Ira J. Hirsh, one of the founders of audiology, dies at 87

Ira J. Hirsh, Ph.D., who did pioneering research in human hearing, auditory perception, communication, speech, language and communication disorders, died Jan. 12, 2010, of cardiopulmonary failure at Hillcrest Convalescent Center in Durham, N.C. He was 87.

Hirsh was the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Audiology at Washington University.


He is recognized as one of the codifiers of modern audiology, and his work and ideas had profound influences on the speech and hearing sciences.

His research helped explain the way our brains and ears process and interpret sounds such as speech and music. His work led to the development of improved hearing aids and teaching methods for deaf children.

Hirsh played an integral part in the programs at both Central Institute for the Deaf (CID) and at Washington University for more than five decades. He held many key positions at both institutions, including director of CID and WUSTL’s dean of the faculty of Arts & Sciences.

Born in New York on Feb. 22, 1922, Hirsh earned a bachelor of arts from New York State College for Teachers in Albany in 1942. After completing a master of arts from Northwestern University’s School of Speech, he served as a lieutenant in the Army Air Force from 1944-46 as an instructor in the communications school and in aural rehabilitation.

Hirsh earned a doctorate at the Harvard University Psychoacoustic Lab in 1948. In 1951, he accepted a research appointment at CID, along with an assistant professorship of psychology in Arts & Sciences at WUSTL.

He became assistant director of research at CID in 1958 and served as director of research from 1965 to 1983.

Simultaneously, Hirsh had an illustrious career at WUSTL, where he was professor of psychology, dean of the faculty of Arts & Sciences from 1969-1973 and chair of the Department of Psychology from 1983-87. He was named the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and Audiology in 1984. He was named emeritus professor in 1992.

He also was a professor in what was then the CID/WUSTL graduate program in speech and hearing and served as CID’s director from 1992-94.

Hirsh published a seminal textbook, “The Measurement of Hearing,” and more than 100 scholarly articles and papers. Many of his publications are cited as the basis for research that revolutionized the fields of audiology, acoustics, psychoacoustics and deaf education.

‘A giant in the deaf education world’

“Ira Hirsh was a star in CID’s constellation of scientists working in hearing and deafness,” said Jerome R. Cox, Sc.D., senior professor in computer science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“He was a giant in the deaf education world because of his classic textbook and his many contributions to the field of psychoacoustics,” Cox said. “In his personal life he was a charming, stimulating and loyal friend. We will all miss him deeply, not only for his many scientific and administrative contributions to Washington University and to CID, but also for his wit and warmth.”

Hirsh was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, served as president of the Acoustical Society of America, was a fellow at the American Speech Language Hearing Association and a member of the American Psychological Association.

His numerous awards include a Gold Medal from the Acoustical Society of America, the Life Achievement Award from the American Auditory Society in 2005 and the Peter H. Raven Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Science of St. Louis in 2003.

Among his interests outside of his career, Hirsh directed and sang in the First Unitarian Church of St. Louis’ choir as well as with the St. Louis Chamber Chorus and the Bach Society of St. Louis. He also was an avid wine collector; an accomplished ice dancer with his wife of 61 years, Shirley Helene Kyle; and traveled extensively, including residencies in Japan and China.

His wife died in 2004. He is survived by two daughters, Eloise Hirsh of New York City and Elizabeth Hirsh of Salt Lake City; two sons, Richard Hirsh of Chicago and Donald Hirsh of Chapel Hill, N.C.; one sister, Jane Davis of Rochester, N.Y.; and seven grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held on both the Danforth Campus and at the First Unitarian Church of St. Louis next month. Details of both services will be announced later.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the First Unitarian Church of St. Louis, 5007 Waterman Blvd., St. Louis, Mo., 63108, or to Washington University, Development Services, Campus Box 1082, One Brookings Dr., St. Louis, Mo., 63130.