Story: Hurd-Wood, Kathleen Gertrude

Page 1 - Hurd-Wood, Kathleen Gertrude

Hurd-Wood, Kathleen Gertrude

1886–1965

Advocate for the hard of hearing

This biography was written by Joan Maclean and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Kathleen Gertrude Chitty was born at Kirikiriroa near Hamilton on 1 August 1886, the fourth of nine children of Alicia Wilhelmina de Vere Hunt and her husband, Walter Chitty, a farmer. Kathleen (Katie) was a pupil at St Mary's Convent, Hamilton, and later a boarder at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Timaru. On 21 November 1911 at Hamilton she married Gervase Alven Hurd-Wood, a wealthy Englishman and – like her brothers – a keen polo player. Formerly a farmer, on his marriage to Kathleen he retired to Hamilton, where he died in 1924. There were no children.

After her husband's death Kathleen Hurd-Wood had personal and financial independence unusual for a woman of her generation. In 1925 she joined a New Zealand pilgrimage to Rome and Lourdes, during which she decided to devote her life to helping people who had lost their hearing. Her interest dated from the time when, as a young woman at her first ball, she had danced with a man who had very poor hearing. Other people shouted at him, but she found this unnecessary for he was an excellent lip-reader.

In the 1920s, when she began her campaign, ear trumpets were still in use, and although mechanical hearing aids were becoming available, many people could not afford them (a subsidy of £15, which then almost covered the cost of an aid, was not introduced until 1947). The government's weekly lip-reading classes for adults were limited to the four main cities. Not surprisingly, the hard of hearing were often described as withdrawn or living in semi-isolation.

In 1926 she trained as a lip-reading teacher and the following year held free classes in Hamilton. She soon realised that there was a need for a national organisation, such as those in Europe and America. In 1931 she went to the United States to study the American leagues and the latest hearing aids, and on her return she canvassed tirelessly. A persuasive public speaker, Hurd-Wood gained widespread support, especially from the churches and the medical profession; in March 1932 she addressed the annual meeting of the New Zealand Branch of the British Medical Association.

Afterwards, on 16 March, there was a large and enthusiastic public meeting in Auckland. A board of governors was chosen, Kathleen Hurd-Wood was made honorary secretary, and the New Zealand League for the Hard of Hearing was established, with headquarters in Auckland. (In 1976 the name was changed to New Zealand Hearing Association.) To launch a new voluntary organisation in the depression was a brave move; its success was due to Hurd-Wood’s personality, commitment and organising ability and to the fact that, regardless of economic conditions, help was badly needed.

She was a forceful woman whose crusading zeal was softened by a sense of humour. Generous, energetic and an outstanding organiser, she did nothing by halves. Always receptive to new ideas and to the value of publicity, she had tuition in public speaking and in radio broadcasting (then a very new skill), and at one time she employed a French and a German secretary to translate the latest information from Europe. One of her firm beliefs was the need for the league to have the support of influential people, but at the same time she had a flair for choosing able and committed men and women to do the day-to-day work.

The league began lip-reading classes in May 1932 with 17 members; within a year there were 77. It also gave advice about buying and using hearing aids, conducted hearing tests (15 years before the opening of the first audiology clinic in a public hospital) and arranged events for members whose social life was often severely limited by their disability. Moreover, it put the needs of the hard of hearing to the government, and through publicity worked to improve understanding of hearing loss in the community.

A high point for the league came in 1940 when, as part of the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition in Wellington, there was a special hearing week, convened by Kathleen Hurd-Wood. The emphasis was not only on the league's work, but on the whole subject of hearing loss, including the mechanical side and rehabilitation. The Wellington branch (established in 1935) provided an audiometer for demonstrations, with hearing tests, and there were public lip-reading sessions. The branch's portable group hearing aid – consisting of a number of hand-held earphones connected to a central unit – was temporarily installed in a local church. Although the league's work was chiefly with adults, the audiometer was taken to Thorndon School to test the children, some of whom were found to have unsuspected hearing defects. Hurd-Wood reported that 'educationalists and representatives of the Wellington Education Board promised strong support in furthering the use of audiometers in schools'. But change was slow and audiometers were not bought for schools until 1951. During hearing week there were also lectures, which were so well received that they were published in a book entitled Better hearing. The first edition sold out immediately and there was a reprint of 1,000 copies.

Kathleen Hurd-Wood continued to visit the league's growing number of regional branches for many years. These visits were made at her own expense and all her work was unpaid. In 1961 she was appointed an MBE. She died in Hamilton on 10 April 1965.