Thomas R. Behrens, 78

Thomas R. Behrens, Pioneer in Screening of Newborns for Hearing Loss, Dies at 78

Thomas R. Behrens had worked for the old U.S. Office of Education and Gallaudet University.
Thomas R. Behrens had worked for the old U.S. Office of Education and Gallaudet University. (Family Photo)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 10, 2009

Thomas R. Behrens, 78, a retired administrator with the old U.S. Office of Education and a major force in the effort to standardize the practice of screening all newborns for hearing loss, died of cancer March 25 at his home in Arlington County.

He was working in the 1970s as a branch chief and division director in what is now the Office of Special Education Programs in the Department of Education when he began the effort to implement hearing screening programs for newborns.

He developed the pioneering Rhode Island Hearing Assessment Project in 1990 and persuaded David Kemp, an auditory physicist at University College London, to test the feasibility of using otoacoustic emissions as part of the newborn hearing screening program. Otoacoustic emissions are small sounds caused by the motion of the eardrum in response to vibrations from deep within the cochlea.

He also persuaded C. Everett Koop, surgeon general of the United States from 1982 to 1989, to include a goal to screen for hearing loss among newborns in "Healthy People 2000," a prevention agenda for the United States that was released in 1990. And he persuaded the American Academy of Pediatrics to create an early hearing detection and intervention program, which has spread across the country.

"With virtually every major step forward that has been made in newborn hearing during the last 20 years, if you look closely in the shadows, you will find the guiding hand and innovative thinking of Tom Behrens quietly and persistently making it a success," said Karl R. White, director of the Center for Hearing Assessment and Management at Utah State University.

Thomas Rageth Behrens was born in Davos, Switzerland, and grew up in Zurich. As a young man, he took intensive English classes at the University of Cambridge, where he encountered Pierre Gorman, a professor who was deaf and whose facility with language, both French and English, fascinated him. Gorman was known as "Australia's Helen Keller."

Inspired by Gorman, the first deaf person to receive a doctorate from Cambridge, Dr. Behrens made communication disorders his specialty. He received his undergraduate degrees from the University of Zurich and was working as a special education teacher in Zurich when he discovered that his eldest daughter was deaf.

He was accepted as a graduate student in the department of communication sciences and disorders at Northwestern University, where he studied with Helmer Mykelbust, whose research focused on children who were born deaf or were considered aphasic (those who lost the ability to communicate, often as a result of brain damage). He received his doctorate in language pathology and the psychology of deafness in 1963.

After serving as an assistant professor at Northwestern from 1963 to 1965, he became director of the Kendall Demonstration Elementary School at Gallaudet University. He also was professor of education at Gallaudet and director of the university's department of education.

Gruff, blunt and outspoken, he regularly urged the deaf community to take every opportunity to educate hearing people about the human potential of deaf people. "The deaf have had to follow the same course of action as other disadvantaged groups," he wrote. "They have had to 'break into' various occupations and professions."

Dr. Behrens was at Kendall until 1973, when he became branch chief and division director in the Office of Special Education. He retired in 1993 but continued working as a consultant and senior researcher with Utah State's Center for Hearing Assessment and Management.

Survivors include his wife of 53 years, Sophia Ansell Behrens of Arlington; two daughters, Susanne J.B. Wilbur of Charlottesville and Anne Behrens Cafritz of the District; and six grandchildren.

"He was certainly unorthodox," White said. "He found ways to make the system serve children better. I'm sure he wasn't everybody's favorite bureaucrat, but he accomplished a tremendous amount."

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