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Willard Zemlin, right, uses an early research lab setup to examine the adult oral cavity

Anatomy of a pioneer: Willard R. Zemlin


Willard R. Zemlin was fascinated by how speech and hearing work. He brought an array of skills and interests to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Born in Two Harbors, Minn., he worked in radio and television repair and electronics, was a locomotive engineer with the Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range Railroad and served as a sergeant in the infantry with the U.S. Army in Korea.

Zemlin completed a bachelor’s degree in experimental psychology and a master’s degree in speech pathology at the University of Minnesota. The work done by his wife, Eileen, in speech pathology inspired him to leave his job and pursue a Ph.D. in speech pathology with a focus on vocal science.

Zemlin began making the connection between instruction, clinical practice and research when he joined the Illinois faculty as an assistant professor of Speech and Hearing Science in 1962. 

Zemlin directed the Speech and Hearing Research Laboratory from 1962 to 1975. He undertook a systematic and comprehensive investigation of the anatomy and physiology of speech, language and hearing systems. He utilized his considerable photographic skills (with the permission and assistance of the School of Basic Medical Sciences at Illinois) in the laboratory to capture images from stages of the dissection process and used the pictures to supplement his lectures to enhance his students’ understanding of the structures related to human communication. For students, the opportunity to see structures, as opposed to reading about them, clarified the subject matter and made it more interesting.

Zemlin was promoted to associate professor in 1966 and to professor in 1971, with an appointment as professor in the School of Clinical Medicine recognizing his expertise in the anatomical functioning of hearing and speech.

Zemlin was a crucial contributor to the development of innovative laboratory space in the Speech and Hearing Science Building in the 1970s. It was a significant undertaking. His ability to make imaginative use of limited research equipment and simplify learning made him a valued teacher. In turn, Zemlin established lasting relationships with many SHS students as they radiated from campus to work as clinical practitioners, researchers and teachers.

“As a young professor with little money to cover the costs of having conference slides professionally prepared, Willard Zemlin taught me how to shoot and mount my own slides, using his mounted camera in the basement of the SHS Building, said Cynthia Johnson Parsons, an SHS associate professor emerita. "Bill also reminded our communication sciences and disorders field repeatedly that there was a great deal of normal variability in anatomical structures of the speech and hearing mechanism, which was never accounted for in CSD and medical textbooks. He was a strong advocate for observing and studying as many exemplars of an anatomical structure as you could find across people, in order to realize when a structure deviated substantially from normally functioning ones.”

In 1968, Zemlin wrote in the foreword to the first edition of his pioneering book, Speech and Hearing Science: Anatomy and Physiology: “Each of us who is concerned with the rehabilitation of speech, language and hearing should be able to visualize the anatomical structures involved, to understand their usual functions, and to hypothesize how they might function under adverse circumstances.”

The book utilized his laboratory photographs and displayed his skill in drawing diagrams, resulting in more than 400 images and illustrations. With this collection, Zemlin captured every bone, cartilage, muscle and tissue related to the speech and hearing mechanisms. At that time, David Kuehn, SHS professor emeritus, said the book was “clearly the best, [if not] the only, text that dealt specifically with anatomy and physiology of the speech and hearing mechanisms.” Kuehn considered it to be a magnificent text, praising it for its timeless content.

Zemlin’s textbook became the most widely and longest-used one in the field—his legacy, according to Kuehn. Current and former faculty members in SHS remember learning from it as students and later using it in classes they taught. Pamela Hadley, SHS professor and department head, said she “actually traced all those illustrations to make flashcards with the origin, insertion, fiber direction and function listed on the back.” Johnson Parsons said, “After I graduated from the University of Iowa, I continued to use the textbook and its illustrations when I taught phonetics and articulation/phonological disorders courses at the University of Minnesota, Northwestern University and the University of Illinois.” Kuehn used the textbook to teach the SHS course in the anatomy and physiology of the speech mechanism.

Later editions of Speech and Hearing Science included images of laryngeal behavior that Zemlin captured using an innovative photographic method he developed using a high-speed motion picture camera. Patricia Monoson from the University of Arkansas described it in the introduction to the fourth edition in 1998 as “the book you are about to read, learn, study and use as a reference for the rest of your professional life.”

Read more about Zemlin:

Zemlin bio from Illinois Distributed Museum

Shaping the teachings of speech, hearing anatomy for decades

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