Samuel T. Orton (1879–1948) - American Education
American physician and pioneer in the identification of dyslexia as an eminently remedial, nonpsychiatric learning disability. Born in Ohio, the son of the Ohio State University president, Orton earned his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania and pursued graduate studies in education, neurology, pathology and psychiatry, spending a year in Germany studying under the famed Dr. A. Alzheimer. By 1919, he had also gained some teaching experience at Clark and Harvard Universities and was offered the chairmanship of the University of Iowa Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry—and the task of building and directing a state psychopathic hospital. He also established a traveling mental health clinic, financed by the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, to carry mental health care to rural areas.
It was on his first trip with the itinerant mental health clinic in 1925 that he encountered his first dyslexic, a 14-year-old boy immortalized in scientific literature as “M.P.” The boy’s teacher described him as “quite bright, does well in arithmetic . . . a very nice chap, of a good family,” with no psychiatric or behavioral problems.
“Then what IS the problem?” asked the puzzled clinician.
“That’s what puzzles me,” replied the boy’s teacher. “We just haven’t been able to teach him to read.”
Orton studied M.P. intensively and sensitively for several weeks. And after identifying and studying 14 other, similar children, he wrote his landmark paper, “Word Blindness in School Children,” which he delivered to the annual meeting of the American Neurological Association, in Washington, D.C., in 1925. He thus became the first scientist to identify dyslexia, which he named strephosymbolia (twisted symbols) to describe the dyslexic’s perception of printed words. His study opened up a new era for retraining the learning disabled, most of whom had hitherto been perceived as “feeble-minded”—a term Orton himself had used in previous work.
Orton had a multiple career as neuropathologist, psychiatrist, aphasiologist, medical school professor, brain researcher and state mental hospital director. He gave this up in 1929 to move to New York, where he practiced psychiatry, treated language disability problems and taught at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Working with neurologists, speech pathologists and brain anatomists, Orton embarked on a 10-year-long series of wide-ranging studies of learning disabilities. Comparative studies were made between normal and retarded readers to identify the normal, nonretarded, but learning disabled. Diagnostic and treatment procedures were developed and tested with large numbers of children and some adults with a variety of language problems, including reading, spelling and handwriting problems, poor auditory comprehension, improper speech development, stuttering and certain language disorders associated with brain injuries. Working with more than 2,000 patients in the course of his career, he laid the groundwork for future researchers to find the neurological basis of dyslexia. Orton also worked with trained teachers such as Anna Gillingham, who developed the ORTON-GILLINGHAM METHOD for “retraining” dyslexics to learn to read and write. His wife helped found the Orton Dyslexia Society, which has now grown into an organization with more than three dozen branches that have trained more than 10,000 special education teachers around the world.