S. A. Kirk

Samuel Alexander Kirk, one of the most influential figures in the history of special education, died 21 July 1996. He is survived by his wife and long-time collaborator Winifred D. Kirk, his son Jerry, daughter Lorraine, and sister Hannah.

Kirk, who was born in Rugby, ND, in 1904, obtained bachelors and masters degrees in psychology from the University of Chicago and a PhD in physiological and clinical pscyhology from the University of Michigan. He began his career in 1929 with children with disabilities through employment at the Oaks School in Chicago, working with boys who were delinquent and had mental retardation. During this time, he recalled, "I arranged to tutor [a] boy at nine o'clock in the evening, after the boys were supposed to be asleep. This boy, who was eager to learn, sneaked quietly out of bed at the appointed time each night and met me in a small space between the two dromintory rooms and, actually, in the doorway of the boy's toilet....I often state that my first experience in tutoring a case of reading disability was not in a school, was not in a clinic, was not in an experimental laboratory, but in a boy's lavatory" (1976, pp. 242-243).

Kirk continued his work on reading during his doctoral studies, while also working at the Wayne Country Training School in Michigan. He joked that he conducted his dissertation on teaching left-handed rats with brain damage to read--actually, he tested the handedness of his experimental rats and, after training them to discriminate between regularly printed Fs and mirror images of the letter F, he surgically induced brain damage in them and then retested their performance on the discrimination task. The work with physiological psychology during his doctoral studies led Kirk to discount biophysical identifications of disability and recommend more behavioral descriptions ("child doesn't read") that could lead to remedial planning.

While also at Wayne Country Training School Kirk collaborated with T. Hegge and W. Kirk to create the Hegge, Kirk, and Kirk Remedial Reading Drills. These materials, which showed influences of the work of most of the prominent figures in remedial reading at that time (M. Monroe, S. Orton, and G. Fernald) as well as the effects of Kirk's training in "functional" (behavioral) psychology at Chicago, are still in use 60 years after they were developed.

After completing his PhD in 1935, Kirk worked as the director of a teacher education program at Milwaukee State Teachers College (now University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee). Continuing his interests in reading, in 1940 he published the book, "Teaching Reading to Slow-Learning Children." During this time he also served a two-year term as president of the Council for Exceptional Children. His early research on remedial methods for students with mental retardation was interrupted by service in the U. S. Army during World War II.

In 1947 Kirk joined the faculty of the University of Illinois to develop a progam in special education for undergraduates and graduates, eventually directing the Institute for Research on Exceptional Children there. During the 1950s he conducted research on early intervention for children with mental retardation, publishing the books, "You and Your Retarded Child (1955) and "Early Education of the Mentally Retarded" (1958; in cooperation with M. B. Karnes, R. Graham, W. Sloan).

Later Kirk devoted considerable effort to developing a means of measuring specific aspects of linguistic, perceptual, and memory abilities in young children; the "Illinois Test of Psycholinguistic Abilities (ITPA)" appeared in an experimental version in 1961 and was revised and published in 1968 (co-authored with J. McCarthy and W. Kirk). The test, which was widely used in the 1960s and 70s as a clinical and research tool, provoked some controversy in special education. Kirk explained that the controversy was probably because the test "spawned many illusions and false hopes. Some people have taken the ITPA as _the_ instrument for diagnosis of all ills and educational problems. In spite of our warnings, it is used for junior high school students, even though it is intended for young children. Many also use it to diagnose problems to which the ITPA does not apply. Furthermore, many people want to use it without taking the time to learn how to give it" (1976, p. 253).

Throughout his career, Kirk contributed regularly to the academic litearture. In addition to the volumes already noted, he also published other books on mental retardation, reading, and learning disabilities. Certainly one of the most influential of these was an introductory text in special education, "Educating Exceptional Children" (1962), that has been revised repeatedly and, now co-authored by James J. Gallager, is in a 6th edition. After more than 20 years at Illinois, Kirk moved to the University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ, where he continued to play an active role in special education.

In addition to his scholarly work on mental retardation, Kirk is widely known for his contributions to the development of the field of learning disabilities--often he is said to have coined the term, "learning disabilities," but that is an assertion that Kirk himself observed was not true. During the 1960s he also served as director of the Division of Handicapped Children--forerunner to the U. S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education--in the U. S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. During his tenure in Washington, he contributed to early federal legislation that ultimately led to contemporary laws on special education. Perhaps his greatest legacy to the field of special education is the many students who studied with him, including several who have been highly influential figures in special education during the last 30 years of the 20th century.


Kirk, S. A. (1976). S. A. Kirk. In J. M. Kauffman & D. P. Hallahan (Eds.), Teaching children with learning disabilities (pp. 238-269). Columbus, OH: Merrill.

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