Obituary – In memory of Professor Roger D Thornton


Professor Roger D Thornton

(5th April 1944 – 19th October 2017)


Professor Roger Thornton graduated with a degree in electronics before being awarded his PhD in 1969 whilst working at the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research at the University of Southampton. Roger developed an expertise in auditory electrophysiology; his research interests led him to develop the clinical use of the human ABR to identify tumours of the auditory brainstem and measurement of the cochlear travelling wave velocity, of relevance to frequency coding within the cochlear and to Ménière’s disease. In the 1970s he contributed to the newly-developed MSc degree in Audiology at Southampton with colleagues Ross Coles and Alan Martin.

Roger was made Professor and became the Director of the Southampton outstation of the MRC Institute of Hearing Research where he coordinated a major study of the OAE as a screening test for neonates. This work helped form the foundation upon which the English newborn hearing screening programme was built.

Roger was awarded the TS Littler lectureship by the British Society of Audiology in 2005 in recognition of his services to Audiology and in 2008 he was granted a DSc.

In later years Roger pioneered the use of non-linear analysis of otoacoustic emissions and brainstem responses though Volterra Kernels. These are thought to measure nonlinearities in the cochlea and have the potential to assess early damage, such as due to presbyacusis or ototoxic drugs.

Roger was held in high regard internationally and for at least two decades was Chair of the International Evoked Response Audiometry Study Group (IERASG) from which he stepped down in 2009. The group has always been refreshingly informal, acting as a nursery for the cultivation of younger auditory electrophysiologists as well as a platform for the exchange of new ideas. One of the highlights at IERASG’s biennial meetings was Roger’s delivery of an impressive thankyou speech in the local language (most recently Polish & Korean), clearly the result of many hours preparation and a testament to Roger’s intellectual ability and his respect for his hosts.  He was responsible for the introduction of spoof awards at IERASG symposia, in which prizes of variable value were given for the silliest of reasons – the longest journey, the greatest number of authors of a paper etc. It was quite easy to “milk” the system and certain people (who need not be named!) have, over the years, shamelessly contrived to receive a disproportionate number of awards.

Roger was always easy to find at the social events of scientific meetings: as a member of The Magic Circle he took great pleasure in his close-up magic tricks and was usually to be found at the centre of a knot of amazed and appreciative colleagues. However, he did experience occasional difficulty in getting through airport security with his handcuffs and chains! He recounted his method for avoiding being locked up: giving the security personnel an impromptu demonstration of his skills.

Roger lived for his work; he adored science and when he took his honeymoon in 1998 with his second wife Jan in Provo, Utah, Roger undertook a project testing babies’ hearing, presumably in addition to his husbandly duties!  Roger was a prolific scientific author with over fifty peer-reviewed published journal articles, spanning five decades and over fifteen high quality journals. 

Another aspect to Roger’s life was his deeply held Christian faith, which led to a ministry as a Licensed Lay Reader within the Church of England, exercised with his characteristic generosity and good humour.

Roger leaves his beloved wife Jan, daughter Beth, brother Phillip and, of course, hundreds of colleagues both in the UK and abroad whose professional and personal lives were enriched by meeting this extraordinary man.


Guy Lightfoot and David Baguley