Obituary – Remembering Dr. Kevin Patrick Murphy

Obituary  – Dr. Kevin Patrick Murphy

Dr. Kevin Patrick Murphy who has died aged 95 will be remembered as a pioneering researcher and clinician, in the field of paediatric audiology.

Following five year’s war service in the RAF, Kevin Murphy was entitled to resume his university studies, and took a degree in Psychology. This was followed by a Master’s degree in criminology. He went on to hold a Medical Research Council fellowship in the Department for the Education of the Deaf at Manchester University, which involved visits to almost every school for the deaf in the country.  His PhD followed in 1956 with a thesis title of ‘A survey of the intelligence and abilities of 12 year old deaf children’.  Interestingly the examiners for this PhD were Professor Sir Alexander Ewing of the Department of Audiology and Education of the Deaf, and Sir Frederick Bartlett the eminent psychologist noted as the founder of modern cognitive psychology. Kevin still found time to cultivate friendships with colleagues and one such close personal and professional relationship was with Dr Pierre Gorman, later to be librarian at the RNID, and with whom Kevin became founder members of the Speech and Hearing Committee of the International Society for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled.

Meanwhile at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, a far sighted ENT consultant, Mr R Hunt-Williams had successfully submitted a research proposal to the Nuffield Foundation for a three year project to investigate hearing screening, and the use of auditory training with those children found to have hearing impairment. A grant of £7000 was allocated to the project. There was general scepticism at the possibility of conducting hearing tests with the very young, but Dr David Kendall from Manchester University visited Reading to demonstrate the newly developed techniques. A Teacher of the Deaf, Dan Ling was appointed to the project, and David Kendall agreed to re-locate to Reading and manage the project as a whole.  However no sooner had the building construction begun, than David Kendall had a change of heart and accepted a position in Vancouver, Canada.  The Reading project nearly stalled but after contacting three other Manchester University researchers including Kevin Murphy, the letter finally reached him, fresh back from a period working in Colombia. Kevin had provisionally accepted a lecturing position at Birkbeck College, but declined this and bravely accepted the far more risky appointment at Reading. The Royal Berkshire Hospital research project was back on track, and opened in 1958. Happily there proved to be much local support for the project in the Reading area, so that attempts to gain additional funding for the work gave rise to many fund raising  activities.

In due course the Nuffield Foundation grants expired, but fortunately the Foundation made new funds available, including support for enlarging the building at the Royal Berkshire Hospital. Space was however at a premium, so a local coach firm loaned a bus to be fitted out as a mobile audiometry testing unit, and staff were taught how to drive it.

The Berkshire Education Authority worked with the research project to develop the ‘Partially Deaf Units’ in some local schools, and this facility became so popular that families were re-locating to the Reading area just to get access to this provision for their children. Eventually however the end of the contracts for Nuffield funding again threatened the Reading project. Kevin Murphy typically not wanting to take ‘No’ for an answer, embarked on an appeal directly to the then Minister of Health Dr G Godber, later Sir George Godber, seeking his support for the work in Reading to continue.  Sir George proved to be a great supporter and designated Reading as one of the three National Centres of Excellence in Paediatric Audiology, and the Oxford Regional Health Board awarded the title of Regional Paediatric Audiology Research Unit.

The lack of commercially available equipment for paediatric audiology  proved a practical difficulty, and so the unit was equipped with a small engineering workshop where prototype items could be made. Johnny Johnson a technician was taken on and produced the first hand held warble tone generators, VRA equipment and auditory trainers. In due course the first baby cot designed to register head and neck movement in response to sound, was produced at Reading, and led to a collaboration with the Department of Medical Engineering at Brunel University. This development became the Linco Bennett Cradle, the first piece of audiology equipment specifically aimed at bringing down the age of diagnosis for deaf babies.  OAE’s had not yet been discovered, and ABR was not yet user-friendly as a means of neo-natal screening.

Much international interest was generated by the work at Reading, and this was reflected in the many invitations which arrived asking Kevin to lecture and collaborate world wide. This endorsement of the quality of research at Reading was remarkable;

“   …and in Great Britain Kevin Murphy was doing marvellous things in diagnosing deafness in young children. These, and other pioneers in the 1950-1960’s were functioning as isolated beacons surrounded by deep darkness.”

From Gunnar Liden’s keynote address to the 5th Elks International Symposium on the Hearing Impaired Infant,  1983.

His international work was recognised by the award of a Papal Medal, and led to him founding charities (The Peppard Trust), that ‘translated’ his clinical research into community based care settings.  In addition also he wrote ‘classical’ training chapters for Speech and Hearing degree courses, paediatrics and audiology.  He developed the Post Graduate training programs run by the ‘Unit’, and was supervisor to many Masters and PhD students from across the world who today lead their field.

It remains a good indication of his personality, that Kevin formed long lasting personal friendships with many of the people he met on foreign lecturing assignments, so that they became firm family friends as well as professional colleagues. One such lasting relationship was with Jon K. Shallop, PhD, Emeritus Professor, at the Mayo Clinic and College of Medicine and Ohio University.

“I first met Kevin in the USA when he gave a lecture at a national audiology professional meeting on testing the hearing of young babies, ages 1 to 12 months. I was very impressed by his knowledge and techniques. I invited him to come to Ohio University where I was a professor. He gave several lectures and demonstrations of his techniques. I was eligible for study leave and so Kevin agreed to let me come to work with him for 9 months at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading. During this time of course I came to know his wonderful wife and family.”

A further research grant application at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in 1974 aimed to investigate the reading abilities of deaf children.  The appointed researcher was Dr John Bamford, and this project led on to another jointly managed with Dr John Bench, which produced the end result of the BKB sentence lists .

The use of VRA in a calibrated sound field room was for many years unique to Reading, with many sceptics around the UK. Happily Reading had a two room, ‘one way window’ test suite with a large observation facility.  By this means sceptics were won over to this technique especially with Kevin enjoying himself at the controls, and VRA became the established method of choice nationwide and elsewhere.

In 1982 Kevin and Roger Wills formed part of a small team tasked with investigating the facilities and practice of audiology and deaf education in Pakistan. This project was the result of a Pakistani request for help from the British government through the Overseas Development Administration, with upgrading the services provided in that country. Through a series of five, month long, visits over four years reports were made into the extent of the need and suggestions given to embark on a long term programme to improve practice throughout Pakistan. As a personal reflection, I found it remarkable that Kevin was so able to lead the team in that environment, resisting the cultural pitfalls, and regard the task as perfectly possible, though fraught with potential complex ‘stumbling blocks’.

A common thread in the memories of all those who knew Kevin is his irrepressible good humour. He was never far from laughing or making others laugh.  A constant source of stories, jokes and fun, especially with children.  He also had the great good fortune to be able to ‘connect’ with nervous parents and children, which naturally meant that his clinical work could appear very simple, though it was the result of vast experience and great skill. However, Kevin also had the ability to teach, debate and apply sharp insight into his academic roles. A very happy combination of attributes which will live in the recollections of those of us fortunate enough to have known him.


Roger Wills.