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Dr. William F. House

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LOS ANGELES — Dr. William F. House, a dentist-turned-ear specialist who 50 years ago defied the medical establishment and many advocates for the hearing-impaired to champion an implantable device — now widely accepted — that made everyday sounds audible to the profoundly deaf, has died. He was 89.

Dr. House, who led the venerable House Ear Institute in Los Angeles during much of the 1980s, died Friday of metastatic melanoma at his home in Aurora, Ore., said his daughter, Karen House.

Dr. House was responsible for a number of major medical advances, helping to pioneer microsurgery techniques and a new approach to removing acoustic tumors. He also developed a successful surgery for an ear disease that had prevented astronaut Alan Shepard from returning to space.

But Dr. House was best known for his early and vigorous advocacy of the cochlear implant, an electronic device that stimulated the auditory nerve and helped the user recognize sounds.

He began to develop the device in the late 1950s after hearing of successful experiments by two European scientists. After publishing his initial results in 1961, he encountered heavy criticism from physicians who said the device was crude and could damage the ear.

Representatives of the deaf community were opposed, arguing that deaf people did not need to hear to be considered normal.

But House persevered, and in 1984, 25 years after he first implanted a device in a patient, won crucial validation. That year the Food and Drug Administration approved the House cochlear implant for use in deaf adults, calling it the first device to replace a human sense organ.

Today, more than 200,000 people around the world have cochlear implants, according to the FDA.

Published in The Record on Dec. 14, 2012
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