Dr. William F. House, a dentist-turned-ear specialist who 50 years ago defied the medical establishment and many advocates for the
House, who led the venerable House Ear Institute in Los Angeles during much of the 1980s, died Friday of metastatic
An innovator who seemed to relish bucking convention, House was responsible for a number of major medical advances, helping to pioneer microsurgery techniques and a new approach to removing acoustic tumors. He also developed a successful surgery for an ear disease that had prevented astronaut Alan Shepard from returning to space.
But House was best known for his early and vigorous advocacy of the cochlear implant, an electronic device that stimulated the auditory nerve and helped the user recognize sounds.
He began to develop the device in the late 1950s after hearing of successful experiments by two European scientists. After publishing his initial results in 1961, he encountered heavy criticism from physicians who said the device was crude and could damage the ear. Representatives of the deaf community also were opposed, arguing that deaf people did not need to hear to be considered normal.
But House persevered and in 1984, 25 years after he first implanted a device in a patient, won crucial validation. That year the
Today, more than 200,000 people around the world have cochlear implants, according to the FDA.
"Cochlear implants have really changed the landscape for kids born with severe to profound hearing loss," said Anne Oyler, an audiologist with the American Speech-Language-Hearing Assn. in
Said Karl White, founding director of the National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management at Utah State University: "In the early days there were a lot of skeptics about cochlear implants, whether they made any sense at all. William House was one of the people who kept insisting there was potential here and that it needed to be pursued.... Without his contribution, it would have taken years longer, if not decades, to reach the point where we are now."
House was born in Kansas City, Mo., on Dec. 1, 1923. He moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was 3. He followed his father, Milus M. House, into dentistry, earning a doctorate in dental surgery from
To avoid confusion, institute employees called William Dr. Bill and his brother Dr. Howard. They were among nine doctors in their extended family, which includes Howard's son, Dr. John House, the institute's current president, who talked President Reagan into a hearing aid in 1983.
One of William House's most famous patients was Shepard, who in 1961 became the first American to journey into space but later was grounded by vertigo from an inner
The astronaut invited House and his wife, June, to watch the launch at
During the 1960s William began working with Jack Urban, a Burbank electronics engineer, to build the cochlear implant that was manufactured by the
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article said 3M made the House cochlear implant from 1972 to about 1987, but 3M did not become involved until the late 1970s. The story also said that William House was president of the House Research Institute in the 1980s; it was still called the House Ear Institute then.
Some of the resistance to the device came from doctors who said patients should wait for better implants that would allow them to hear words, but House dismissed such arguments.
"If a patient has no leg, shall I wait until our tissue transplantation has progressed far enough that I can transplant a leg that will work as well as yours or mine, or shall I offer him a peg or a wooden leg?" House said in The Times in 1973. "I shall offer him a peg...."
John House said his uncle never sought a patent for the House implant. "He and his brother Howard felt that anything we developed should be shared for the betterment of mankind," he said. The House cochlear implant fell out of favor in the late 1980s when more sensitive, multi-channel devices came on the market. But patients seeking implants with the latest technology still flock to the House institute, including celebrities like
House, who moved to Oregon in 2000 after retiring from private practice, is survived by his daughter Karen of Los Angeles, son David of Aurora, Ore., three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His wife, June, died in 2008.
The physician said he did not believe age should bar anyone with hearing loss from the pleasures and practicalities of sound.
"Deafness is such a horrible thing," he told an audience at