn to speak perfectly straight away. We all repeat words or syllables occasionally and grow out of it. The problem comes when worried parents pick up on these small errors and start correcting and reprimanding. This causes the kids to become nervous and self-conscious and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where they make more mistakes and develop a full-on stutter. Something Johnson feels he experienced as a child. Or, as he put it, “The affliction is caused by the diagnosis.”

Designing the Monster Study

This line of thinking led Johnson to formulate his “diagnosogenic theory.” This was the theory that diagnosing and therefore labelling a child as “a stutterer” based on a few developmentally normal stammers would make the problem worse. To test this, he designed an experiment to answer the following four questions:

Will “removing” the label “stutterer” from those who’ve been labelled have any effect on their speech fluency?

Will endorsement of the label “stutterer” previously applied to an individual have any effect on their speech fluency?

Will endorsement of the label “normal speaker” previously applied to an individual have any effect on their speech fluency?

And will labelling a person previously regarded as a normal speaker a “stutterer” have any effect on their speech fluency?

To carry this out, he needed children, some who’d been labelled as “stutterers” and some without any speech issues. But where would he find the kids? Clearly, no parent would allow him to attempt to induce a stammer in their children, and he couldn’t use adults as his theory was based on labelling at a young age.

So, he did what many scientists in the 30s did and turned to institutions that housed the vulnerable and undefended. In this case, the Soldiers and Sailors Orphan’s Home in Davenport, Iowa. Professor Franklin Silverman, who studied under Johnson, would later describe this as, “They used that orphanage as a laboratory rat colony.”

Now that Johnson had access to 256 orphaned children, the next step was to assign a graduate student to conduct the study. He chose Mary Tudor, a 23-year-old, known for her ability to develop a rapport with kids.

Her first task was to visit the orphanage and select the ones who’d take part in the study. 22 were chosen, 10 from those whose teachers had identified them as having a stutter, and 12 from the children who had no issues with their speech. Then they were split into four groups some experimental and some control.

Once Tudor had her sample, the experiment could begin. This involved 6 months of weekly interviews where each child would read aloud or retell a story from memory, while Tudor would count their word repetitions, record their fluency, and comment on their speech. The children and teachers thought they were receiving speech therapy, but the reality was that Tudor was following a script designed to either remove or induce a stutter. The lucky ones were in the control group.

62 years later, one of the children, Donna Hastings, would say, “There but for the grace of God, I could have been placed in an experimental group. It could have been my life that was destroyed.”


The Scripts

The scripts Tudor used differed by group.

Group IA, five children with established stutters, received positive reinforcement and these statements:

“Many children have this same kind of trouble that you seem to be having. But it really isn’t trouble; it’s just a certain stage that children go through. Pay no attention to it, and soon you’ll find that you will be speaking very freely and well.”

Their teachers and matrons were also told to ignore repetitions, have them read aloud frequently, and should under no circumstance refer to them as a “stutterer”.

Group IIB, 6 children with no speech issues, acted as the control group and were mostly just told that they were great speakers. So far so good. Nothing too sinister about any of this, right?

Then came group IB, five children with a stutter who received negative reinforcement and lots of questions that frequently labelled them as “stutterers.” For example, “How long have you stuttered? When did you begin to stutter? What happened that caused you to stutter?” Obviously, this wasn’t good for the children, but unfortunately, it also wasn’t very different to the way parents and teachers treated children with a stutter at that time.

The real issues came with group IIA. These were the children with no speech issues who would be wrongfully informed that they had a stutter and criticized for it. Here’s an example of what they were told:

“The staff has come to the conclusion that you have a great deal of trouble with your speech. The type of interruptions which you have are very undesirable. You must try to stop yourself immediately. Don’t ever speak unless you can do it right.”

Their teachers and matrons were told, “Watch their speech all of the time very carefully and stop them when they have interruptions; Don’t allow them to speak unless they can say it right.”

Group IIA

So what did this look like for group IIA in practice?

Let’s take the case of Norma Pugh. She was just 5 years old, the youngest in the study, and placed in group IIA. She did not have a stutter, but it was Tudor’s job to convince her that she did. Norma was asked to tell the story of the three bears. When she accidentally said “she” three times, Tudor stopped her and told her that she had a stutter. She did this with every repeated word and Norma started to gasp and clamp her hand over her mouth each time.

The next time they met, Norma almost refused to speak. When forced, she’d say one word at a time, slowly. Tudor asked her what she was afraid of and Norma replied, “Afraid I might stutter.” At this point, Tudor noted, “She reacted to every repetition by stopping and hanging her head. She looked down practically all of the time. She seemed inhibited and she didn’t smile.” Remember this was a five year old girl.

After four months of visits, Norma’s speech became short and jerky, and she told a story like this, “There’s a jar. There’s a fox. Got a coat on. There’s a tree. Little girl. An here’s some flowers. An there’s a fence. Tea pot. Flower bowl.” Her fluency had dropped, and her number of interruptions had increased.

The nine-year-old, Elizabeth Ostert, also started refusing to speak. In one meeting Tudor asked her “You’re afraid of your stutter aren’t you?” and Elizabeth just nodded her head.

Another subject, Clarence Fifer, was 11 years old and the stutter Tudor gave him caused problems with his friends. He told her that when he stuttered the other boys noticed and laughed. She asked him what he did about it, and he responded that he’d walk away and feel pretty bad.

12-year-old, Phillip Spieker, became withdrawn and his speech more jerky, using just one word at a time. His teacher commented that, “He had gone down terribly in his school work and that in discussion she just couldn’t force anything out of him.“

15-year-old Mary Korlaske also struggled socially during the experiment. Tudor asked her about her best friend, Dolly,

“Does she know you stutter?”

“No.” replied Mary.

“Why not?”

“I hardly ever talk to her.” she said.

Another 15-year-old, Hazel Potter, suffered even more striking effects from the study. Tudor noted “During the experimental period she developed mannerisms characteristic of some stutterers, such as snapping her fingers to get a word out… and occasionally she presented the phenomenon of writing the same word two or three times in her compositions.”

Every single child was fully convinced they had a stutter, repeated multiple words during speech, and was extremely ashamed of the fact. Tudor often commented that they’d sink in their chairs, their faces would turn red, and they’d often refuse to speak altogether.



So, what were the effects of this cruel experiment on the children? Well, 5 out of 6 of group IIA increased the number of interruptions in their speech; their rate of speaking decreased; and so did the length of their responses. More worryingly, all of them underwent behavioural changes. They became shy, less talkative, embarrassed by their speech, and more self-conscious.

For reference, five out of six children who stuttered and received negative reinforcement also deteriorated in their speech. In contrast, all but one of the children in the control groups improved.

This was, of course, exactly what Johnson was hoping to see, but it was emotionally taxing for Tudor, who was finding it increasingly difficult to remain detached.

She later recalled, “I didn’t like what I was doing to those children. It was a hard, terrible thing. Today, I probably would have challenged it. Back then you did what you were told.”

After the experiment ended, she revisited the children three times to inform them that their stutters had been cured and they no longer needed to worry. Unfortunately, she could see the damage she’d done, and she wrote a letter to Johnson, which read, “I didn’t find them as free from the effects of the therapy I had inflicted upon them last year as I had hoped to.” And “I believe that in time they…will recover, but we certainly made a definite impression on them.”


Jim Dyer “Ethics and Orphans: The Monster Study”

On its completion, Tudor’s thesis, “An experimental study of the effect of evaluative labeling of speech fluency,” was shelved and largely forgotten. The only reference Johnson made to it was in a few of his lectures in the 1940s. It was then that his experiment earned the nickname “The Monster Study,” as his students questioned the ethics of the work.

Some claim that the reason that Johnson kept it hidden was for fear that it would tarnish his reputation and potentially draw comparisons to the human experiments of the Nazis. However, it’s more likely that he realised the methods weren’t sound, the sample size was too small, and most masters theses went largely unread anyway.

So, as the children never knew they’d been experimented on, it seemed likely that the Monster study would be forgotten. That was until Jim Dyer caught wind of the experiment and decided to investigate it for the San Jose Mercury News.

He was a journalism student at the University of Iowa but posed as a psychology student to gain access to the names of the children in Tudor’s Thesis from the Iowa State archives. This allowed him to track down and interview each of the victims, who by then were all in their 70s.

Each reacted with shock and anger, but none more so than Mary Korslake, whom Dyer apparently found living as a recluse in a retirement home. According to Dyer’s original article entitled “Ethics and Orphans: The Monster Study,” Mary was so outraged to find out that she’d been treated as a guinea pig that she decided to write to Tudor, addressing her letter and package to “The Monster.” Dyer must’ve hand-delivered it to Tudor as he was there to record her reaction. “Oh dear,” she said, on reading the name on the parcel, “I hope it isn’t a bomb.”

By this time, Tudor was 84 years old, had long retired, and did speak with regret about the study: “That was the pitiful part—that I got them to trust me and then I did this horrible thing to them.”


Upon the publication of Dyer’s article in June 2001, people were rightly outraged. Unlike in 1939, ethics were now a big thing amongst the scientific community, and no one could argue that using institutionalized children, who lacked protection or a choice in the matter, was morally acceptable.

The outcome of this was a lawsuit, brought by the children of group IIA against the State of Iowa. They initially sought compensation of $13.5 million in damages, claiming that they’d suffered stutters, damaged confidence, and a fear of speaking both socially and professionally. This had damaged their chances to succeed in school, their careers, and their personal lives.

Due to the advanced age of the three surviving claimants, they ended up settling for just $1.2 million. A spokesman for the University of Iowa released the statement, “This is a study that should never be considered defensible in any era. In no way would I ever think of defending this study. In no way. It’s more than unfortunate.”

Defence of the Monsters

While no one could argue that the study was morally wrong and that the children deserved compensation, there is a bit more to the story that’s not often reported.

Iowa settled as Mary’s words reported by Dyer were heart-wrenching. She wrote to Tudor, “I could have been a scientist, archaeologist, or even president. Instead, I became a pityful stutterer. The kids made fun of me, my grades fell off, I felt stupid. Clear into my adulthood, I still want to avoid people to this day.” I mean, what kind of monster would try to defend that and deny her compensation?

However, the court documents released after the trial tell a different story. Mary admitted in her deposition that she wrote the letter at Dyer’s urging and that it was largely false. She never called Tudor a monster or believed she was one, and she even sent her friendly Christmas cards. Dyer had waxed poetically about how Tudor had reminded Mary of her mother, and how she’d hoped to have been adopted by her. But Mary was never up for adoption. Staff at her retirement home had been asked to provide a letter stating Mary was living as a recluse, but they refused on the grounds that it would be false.

It wasn’t just the lawyers who found holes in Dyer’s story either. Speech research scientists Nicoline Ambrose and Ehud Yairi investigated the study in more depth and noted a few things. Firstly, each child was assessed by five impartial judges at the end of the study, and none of group IIA had actually developed a stutter, as Dyer had claimed. In fact, depositions in the trial revealed multiple doctors’ notes and medical assessments for each IIA subject which made no mention of any speech or social difficulties and, in some cases, assessed them to be good.

Secondly, they proposed that blaming the social anxiety of the children on a 6-month study, with relatively little contact was a stretch. Tudor herself had noted that although she asked the teachers to cooperate, only one of them did, so the children didn’t suffer constant fluency reminders, just the occasional meetings. Surely the fact that these children had been given up by their parents and were living in an orphanage where they were made to scrub floors and received little love would’ve contributed in some way.

In Dyer’s own article, he described how Mary ran away from the orphanage to find her mother, who promptly called the police and had her taken back. Ambrose suggested this was likely to have had a greater effect on Mary than a few months of speech therapy, where she was pulled up for repeating words.

Ultimately, Dyer lost his job at the Mercury, but not for fabricating the majority of his story. Ironically, he was brought down by ethics. As it turns out, posing as a grad student in order to access the protected names of children is a journalistic no-no.

In the end, none of the people involved in the Monster study came out of it particularly well. The subjects lied and embellished the truth to gain larger settlements, the journalist lied to write a better story, the scientists designed and conducted a study that would be hugely unethical by today’s standards, and countless news reporters and even psychology professors have retold Dyer’s version of events because it’s just more exciting than the truth. A horrible study was done, that hurt, upset and confused several defenceless children in an orphanage, but fortunately, it had no lasting effects on their speech. Either way, I think everyone can agree it’s a good thing we don’t experiment on vulnerable children anymore.


 “Monster Study”. Wikipedia, 23 Sept. 2022. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Monster_Study&oldid=1111942939.

https://iro.uiowa.Edu. https://iro.uiowa.edu. Accessed 26 Sept. 2022.

Ethics and Orphans: The `Monster Study’ (6/10/2001). 27 Sept. 2011, https://web.archive.org/web/20110927051740/http://www-psych.stanford.edu/~bigopp/stutter2.html.

’Monster Study’ Still Stings. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/monster-study-still-stings/. Accessed 26 Sept. 2022.

Untitled. 30 Mar. 2015, https://www.gvsu.edu/cms4/asset/F51281F0-00AF-E25A-5BF632E8D4A243C7/monster_study.pdf.

The Monster Study: How Doctors Tortured Orphans in the name of Medicine – CVLT Nation. 10 June 2021, https://cvltnation.com/the-monster-study-how-doctors-tortured-orphans-in-the-name-of-medicine/.

Facts_document.Pdf. 20 Aug. 2007, https://www.stutteringhelp.org/Portals/English/Facts_document.pdf.

https://web.archive.org/web/20121016040750/http://www.uiowa.edu/~cyberlaw/wj/wjfigspe.html. Accessed 26 Sept. 2022.

“The ‘Monster Experiment’ In The 1930s Involved Gaslighting And Tormenting Orphans”. IFLScience, https://iflscience.com/the-monster-experiment-in-the-1930s-involved-gaslighting-and-tormenting-orphans-59387. Accessed 26 Sept. 2022.

PII: 0094-730X(88)90049-6. 13 Mar. 2002, https://uh.edu/ethicsinscience/Media/Monster%20Study.pdf.

“The Monster Study | Summary, Results, and Ethical Issues | Practical Pie”. Practical Psychology, 21 Dec. 2019, https://practicalpie.com/the-monster-study/.

Martin, A. “The ‘Monster Study’ That Forced Orphans To Become Stutterers”. Medium, 18 Jan. 2022, https://historianandrew.medium.com/the-monster-study-that-forced-orphans-to-become-stutterers-eaad3ae3a70.

Wolper, A. “Dyer and His ’Monster’ Story”. Editor and Publisher, https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/dyer-and-his-monster-story,20540. Accessed 26 Sept. 2022.

SPEECH PATHOLOGY: The Monster Study – When Science Goes Wrong: Twelve Tales From the Dark Side of Discovery – Simon LeVay. https://publicism.info/science/wrong/12.html. Accessed 26 Sept. 2022.

“Wendell Johnson”. Wikipedia, 23 Sept. 2022. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wendell_Johnson&oldid=1111942971.

Huge payout in US stuttering case. 17 Aug. 2007. news.bbc.co.uk, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/6952446.stm.

“Experiment Taught Orphans to Stutter”. Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2001/06/11/experiment-taught-orphans-to-stutter/79343ece-01fb-4c80-903c-a720790ed43d/. Accessed 26 Sept. 2022.

https://www.nicholasjohnson.org/wjohnson/crg-1-20030713.htm. Accessed 26 Sept. 2022.

Related Articles


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Stay Connected


Random article


The Final Five – How Chinese Famines Reached their 20th Century Peak

Today China is a juggernaut that looks set to snatch the mantle of the largest economy in the world from the U.S over the...

Latest Articles