The Legacy of Samuel Robbins

Samuel Robbins teaches Emerson College students about speech disorders

Samuel Robbins uses an anatomical model of the larynx to teach Emerson College students about speech disorders.

Samuel Dowse Robbins was born on December 28, 1887, and grew up in Belmont, Massachusetts. As a young child, he developed a significant stutter, which resulted in a great deal of ridicule from his classmates throughout his childhood years. After graduating from Harvard University in 1911, his experiences with stuttering led him to begin studying the causes and best methods of treatment for speech disorders. In 1914, he opened the Boston School of Stuttering, which merged with the Boston Stammerers’ Institute in 1916. Over the next 15 years, he held positions at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital while also maintaining his own private practice. In the 1920s, he also became very involved in the American Speech and Hearing Association, serving as its vice president, secretary, and president between 1929 and 1942.

An August 1915 advertisement for Samuel Robbins’s private lessons to treat stammering.

An August 1915 advertisement for Samuel Robbins’s private lessons to treat stammering.

In 1935, Robbins launched Emerson College’s Speech Therapy Department, which trained students to diagnose and treat various types of communication disorders. This was the first degree in speech pathology offered in New England. Robbins personally oversaw a large number of students and courses, working up to 60 hours per week. This workload was in addition to his private practice and research at Massachusetts General Hospital. Robbins left such an impact on the College that, upon his retirement in 1953, a new facility named for him would open its doors at 145 Beacon Street. Samuel Justus McKinley, president of Emerson at the time, wrote, “I have been assured that our program of courses in Speech Therapy is the best in New England, and we must make every effort to maintain and develop the pioneering and growth which took place under Mr. Robbins.”

The exterior of the Robbins Speech and Hearing Clinic in 1953, the year of its opening.

The exterior of the Robbins Speech and Hearing Clinic in 1953, the year of its opening.

One of Robbins’s most important impacts on the field of speech pathology was the comprehensive classification of communication disorders, which the American Speech Correction Association utilized for many years beginning in 1930. He also published many books and scholarly articles that helped physicians become cognizant of the need for more research into communication disorders.  

By the time of his death in 1968, Robbins had contributed much to the establishment of the communication disorders profession and received many awards and accolades for his successes. He was also known as a very empathetic individual who cared deeply for his patients, colleagues, and students. To this day, his legacy both in the field and within the the Robbins Center continues. Emerson College’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders runs several nationally respected educational programs, and Robbins’s work is still studied by practitioners all over the country.

For More Information
A Century of Eloquence: The History of Emerson College 1880–1980 by John M. Coffee Jr. and Richard L. Wentworth.

“A History of Speech-Language Pathology: Samuel Dowse Robbins 1887–1968” by Judith Felson Duchan,

“Samuel D. Robbins: A Memorial” by Luther Sies and Angela Schwimmer, Today’s Speech, 1971 (Vol. 19, Issue 4, pp. 65–66).

By Hannah Yetwin (Archives Intern)