Black History Month: Contributors to Hearing Health

Hearing loss doesn’t discriminate – regardless of age, race, economic background, or other factors, everyone is susceptible to losing their hearing. But just as anyone can develop hearing loss, they can also make a difference in the lives of those affected by it.

With February being Black History Month, we’re honoring three African American individuals who have made important contributions to hearing health. From developing hearing aid technology and hearing protection for workers, to creating educational opportunities for people with hearing loss, the following individuals have certainly left their mark on the field:

James E. West, Inventor of the Electret Microphone

A prolific inventor with more than 250 patents, James E. West developed a key innovation that changed the hearing aid industry. While working for the Acoustics Research Department at Bell Laboratories, West and a colleague created the foil electret microphone, a tiny, inexpensive, and highly sensitive microphone perfect for hearing aids. This technology is still used today in nearly all devices with microphones – in addition to hearing aids, West’s invention is also found in cell phones, baby monitors, video recorders, and audio recording devices.

Andrew Foster, Educator for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Despite losing his hearing from spinal meningitis as a child, Andrew Foster was a groundbreaking figure in many ways. He was the first African American to earn a bachelor’s degree from Gallaudet College (now Gallaudet University), and he made it his life’s mission to ensure others with hearing loss could receive an education. Foster focused his efforts in Africa, where he eventually established 32 schools for the deaf and hard of hearing across 13 countries and became known as the “Father of Deaf Education in Africa.”

Derek Dunn, Advocate for Preventing Hearing Loss at Work

As acting associate director for science of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and a captain in the U.S. Public Health Service, Dr. Derek Dunn was a leader in preventing occupational hearing loss. Long committed to the field of hearing health, he received his doctorate in speech and hearing, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in electron microscopy and cochlear morphology. With a personal slogan of “What have you done for the worker today?” Dunn’s work has helped countless people protect their hearing.

While all three of these individuals significantly influenced the field of hearing healthcare, their contributions extended far beyond their own careers. Each sought to train and mentor other minorities in their fields, striving to further increase diversity in science, technology, and education.