Hallowell Davis

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Hallowell Davis (August 31, 1896 – August 22, 1992) was an American physiologist and otolaryngologist and researcher who did pioneering work on the physiology of hearing and the inner ear. He served as director of research at the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis, Missouri.

Early life

Hallowell Davis was born on August 31, 1896, in New York City, the son of attorney Horace A. Davis.[1][2] He graduated from Harvard College in 1918, where he was the class orator at graduation.[3] He earned his medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 1922 and then spent a year at the University of Cambridge where he was trained as an electrophysiologist in the laboratory of Edgar Adrian, 1st Baron Adrian.[1]

In 1925, Harvard named Davis to serve as an official tutor and instructor in pre-medical sciences, as a means of helping prepare students intending to advance to Harvard and other medical schools to "get the soundest general foundation possible for their medical education".[4] After the year in England, he returned to teach at Harvard and became an assistant professor at Harvard College in 1927 and the school's first tutor in biochemical sciences, later becoming the director of the school's Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory.[1]

Audiology pioneer

During the 1930s, Davis participated in the development of electroencephalography and was the first person in the United States to have his brain waves scanned by an EEG device. He focused on the physiology of the inner ear, investigating how neurological impulses are transmitted to the brain via the cochlear nerve. His studies led to the development of electrical-response audiometry, which allowed diagnosis of hearing difficulties in infants.[1] Robert Galambos credited Davis with coining the word "audiology" in the 1940s, with Davis saying the then-prevalent term "auricular training" sounded like a method of teaching people how to wiggle their ears.[5]

Davis moved to the Central Institute for the Deaf, where some of his early work was for the Veterans Administration in the development of improved hearing aids for soldiers who had experienced hearing loss. Combining aspects and research from the fields of behaviorism, electroacoustic engineering and electrophysiology, Davis was able to advance the study of the field, which could be seen in his 1947 work Hearing and Deafness: A Guide for the Layman, which he co-edited with S. Richard Silverman. He was also a professor of physiology at the Washington University School of Medicine, where he lectured on hearing and speech.[1] Research by Davis presented to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1952 showed that hair cells in the inner ear play a pivotal role in transforming the mechanical stimulus of sound into electrical impulses to be sent to and processed by the brain.[6]

During the 1960s, Davis served on the National Research Council's Committee on the Sonic Boom and Supersonic Transport, where he argued that the noise would result in hearing irritation to the public, in addition to being an economic risk.[5][7]

Davis was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1975.[8]

Personal life

He married the former Pauline Allen in 1923 at a refugee camp near Istanbul, where they were treating those with typhus, smallpox and other diseases. She served as his research partner until her death in 1942. He married Florence Eaton in 1944 and then Nancy Gilson in 1983, three years after the death of his second wife.[5]

Davis was a resident of University City, Missouri. He died at age 95 on August 22, 1992, at the Bethesda Dalworth Home in St. Louis. He was survived by his third wife, Nancy, as well as a daughter, two sons, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He donated his inner ear for scientific research.[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Saxon, Wolfgang. "Hallowell Davis, 96, an Explorer Who Charted the Inner Ear, Dies", The New York Times, September 10, 1992. Accessed July 15, 2010. Note that this article indicates that he was 96 in the article title and in the text, when a calculation based on the dates of his birth and death supplied by the article indicates that he died at age 95, nine days before he would have celebrated his 96th birthday. The birth and death dates provided in the obituary in The New York Times match those in the NAS article.
  2. Staff. "HORACE A. DAVIS, 87, A LAWYER, AUTHOR", The New York Times, October 6, 1957. Accessed July 17, 2010.
  3. Staff. "HARVARD'S WAR CLASS DAY.; Many Uniformed Men in the Procession Through the Yard.", The New York Times, June 19, 1918. Accessed July 17, 2010.
  4. Staff. "TO AID PRE-MEDICAL MEN.; Harvard Appoints Graduate Adviser to Guide Their Studies.", The New York Times, October 5, 1925. Accessed July 17, 2010.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Galambos, Robert. Hallowell Davis: 1896—1992, National Academy of Science. Accessed July 17, 2010.
  6. Staff. "HAIRS IN EAR HELD TO CONVEY SOUNDS; Electrically Charged, They Act in Response to Noises as Resisters, Scientist Says", The New York Times, September 11, 1952. Accessed July 17, 2010.
  7. Hallowell Davis Papers, Washington University School of Medicine. Accessed July 17, 2010.
  8. National Science Foundation - The President's National Medal of Science