By Amy Gross
I had no idea how influential Marion Downs had been—and at the time, still was—regarding newborn infant screening, but it didn't take much research to discover that this woman was a big, big deal. I don't know why, but her passing on November 13, 2014, caught me by surprise. It didn't matter that she had reached her 100th birthday; I, like many of her fans, found it difficult to accept that the force known as Marion Downs had moved on, peacefully, in her sleep.
Marion (she wouldn't let me call her "Ms. Downs") was 92 when we spoke. She was still skiing and swimming and playing tennis competitively, and one of the photos in “Shut Up and Live!” showed her gleefully skydiving with a handsome young instructor (she made sure to point out the "handsome" part several times). I had read every word of her book, in which she provided candid advice for anyone dealing with the aging process: the importance of weight training, why hearing aids are critical in the health of a marriage, and how to maintain a healthy sex life into one's senior years. I loved that she was able to make me blush more than a few more times; the woman minced no words.
What had put Marion Downs on the map, audiologically speaking, were her pioneering efforts, beginning in the early 1960s, in the essentially unheard-of area of infant hearing testing. An audiologist herself, Marion and a research partner started hearing testing for newborns before those infants had even left the hospital, fitting even the tiniest babies with hearing aids. Today, thanks to Early Hearing and Detection Intervention programs, 97 percent of newborns have their hearing screened. Knowing what we know today about the importance of hearing with respect to language and even cognitive development in extremely young children, there's no telling how many infants with hearing loss were identified as such in a timely manner, and their developmental skills saved, because of Marion Downs's work.
The Marion Downs Center in Denver, Colorado, a nonprofit organization that espouses, as Marion did herself, a cradle to grave approach in dealing with hearing loss, will continue her efforts in advocating for those with hearing loss. Marion was a visionary in the world of hearing health. Her legacy lives on, quite visibly, in the children whose lives she touched.