In the early 20th century, Dr. Wesley Wilkerson practiced medicine as an eye, ear, nose and throat doctor in Nashville. He was most concerned for his pediatric patients with hearing loss and was frustrated with the lack of intervention services for deaf and hard-of-hearing children, who were expected to live at home or in an institution and have very little independence as adults. Dr. Wilkerson married Fawn Parent Wilkerson and had three children: Bill, Nancy Fawn and Jane. In January of 1945, Bill was killed in World War II during the Battle of the Bulge when he volunteered for dangerous duty as a forward observer.
In the 1940s, Dr. Wilkerson attended several conferences where he heard Mrs. Spencer Tracey speak about her son, a profoundly deaf child who had learned to speak thanks to early intensive intervention. He became determined to create a place where any child with hearing loss could come to learn to speak and communicate in order to have a much better chance at education, employment and a normal life. In 1949, Dr. Wilkerson organized a board of directors and chartered the Tennessee Hearing and Speech Foundation. Two years later, in 1951, the Foundation opened a clinic, hiring audiologist Dr. Freeman McConnell as its first director. In a secret meeting, the board of directors voted to name the Nashville clinic after Dr. Wilkerson’s son, Bill, as a memorial and a tribute to the Wilkerson family. Dr. Wilkerson also worked with Vanderbilt University to start a training program for hearing and speech professionals and a research program. During the next few decades, the Center created a permanent, state-of-the-art facility, expanded the scope of its mission to treat very young children with hearing loss, started a brain-injury rehabilitation program, and expanded its research and training programs.
In 1985 Vanderbilt University Medical Center recruited Dr. Robert Ossoff from Northwestern Medical School to move to Nashville and build a world-class otolaryngology program in treatment, resident education and research. During his tenure, Ossoff created a Voice Center that ranks among the finest in the nation, and he grew the Department of Otolaryngology into an academic and research powerhouse.
In 1997, the Bill Wilkerson Center merged with Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Partnered with the now nationally-ranked Vanderbilt Department of Otolaryngology, the combined departments are known as the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center for Otolaryngology and Communication Sciences.
The Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center serves people with diseases of the ear, nose, throat, head and neck as well as hearing, speech, language and related disorders. As a part of one of the nation’s leading academic health systems, the Center restores health and the ability to communicate to thousands of people every year through patient care, professional education and clinical research. The Center is housed in a state-of-the-art building on the Vanderbilt campus that encourages collaboration and team-based care in all its specialties. It is internationally known for its graduate programs in Hearing and Speech sciences, being ranked #1 in the 2013 U.S. News and World Report rankings.