Acoustical Society of America
Gold Medal Award - 1963

Hallowell Davis

The recipient of the Gold Medal is always a man whose career fills the members of the Acoustical Society with pride and, more often than not, a man whose dimensions of distinction are manifold. To guess what criterion was used by this Society in selecting Hallowell Davis to receive the Gold Medal is difficult indeed, because there could be so many. He has unraveled many of the mysteries concerning the transmission of information into and through the nervous system. He has illuminated and explained both his own works and those of others, and has synthesized them into coherent theories and summaries concerning his favorite subjects, both through teaching and through the printed word. His teaching has inspired many whose names and works are well known. He is encumbered with one of the deepest social consciences that I have ever known. Through some forty years of scientific productivity from his own laboratory, he has found time not only to teach the students and collaborators working with him, but to respond to the call of his government and of numerous groups of his colleagues in many professional societies. He is indeed a man of many parts, all of them strong, and any one of them deserving the recognition that we roll up in a single medal this evening.

Hallowell Davis has been a displaced Easterner for nearly twenty years. He was born in the city of New York sixty-odd years ago and took both his undergraduate and medical education at Harvard University, receiving the M. D. degree in 1922, after interrupting his education with a term of ambulance-jockeying overseas in World War I. From the time of his graduation until 1946, he was associated with Harvard University in one capacity or another, working primarily in the Department of Physiology at the Medical School. During World War II, he worked at the Pyscho-Acoustic Laboratory in Memorial Hall. As teacher, he rose from Instructor to Associate Professor at Harvard, and has been Professor in physiology and otolaryngology at Washington University since 1946.

His earliest research work, in electrophysiology, concerned the relatively new concept of the nerve impulse, the requirements for its excitation and the laws governing its conduction.

Concerning the conduction of the nerve impulse, one of his teachers, Alexander Forbes, wrote me that in 1923 he suggested a problem, that Davis "hit it with a sledge-hammer, flattened out all of the possibilities... and we published in 1926." There were two distinct peaks in this early work. One was the identification of the cochlear microphonic, which helped to explain the nature of the potential that was first described by Wever and Bray. The separation of the electrical output of the cochlear mechanism from the potentials associated with the firing of neurons of the auditory nerve was an important step in auditory electrophysiology.

It is also true that in the early thirties, in collaboration with assistants Derbyshire, Lindsley, and Garceau, he recorded the first electrical waves from the human brain in this country. That discovery and the subsequent years of work in electroencephalography, to which he attracted the Gibbses and others, resulted in the very basic papers in this field with respect to instrumentation, the distinctions between brain-wave patterns in waking and in sleeping states, and the relation between some of these electrical potentials and clinical problems, especially the identification of patterns characteristic of epilepsy. Actually, S. S. Stevens remembers that when W. G. Lennox brought in the first epileptic patient they hooked her up to the apparatus being used to record cochlear potentials, and thus saw the first spike patterns—an exciting day!

A first summing of the auditory physiology was the book Hearing in 1938, still a classic reference. Hal Davis did the physiology, while Stevens did the psychrophysics.

World War II saw his assumption of responsibility in Section 17.1 of the Office of Scientific Research and Development with Fletcher, Sivian, Morse, Morgan, Knudsen, Stevens, Firestone, and Wente. This era constitutes the first of many distractions from his primary love, physiology. With Morgan, Galambos, and Hawkins, he worked out laws relating physical dimensions of intense sounds to the temporary hearing loss that would follow exposure to such sounds. At the Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory, he became interested more directly, with Stevens, Hudgins, Nichols, Peterson, Marquis, and Ross in the hard of hearing and in the properties of hearing aids that were used to compensate for hearing disorders. By now, we (I mean those of us engaged in psychophysics) had captured him. No longer could he return exclusively to physiological research.

In 1946, he was invited to direct the Research Department for the Central Institute for the Deaf, a position that he still holds. He laid down the condition that such a Research Department must provide for all the basic sciences that are relevant to the problems of hearing and speech. This arrangement put him in a most favorable position. He could work in his own physiology laboratory and also could direct, guide, and encourage his collaborators in other disciplines. The output of his department has been a steady stream of published works. From his own pen, we have been treated to descriptions of experiments on the mechanism of cochlear action, many papers on the physiology of audition, contributions to audiology and, in particular, speech audiometry, evaluation of fenestration surgery, and studies and commentary on many applied problems, such as industrial hearing loss and reference levels for audiometers.

Seizing the opportunity to extend the excellent contacts that had been established between governmental agencies and scientists in the areas of physiology, psychology, and acoustics, he volunteered his services as the first Executive Secretary of the newly formed Armed Forces–National Research Council Committee on Hearing and Bio-Acoustics. The CHABA organization has, in the judgment of many, served its government well. Its mode of operation and the effectiveness of the various procedures that it utilizes to bring the problems of government to the attention of working scientists were indeed set by the first Executive Secretary.

While serving as Executive Secretary of CHABA, Hal Davis's advice was sought by the United States Navy on the possible damage that was being done to the hearing of personnel by the noise of jet aircraft on the decks of carriers. In characteristic fashion, he assembled a group of experts to evaluate the problem and to suggest the kind of organization that should undertake to study it, and finally, not being able to recommend any other group, offered the services of a part of his own Research Department to carry out what then became known as the ANEHIN Project, Auditory and Nonauditory Effects of High-Intensity Noise.

I mention this last incident because I am particularly sensitive to his do-it-yourself attitude toward many scientific problems that come across his desk in his role as consultant. It is not easy to work too close to him because most of us do not have his capacity for organization and sustained effect. He is willing to undertake any problem that he considers worthy of study and will fight to solve it, to the last drop of his own blood and that of any collaborator who happens to be within reach. (Some of us feel that he must have several pints more than normal.)

In addition to his own research in physiology and related areas and to his service to government, he has played a significant role as a citizen of the scientific community. He has served on editorial boards of The American Journal of Physiology of Psychosomatic Medicine, of the Journal of Neurophysiology and of Excerpta Medica. You all know that he was President of the Acoustical Society of America, but he has also been President of the American Electroencephalographic Society, of the American Physiological Society, and Chairman of the Physiology Section of the National Academy of Science. He has been Chairman of the Board of Scientific Counsellors of the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness, and has served in a number of capacities, mostly related to audiometry and hearing impairment, on committees of the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology, the American Standards Association, and the International Standards Organization. To list all the professional societies to which he belongs would require too much space, but what should be emphasized is that his membership has always been accompanied by active interest and concern and in many cases such concern has resulted in his assuming a position of leadership.

We are not the first to honor him, nor, I suspect, will we be the last. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and of Sigma Xi. He is a member of the National Academy of Science and an Honorary Fellow of the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology. He received the George Shambaugh Prize in Otology of the Collegium Oto-Rhino-Laryngologicum Amicitiae Sacrum, the Honors of the American Speech and Hearing Association, and the Gold Medal of the American Otological Society.

So far, we have skimmed Hal Davis's contributions to scientific knowledge, to his students and collaborators, to government, and to societies of scientists. It would be wrong to conclude without saying something personal, by which I mean something about the individual. He combines the hard, Emersonian New England tradition for organization, diligence, and rectitude with a grace and gentleness that might be interpreted by some as casualness. I have mentioned above that he came to Central Institute to direct the Research Department and thus the laboratories of others. He is offended to hear me say that, because he is a very nondirective director. His collaborators rarely object to his direction, both forceful and barely noticeable, and this is surely because of his steadfast esteem for fellow human beings. Bad ideas, incompetent workers, improper motives, and dishonesty are much more quickly rejected out of hand by his younger colleagues than by himself. He spoke, you remember, when he was asked for a statement by Edward R. Murrow in the "This I Believe" series, of a faith in man and he carries his faith into his daily relations with people. It is not just a faith in mankind; it is faith in individual men. Occasionally it turns out to be unjustified, but his basic style does not change. He also spoke of the immortality that accrues to a man by virtue of the life that he has led and the discovering and the teaching that he has done. Here, then, is a candidate for long immortality that we honor as one of our finest mortal specimens.

Ira J. Hirsh