Marion Downs

Women’s History Month: A Pioneer in Newborn Hearing

It would be difficult to overstate Marion Downs’ impact on the world.

Thanks to her, hundreds of thousands of people are living normal, productive lives due to her firm belief that children should be tested for hearing loss at birth. That way, they can begin to learn language early, preventing communication and cognitive problems as they grow.

It was once a radical notion that all infants’ hearing abilities be tested at birth. Today, nearly all infants are tested because of Downs’ work! Long before her ideas were accepted though, she would lean over nursery cribs ringing bells, blowing horns, and shaking noisemakers to try to determine how well, and if, the infant could hear.

In 1959, she began working as an audiologist in a new ear-nose-and-throat clinic at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. During her career at the University of Colorado, Marion Downs created, developed, and evaluated a variety of techniques for testing children’s hearing and fitting them with hearing aids. She was among the first to recognize the need for babies with hearing loss to use hearing aids as early as possible. This way, during the infant’s critical development years, their speech, language, and communication skills could improve.

During a conference she heard an expert give a speech saying that putting hearing aids on young kids was damaging their brains since they had not matured yet. This caused Downs to ask him if that was true, was the hearing aid she’d been putting on children as young as 6-months damaging the neurons in the brains of these children? After some reflection, he acknowledged that it actually would not hurt them.

It was after this that she began traveling, giving talks, and performing tests all around the world. In 1963, Downs pioneered the first national infant hearing screening program in Denver. Since then, she relentlessly pursued the identification and management of hearing loss in infants and children as a public health issue and an important medical and educational consideration. Her success has resulted in a widespread national program, which makes the screening of newborn hearing a functioning preventative program in more than 40 states across the U.S. and in foreign countries.

Marion Downs was one of the founders of the International Audiology Society and was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2006. Here in Denver, the Marion Downs Center is dedicated to continuing her legacy and to developing and providing hearing, speech, and language services to the Colorado community.

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