The Struggles of a Medical Innovator: Cochlear Implants and Other Ear Surgeries: A Memoir by William F. House, D.D.S., M.D
Anyone interested in the history of otology and neurotology will certainly enjoy Dr. William House’s memoir. For those who have had a major ear surgery—particularly for chronic ear infection, Meniere’s disease, removal of a tumor on the hearing and balance nerve, or a cochlear implant—his stories about the development of these procedures are fascinating. Most patients today (and professionals, for that matter) may not realize how much controversy surrounded each of the new procedures introduced by Dr. House.
When he first started using the operating microscope for so many ear operations, he says that many of his brother Howard House’s visitors and students were “aghast at such a “reckless” technique.” Dr. House talks about his development of the shunt operation for Meniere’s disease and operating on the astronaut, Alan Shepard. This allowed Alan, who had been grounded from the space program due to vertigo from Meniere’s disease, to return to active duty and fly to the moon on the Apollo 14 mission. Dr. House and his wife were invited to watch the lift off, visit mission control in Houston and talk to astronaut Shepard while he was in space. Dr. House describes this personal experience and, more importantly, the significance of this particular early shunt operation to the future treatment of Meniere’s disease.
Many neurotologists, at least the older generation, have probably heard stories about the “high noon” showdown between Dr. House and the head of neurosurgery at the hospital where Dr. House began to use the surgical techniques he had developed for removal of acoustic tumors. In his chapter describing the development of these techniques he describes this as well as earlier conflicts with neurosurgeons, who were ‘territorial’ over who was appropriately trained to enter the intracranial areas. But Dr. House’s work is credited with dropping the mortality rate for tumor removal from 40% to less than 1%.
The longest chapter by far is about the development of the cochlear implant. This was highly controversial and Dr. House had to battle critics for many years. He describes his first attempts at implantation in 1961 and the problems encountered, both medical and political, that delayed his next trial in humans until 1969. He discusses the development of the devices implanted in 1969 and 1970 in three patients and many of his personal thoughts when a patient walked out of the lab with the first wearable device in 1972. This was followed by years of controversy and attempts to get him to stop his work and wait for the better devices that were “just around the corner”. But he continued on and developed a clinical program that formed the core “team” approach used in all other implant programs to this day. In an appendix, Dr. House presents his ideas about how cochlear implants actually work in producing hearing.
Dr. House tells us about some of his world travels and experiences with Hollywood and with the legal system. Finally, there is a whole section called “Other Voices” in which former Clinical Fellows who trained with Dr. House and early cochlear implant team members write some thoughts about him. A whole chapter provides excerpts from letters written to Dr. House by early cochlear implant patients about what the implant meant to them. These letters will be of particular interest both to professionals who work with people who have significant hearing loss as well as to hearing-impaired individuals who may recognize in them some of the same things they have felt upon losing hearing.
About the Author
Dr. William F. House obtained a doctorate of dental surgery from the University of California, Berkeley and his medical degree from the University of Southern California’s School of Medicine in Los Angeles. Board certified in otolaryngology, he dealt with problems of hearing loss, including removal of tumors from the auditory nerve and the cochlear implant, which he developed in the face of great skepticism, criticism, and censure by professional colleagues. He is noted by the American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery to have developed more new concepts in otology than almost any other single person in history. He has received many awards in his lifetime, including the Physician of the Year award in 1985 by the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. He is retired but continues to think about and try to solve problems of hearing loss, such as the early detection of hearing loss in infants.
Dr. House's memoirs may be purchased at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Struggles-Medical-Innovator-Cochlear-Surgeries/dp/1461046378/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1313614173&sr=8-1