Ira J. Hirsh

Acoustical Society of America

Gold Medal Award


Ira J. Hirsh

IRA J. HIRSH was born in New York City on 22 February 1922. He received his B.A. degree from New York State College for Teachers (Albany) in 1942. One year later he married a fellow student, Shirley Kyle. While waiting for an opening in the Air Force Communication Officers School, he accepted a scholarship to Northwestern's School of Speech. On arriving in Evanston he met Ray Carhart, who influenced him away from drama and toward clinical training in speech and hearing. His dramatic inclinations found release in a moonlighting job as a staff announcer and occasional actor in radio dramas for the Chicago CBS station. After completing an M.A. degree, he served from 1944–46 as a Lieutenant in the Army Air Force, initially as an instructor in the communications school, and later in aural rehabilitation. He met S. Richard Silverman, then the Director of the Central Institute for the Deaf (CID), while assigned to Hoff General Hospital, in Santa Barbara. Silverman urged him to consider a career in hearing and deafness rather than returning to his old job at CBS radio. He recommended that Ira apply for a position at Harvard's Psychoacoustic Lab (PAL), whose director was S. S. (Smitty) Stevens. Stevens not only hired Ira, but suggested that he pursue doctoral studies, which he did. Stevens' lab was a lively and stimulating place, with Jim Egan, Bob Galambos, Rufus Grayson, Kath (Safford) Harris, J. C. R. Licklider, George Miller, Gordon Peterson, Irv Pollack, Walter Rosenblith, and Dix Ward among his fellow students, colleagues, and collaborators. Hal Davis was in the process of moving from Harvard to CID, and he, Ira, and Shirley became good friends... a relationship that has lasted for more than four decades.

After completing his Ph.D. in 1948, he stayed on for three years at PAL and, in 1951, moved to St. Louis, where he assumed a research appointment at CID, along with an assistant professorship at Washington University. He became assistant director of research at CID in 1958, and the director from 1965 to 1983. He also rose through the academic ranks, becoming professor of psychology at Washington University in 1961, and from 1969–1973 he was the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. As dean he occasionally wore a construction worker's hard hat, presented to him by his CID colleagues, to symbolize his diplomatic management of the student uprisings of that era. He later served a term as chairman of the psychology department form 1983 to 1987, and is currently a Distinguished University Professor.

During Ira's years as assistant director and director of research at CID he, together with Davis and Silverman, created an environment that supported a broad range of significant basic and clinical investigations. A list of postdoctoral research associates who honed their skills at CID during those years reads like a "Who's Who" of auditory science in the mid-twentieth century. Ira promoted that atmosphere by urging all young investigators to pursue the projects that they found to be intellectually attractive.

Ira's own scientific contributions reflect a great breadth of interest and an astute ability to recognize important scientific questions. His thesis topic was on the influence of interaural phase on the detection of tones masked by noise. This little acorn grew, most notably with the help of J. C. R. Licklider, to become what is today known as the masking-level difference (MLD). It was subsequently explored by such eminent investigators as Jeffress, Egan, Durlach, Colburn, McFadden, Hafter, Stern, and Trahiotis. An enormous literature has resulted and whole-day sessions of the Society are often devoted to this topic.

Only a year after arriving in St. Louis, in 1952, he published "The Measurement of Hearing," a book that became the bible for audiologists as well as mandatory reading for students in psychoacostics. His major research foci at this time were the intelligibility of speech, auditory masking, and auditory fatigue. He published a number of original papers on these topics as well as contributing many review articles that cogently organized the research areas and illuminated the major scientific principles.

In 1959, he published a stimulating paper on the perception of temporal order. This paper not only presented interesting original data on the topic, but in it he again opened an area of research that has continued and flourishes today. He and Carl Sherrick pursued his important problem within and across several different sense modalities. He continues to study temporally complex sounds and the relation between temporal processing and other cognitive and communicative abilities.

Ira's reviews are one of his major trademarks. He is frequently asked at national conferences to give the final summary remarks after hearing a number of original research papers. His summaries are often clearer, more insightful, and more original than the papers that preceded them. Because the summaries are crafted during the presentation of the papers, they are all the more remarkable.

Among his professional honors are the Biennial Award (now the Lindsay Award) of this Society (1956), the Honors of the American Speech and Hearing Association (1968), and electron to the National Academy of Sciences in 1979. He has spent sabbatical time at the Universit$#233 de Paris and as a Visiting Distinguished Professor at the University of Tsukuba, Japan.

His scientific-administrative contributions are too numerous and varied to recount. He served as President-Elect of the Society from 1966–67 and President the following year. Among his more significant contributions was his participation in the activities of the Committee on Hearing, Bioacoustics, and Biomechanics (CHABA). He served on the executive committee and as chairman in 1964–65. From 1982 to 1987, he was chairman of the National Research Council's Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (CBASS), responsible for all National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council research and reports on behavioral matters. He has served as consultant or advisor to the Office of Noise Abatement, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Bureau of Standards. He has also been a major contributor to the development of national and international standards. He was chairman of the Bio-Acoustics Committee of the American National Standards Institute from 1966 to 1970, and chairman of a working group on the evaluation of aircraft noise for the International Standards Organization (ISO) from 1964 to 1968. His combination of good judgment and good humor is well-appreciated on both the national and international scene.

Ira worked hard, but he knew how to play as well. He continued his musical avocation, including directing a church choir. He and Shirley took up figure skating and because accomplished ice dancers. He also plays tennis and effectively uses the left-hander's natural advantage at that sport. At social gatherings of the Acoustical Society, he is one of the regulars in the barbership quartet.

He and Shirley have four talented children, Eloise, Elizabeth, Richard, and Donald, whose interests in science, music, computers, and clinical work are understandable, given their parent's varied pursuits and abilities. Shirley has been a full-time research colleague for much of Ira's career, coediting collections with him and others, and coauthoring papers on auditory evoked responses in collaboration with Hal Davis.

Early in Ira's training it was clear that he was inclined to devote a sizable portion of his efforts toward applied subjects, including the rehabilitation of the hearing impaired. Smitty Stevens is said to have urged him to stay with research, particularly of the basic kind, because it would permit him to use his gifts more effectively and more broadly. Ira has followed that advice, while also exerting a major influence on applications of auditory research to clinical and other applied problems. Ira's career is an impressive blend of original scientific contributions, able administration, and prudent and discerning application of scientific knowledge to various applied areas, especially hearing impairment.

David M. Green
Charles S. Watson