Margaret Byrd Rawson (1899-2001)
MSA SC 3520-14292
When many people look forward to retirement, they envision lazy
afternoons by the lake or their dream 'round-the-world vacation.
Few plan to start schools, complete longitudinal studies and write
books, but that is exactly how Margaret Byrd Rawson spent her
retirement. For thirty-six years, Rawson contributed to the
world’s understanding of dyslexia after she retired from teaching in
1965. Lively and adventurous, Rawson was the backbone of the
Orton Dyslexia Society, and her fifty-five year study of her dyslexic
students is a benchmark of the field. When a reporter asked what
motivated her, Rawson replied: “Don’t use the word dedication when you
write about me.
It puts a slant of missionary seriousness to it. I have much more
in life than that.”1 Margaret
Rawson's fun spanned three centuries and left a lasting contribution
the millions of children who face the challenge of dyslexia.
Born in 1899 in Rome, Georgia, Margaret grew up in Philadelphia. After attending Quaker schools, she enrolled in Swarthmore. While she was in college, women finally won the right to vote in national elections in 1920. Margaret was twenty-one at the time and proudly cast her vote in the 1920 presidential election for Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist candidate.2 The first person to complete the honors program at Swarthmore, she graduated in 1923 and married Arthur Joy Rawson, an engineer.3 Six years later, with two sons, the Rawsons joined a group of parents who started the progressive School in Rose Valley. From 1935 to 1947, Margaret worked at the school as a teacher, librarian, and psychologist. While working, she earned a M.A. in social work from the University of Pennsylvania in 1940. She studied elementary education and psychology with an emphasis on educational testing and measurements.4 At Rose Valley, Rawson embarked on what would become the intellectual journey of her life.
In 1935, Rawson encountered a bright boy who was having trouble learning to read. Another teacher suggested a neurologist in New York City who might be able to help. The boy returned with specific instructions for his education from the doctor, Samuel T. Orton. Dr. Orton had begun his research studying brain-damaged adults. After his own daughter had trouble reading, Orton began to investigate cases where children who had not had any brain injuries exhibited many of the same symptoms as adults who had. Naming the problem “strephosymbolia,” which literally means ‘twisted symbols,’ he developed a method of teaching reading with researcher Anne Gillingham.5 Rawson adapted the Orton-Gillingham method and soon had her student reading at grade level. Throughout her career, Rawson’s practices reflected her central philosophy concerning children: she believed in the dignity of every individual and respected the variety of ways children were able to learn. For her, the onus for success was on the teacher, not the child: she often said, “teach the language as it is to the child as he is.”6 Rather than forcing a child to conform to a set method of learning, Rawson searched for innovative ways to reach the child, often incorporating tactile and whole-body methods into her reading instruction.
In 1947, Arthur Rawson got a job at Ft. Detrick, Maryland, and the family moved to Frederick. There, Margaret Rawson began teaching sociology at Hood College, where she remained until her retirement. In addition to her teaching duties, Rawson worked as a clinical psychologist at two Frederick County health clinics. Her interest in dyslexia never waned; she began a seminar at Hood College designed to educate teachers about the issue, the first such course in the country. She also ran a private practice where she diagnosed and tutored children because the county’s public schools did not acknowledge dyslexia.7 After her husband died in 1963, a friend from the National Institute of Health encouraged her to follow up on research she had begun at the School in Rose Valley. Rawson interviewed twenty boys who she had diagnosed as dyslexic thirty years before and another group of former students as a control group. She found that the boys with dyslexia were actually more likely to succeed later in life than the control group. Those who had been identified as dyslexic went on to professional careers and over half had received graduate degrees. In 1968, Rawson published her findings in Developmental Language Disability: Adult Accomplishments of Dyslexic Boys. The book gave hope to many parents of students struggling to read.8 After publishing several other books and numerous articles, Rawson did a follow-up to her famous 1968 study. Her 1995 work, Dyslexia over the Lifespan, was the longest longitudinal study in the United States at the time. The follow-up of “her boys” fifty years later showed little difference in their lives compared to their non-dyslexic counterparts.
One of Rawson’s strengths was her ability to unite people across disciplines to address dyslexia. Her talent thrived in the Orton Dyslexia Society (now the International Dyslexia Association); she was a founding member and served as president from 1965-68. She also edited the newsletter for many years, transforming it from a thin pamphlet to a respected academic journal. Rawson was remembered as the “intellectual fulcrum around which [the Orton Society] grew.”9 Not content with her work in the Society, she also encouraged the founding of private schools to concentrate on language disorders. In 1973, Rawson helped start the Jemicy School in Owing Mills, the first school dedicated to dyslexia in Baltimore.10 Rawson also served on the Frederick County Dyslexia Project, the President’s Commission on Mental Health, and in Maryland, on the Governor’s Study Commission on Dyslexia in 1971. She received an honorary degree from Swarthmore in 1983 and another from Hood College in 1989. The International Dyslexia Society has named an annual lifetime achievement award after her, and she was the first recipient. Finally, the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame inducted her posthumously in 2004.
While Rawson did much more than the average retiree, she still found time for a full and balanced life. Nicknamed “Yoda” by her godchildren because of her wide knowledge of news, sports, and trivia, Rawson never shied from a new experience. She learned to fly at the age of 72 and kept flying until she was 79.11 She kept in touch with a wide circle of friends and family, including her two sons, six grandchildren and thirteen great-grandchildren. In addition to her family, she corresponded with colleagues and former students; her famous Christmas card list included over five hundred people.12 In the late 1980s, she discovered the personal computer and soon did all her work there. One colleague remembers receiving e-mail from Rawson long before e-mail was commonplace.13 Her amazing pace never slowed; at the age of 101, she signed the papers to found the Margaret Byrd Rawson Instituted which is “dedicated to training educators and other professionals and parents in language acquisition so that all children will have the critical skills and positive sense of self they need to realize their full potential."14 She passed away at her farmhouse on November 25, 2001 at the age of 102. At her memorial service, perhaps the most touching moment was when a group of men in their sixties stood and explained they had been former students.15 As they described how Margaret Byrd Rawson had transformed their lives, they wept.
1. O'Hanlon, Ann. "Going Strong at 96,
She's a Teacher for the Ages," The Washington Post, 26
August 1995. return to text
2. Bowler, Mike. "Margaret Byrd Rawson,
102, Teacher who Helped Children Overcome Dyslexia," The
Baltimore Sun, 28 November 2001. return to text
3. Masland, Richard L., M.D. "Margaret
Byrd Rawson," Bulletin of the Orton Society 21 (1972).
return to text
4. Saxon, Wolfgang. "Margaret Byrd
Rawson, 102, Educator and Dyslexia Authority," The New York
Times, 1 December 2001. return to text
5. Duchan, Judy. "Samuel Torrey Orton,
1879-1948." History of Speech-Pathology in America.
May 12, 2001. http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~duchan/history_subpages/samuelorton.html.
return to text
6. Masland, Richard, M.D. and Molly Masland.
"Memories of Margaret." Perspectives: Bulletin
of the International Dyslexia Association 28.3 (2002): 7. return to text
7. Saxon. return to text
8. Bowler. return to text
9. O'Hanlon. return to text
10. Morvay, Joanne E. "Early Success Inspired Life's Work," The Baltimore Sun, 31 May 1998. return to text
11. O'Hanlon. return to
12. Bowler. return to text
13. LD Resources. "Margaret B. Rawson."
return to text
14. Ankney, Teresa. "Paths She Has
Opened." Perspectives: Bulletin of the International
Dyslexia Association 28.3 (2002): 6. return
15. Bowler, Mike. "Pomp and
Towson University," The Baltimore Sun, 17 March 2002. return to text
Biography written by 2004 summer intern Amy Hobbs.
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