Remembering Leaders
in the Field of Blindness and Visual Impairment

Samuel A. Kirk, 92, Pioneer Of Special Education Field

By ROBERT McG. THOMASJr
Published: July 28, 1996

Samuel A. Kirk, 92, Pioneer Of Special Education Field

Samuel A. Kirk, an immigrant homesteader's son who became so intrigued by his childhood experiences teaching illiterate farmhands to read that he went on to an acclaimed career as the father of special education, died on July 21 at his retirement home in Tucson, Ariz. He was 92.

Dr. Kirk, who ended his career at the University of Arizona, did his pioneering work as the founding director of the Institute for Research on Exceptional Children at the University of Illinois, a position he held before and after serving as director of the Federal Office of Education's Division of Handicapped Children in 1963 and 1964.

In an era when what is known by statute as "free, appropriate public education" for all children is a right mandated by Federal law, it is easy to forget how things were when Dr. Kirk began his professional career in 1929. Recently graduated from the University of Chicago, he became a counselor at an institution for mentally handicapped teen-age delinquents in Chicago and later at a training school near Ann Arbor, where he obtained a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan in 1935.

There were some programs for the mentally retarded at the time, but they were often little more than custodial, and there were none for other children whose special needs had not even been recognized.

Dr. Kirk's observations and insights at those early jobs informed his later research, which among other things led to his discovery that many failing students who were clearly not retarded nevertheless suffered from various neurological disorders and could be helped by specific regimens of training.

Over the next 60 years Dr. Kirk wrote so widely and so authoritatively on so many aspects of mental retardation and learning disorders and was responsible for so many innovations in diagnosis, training and social policy that it is not hard to understand why a former colleague, William C. Healey, once suggested he was "the last of the great generalists" in his field.

Dr. Kirk's most influential pronouncement was a speech he delivered to an education conference in 1963, when he coined and defined the term "learning disabilities."

The speech had a galvanizing effect on his profession and social policy. Dr. Kirk, whose pioneering work had already earned an award from a Kennedy family foundation, was named to the Federal post by President John F. Kennedy, who had a sister who was mentally retarded.

Although he is widely credited with laying the groundwork for laws requiring schools to provide help for children with learning disabilities, what many regard as Dr. Kirk's most visionary contribution to public policy occurred in 1964, when he persuaded the Administration and Congress to begin providing financing to train teachers to provide the expert help such children needed.

Those who knew him longest suggested yesterday that for all Dr. Kirk's accomplishments and for all the prominent educators he taught, he was merely continuing a childhood impulse. One of nine children of Lebanese immigrants descended from Scottish crusaders, Dr. Kirk was born on a wheat farm outside Rugby, N.D., and grew up on a farm across the Canadian border.

It was there, his younger brother, Victor, recalled yesterday, that on rainy days the farmhands who slept in the loft would shun the pool table in the barn and gather around his brother for lessons in reading.

"He had patience," Mr. Kirk said. "He had a knack for instruction." In addition to his brother, of Sacramento, Calif., Dr. Kirk is survived by his wife, Winnifred; a son, Jerry, of Dana Point, Calif.; a daughter, Lorraine Kirk of Laguna Beach, Calif.; two sisters, Hannah Wilson of Tucson and Margie, of Lethbridge, Alberta, and a granddaughter, Shenna Fitzgerald of Seattle.