Read "Just What We Need" at the KU History website.
Listen to the program by Bryan Thompson Schiefelbusch Institute: 50 Years of Progress at Kansas Public Radio.
Doing Science and Doing Good: A History of the Bureau of Child Research and the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies by Richard Schiefelbusch and Stephen R. Schroeder is available for purchase online.
The Origins of the Bureau of Child Research
"I grow weary knowing about the yearly increase in appropriations for the care and feeding of livestock knowing that we appropriate nothing for research on the care and nurture of children."
-Florence Brown Sherbon, 1921
Florence Brown Sherbon testified before the Kansas legislature in 1921 to lobby for the establishment of the Bureau of Child Research. She became the first director of the Bureau, which she helped to create by state statute.
'Modern Era' the pioneers of Parsons, a new era, a new science
"In acknowledging the speech specialists in the past have generally discouraged the prospect of speech therapy with mentally retarded children, one might in a sense of poetic justice also acknowledge that mentally retarded children in general have successfully rejected the methods employed by speech specialists."
- Richard Schiefelbusch, May 21, 1959
Speaking in Milwaukee at the 1959 annual meeting of the most prominent organization concerned with mental retardation in the country, a sunny 40-year-old University of Kansas speech clinician named Richard L. Schiefelbusch lobbed a bombshell into the audience of directors of institutions and physicians.
Schiefelbusch and his research team reported that they were researching the communication of children with mental retardation at the Parsons State Hospital and Training Center in Parsons, Kansas.
This was virtually unheard of in 1959. Almost no scientists were researching mental retardation, and only a handful of scientists belonged to the American Association of Mental Deficiency (AAMD). The AAMD audience of institutional administrators and physicians that thronged around the Kansans after the presentation immediately recognized that this was "just what we need."
Although the KU team had tenuous research credentials and their findings were preliminary, the Parsons Language project set the course for KU's Bureau of Child Research, now the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies, to become one of the most influential authorities on mental retardation and language development in the world.
Taking it to the streets, behavioral science in the 1960s and 1970s
By 1972, Psychology Today dubbed the University of Kansas as the world center of applied behavioral analysis, a science that emerged from principles established by B.F. Skinner several decades earlier. In 1965, Dean Francis Horowitz and Dick Schiefelbusch had recruited Donald Baer, Todd Risley, Vance Hall and Montrose Wolf from the University of Washington; by this time, their recruitment was paying off handsomely. "The Kansas Mafia" dominated the field, according to the magazine. It cited Vance Hall's 1968 article as the first published account on the application of applied behavioral analysis in a regular classroom and Baer, Wolf and Risely's article establishing a model for applied behavioral research. The Juniper Gardens Children's Project, in an impoverished urban Kansas City, Kansas neighborhood, and Achievement Place, in a big old rambling farmhouse outside of Lawrence were the settings for this expanding application of science to social problems during the Bureau of Child Research's heady days in the 1960s and 70s.
Surviving and Thriving in the 1980s
The 1980s saw the Bureau of Child Research struggling with the severe budget cuts of the Reagan Administration. However, it not only survived, but ultimately thrived, with the affiliation of three new centers: the Research and Training Center on Independent Living in 1980, the Child Language Doctoral Program in 1983, and the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Families of Children with Disabilities (now the Beach Center on Disability) in 1988. All three of the centers signaled a maturing Bureau. The Child Language Doctoral Program, directed by Mabel Rice, recognized the need for a multidisciplinary approach to the study of child language. The Research and Training Center on Independent Living with James Budde as its first director, and the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Families of Children with Disabilities, directed by Rud and Ann Turnbull, reflected the need to implement and study the immense public policy shifts on people with disabilities in the 1970s, notably the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Education of All Handicapped Children Act on 1975.
The Big Merge Forward in the 1990s
In 1990, after four national searches, the 72-year-old Dick Schiefelbusch was able to retire after 35 years as director. Stephen Schroeder was appointed as the second director of the 'modern era' of the internationally known Kansas center. That year also marked the merger of the Bureau of Child Research with Gerontology and other research centers to become the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies. The KU Work Group, lead by Stephen Fawcett and Jerry Schultz, and the Merrill Advanced Studies Center, directed by Mabel Rice, are two of those research centers that are still flourishing today. A new building awaited the newly constituted Institute, the Robert J. Dole Human Development Center. Dedicated in 1990, it also gave space to two academic departments which house many LSI researchers: Human Development and Family Life (now Applied Behavioral Science) and Speech, Language, Hearing.
A New Millennium and Return of a Native Son
Steven Warren took the reins of the Life Span Institute when Stephen Schroeder retired in 2001. He was a KU and Bureau of Child Research alumni who had built a national reputation at Vanderbilt University for 18 years before returning to Kansas. As director over the oldest and largest research institute at KU, he arranged the addition of the Center for Physical Activity and Weight Management in 2001 and the Center for Biobehavioral neurosciences in Communication Disorders in 2002. In 2008, he advanced to the position of vice provost for research and graduate studies at KU.
Baton Passes to Cognitive Neuroscientist
A cognitive neuroscientist with extensive experience in research, teaching and administration became the fourth director of the Life Span Institute in September 2008. John Colombo, who served as interim director for six months, was named to the permanent post following a national search.
Prior to becoming interim director of Life Span, Colombo served as associate director for cognitive neuroscience at LSI. He is co-director of the Kansas Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research center, a major research component of LSI. He also is a professor of Psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Colombo's research interests are in the developmental cognitive neuroscience of attention and learning in infancy and early childhood. He current holds, or is a key participant in, grants from the National Institute of Deafness and Communication Disorders, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Science Foundation.
Under Colombo’s leadership, Life Span will continue to expand its research and training activities in human development and developmental disabilities, with heightened attention to the treatment of autism through a multidisciplinary bi-campus program, the Kansas Center on Autism Research and Training. All of the current LSI research centers are subject to fierce national competition for research support by funders who want to see multidisciplinary collaborations, relevance and results. The Life Span Institute has responded with invention, enterprise and ambition.
Current examples include:
Timeline of Life Span Institute Leadership
Richard L. Schiefelbusch, Ph.D.
Richard L. Schiefelbusch joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941 and became a navigator on B-24 bombers in the European Theatre of Operation during World War II. His plane was shot down while on a mission to disable German submarine pens at Kiel. He parachuted into the Baltic Sea, was captured, and spent two years in prisoner of war camps -- including Stalag Luft 3 in Poland, which was the subject of a 1963 movie The Great Escape. In the camps, he taught group communication courses to the prisoners and helped organize a “civic” organization that worked to improve camp morale. For these efforts, he received a commendation.
After the war, he completed a doctorate at Northwestern University that set his course for a lifetime of public service. It all began with the Schiefelbusch Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic, which he established in 1949 at the University of Kansas. Soon after, he took charge of the Kansas Bureau of Child Research, a small program housed in the basement of Bailey Hall on the Lawrence campus.
He brought together behavioral psychologists, educators and speech pathologists to pioneer new ways to study and address intellectual disabilities beginning at the Parsons State Hospital and Training School in 1958 that drew world-wide attention.
By the time of he retired in 1990, the Bureau had become an institute with headquarters in the newly constructed Dole Human Development Center, and could boast of research, training and clinical facilities in Kansas City and Parsons, and field sites throughout Kansas and around the country. The Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies – named to honor his 40 years of leadership and vision – now has more than 140 programs and a reputation for some of the best science on human disabilities in the world.
Sertoma International, the American Association on Mental Retardation and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association have all recognized his lifetime contributions to the well being of children and families.
Stephen R. Schroeder, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of applied behavioral science who served as director of the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies at the University of Kansas from 1990 until his retirement in 2001.
He assumed the directorship at a critical juncture when the Bureau of Child Research, Gerontology Center, and other research groups were incorporated into the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies.
His background in experimental psychology and pharmacology enabled him to provide leadership to biomedical researchers and nurture a collaborative biobehavioral approach to the problems of development and disabilities.
He is internationally known for his work in self-injurious behavior and was one of the principal authors of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's watershed document on the dangers of low-level exposure to lead.
Under Schroeder’s entrepreneurial administration, several other prominent research groups joined the Life Span Institute, making it one of the largest and most respected research and development centers on disabilities and human development in the world.
Steve Warren, Ph.D.
When Steve Warren became director of the Life Span Institute in 1999, he was no stranger to Kansas or to its flagship university. He was a KU and Bureau of Child Research alum who had built a national reputation at Vanderbilt University for 18 years before returning to Kansas. As director of LSI, he presided over the oldest and largest research institute at KU. Under his leadership, two new centers joined Life Span – the Center for Physical and Weight Management (2001) and the Center for Biobehavioral Neurosciences in Communications Disorders (2003). In an increasingly competitive funding environment, Warren guided the successful renewal of grant support from NIH for the largest Life Span Center, the Kansas Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center.
John Colombo, Ph.D.
John Colombo became director of the Life Span Institute on September 29, 2008. Prior to becoming director, Colombo served as associate director for cognitive neuroscience at LSI, a position he continues to hold. He is also a professor of Psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Under Colombo’s leadership, Life Span Institute continues to expand its research and training activities in human development and developmental disabilities, with heightened attention to the treatment of autism through a multidisciplinary bi-campus center, the Kansas Center for Autism Research and Training.