History of the BTA
Last updated on 15 April 2013
BTA Vice President Geoffrey Bates, and former Vice President the late Eric Trowsdale, talked here about the history of the BTA:
Forty years ago most people, even some doctors, had not heard of tinnitus. Then in 1974, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) gave a grant to University College Hospital, London, where the head of ENT was the celebrated James Graham Fraser (the man responsible for introducing cochlear implants to Britain). Graham, as all knew him, established the grant for tinnitus research and nominated a young man named Jonathan Hazell to carry out the work.
For five years Jonathan struggled to read everything he could about tinnitus, and found the file very thin. It was mentioned many times but there was very little about treatment or causes. Mr Hazell visited pioneer tinnitus researcher, Jack Vernon, at the Oregon Institute of Hearing in the USA. The story goes that one hot day, a friend went to consult Jack Vernon about his tinnitus. The two men sat in the garden where a fountain was merrily splashing, making a quiet tune as it did so. After some time the visitor said his tinnitus seemed to have abated, and he could hardly hear it. Jack Vernon decided that the soothing noise of the fountain had performed this miracle. He recorded the fountain’s soothing sounds and played the recording to other tinnitus patients. Many said it helped them as well.
From this simple beginning came the masker (now called white noise generator). A hearing aid manufacturer was persuaded to produce an instrument emitting a sound to divert attention from the tinnitus noises, just as the noise of the fountain had. In trials the masker was found to help in some cases. Jonathan Hazell brought the idea back to Britain.
By 1978 tinnitus was more widely known, but GPs and hospitals’ only answer for patients was ‘You’ll have to learn to live with it’. In the meantime, people with tinnitus were starting to come together in groups and supporting each other. Two of the people with tinnitus were the campaigning deaf MP and subsequent peer, Jack Ashley, a member of the governing body of the RNID and his fellow board member, Jack Shapiro. As a BBC producer, Jack Ashley had made a series of programmes on hearing problems, one of which featured tinnitus. After it was broadcast the RNID was besieged by thousands of calls from people wanting something to be done about the nuisance, and sometimes curse, of tinnitus.
The RNID called a meeting and on a sunny July day in 1979, over 300 people crowded into the Grand Committee Room at the House of Commons. Some sat on window ledges and others peeped round the door, many had to stay outside. Chairman of the RNID, Michael Reed, presided. Jack Vernon and Jonathan Hazell spoke about their patients and the research that was underway. Jack Ashley promised to campaign both inside and outside Parliament, to improve the lot of people with tinnitus. It was asked whether more self-help groups could be formed and an Association set up – the British Tinnitus Association (BTA). The RNID Council considered the matter and the BTA was born.
Soon there were groups all over the country, holding regular meetings and calling on the few acknowledged tinnitus specialists to address them and help them to help others. On the strength of this the RNID provided an office and Secretary, Pamela Kennedy, to co-ordinate the groups’ efforts.
A tinnitus newsletter was included in the RNID journal Hearing, later known as Soundbarrier, a monthly publication read by many thousands. The RNID set up the Medical Research Unit, headed by Jonathan Hazell. His colleagues Graham Fraser and John Graham at the Royal Ear Hospital helped him to cope with the flood of patients coming for help.
In 1981 the CIBA Foundation provided a forum for a symposium, and the proceedings were published as the first of many books on tinnitus. It was also the foundation for the International Tinnitus Seminars.
At that time the Deputy Director of the Institute of Hearing Research was Dr Ross Coles, leading a team of young tinnitus researchers. Another significant name is that of Dr Ewart Davies who was at this time engaged in pharmacological research at Birmingham University. He led some pioneering work in tinnitus research and although now retired from his University post is still active in encouraging work in this area.
Through the increase in publicity, more people could now give a name to the noises they heard. They knew they weren’t imaginary and didn’t signify anything sinister. Tinnitus was no longer swept under the carpet. Clinics began to appear in ENT departments, managed mainly by Audiologists bravely adding tinnitus to all their other work and when Hearing Therapists came on the scene, tinnitus became of one their responsibilities.
From 1982 onwards, the BTA held meetings annually and by 1990, things were moving ahead and a Working Group was formed to look into the feasibility of setting up the BTA as an independent charity.
1991 saw the start of the new independent BTA, well established today with an office run by a dedicated team of 6 people able to handle the flood of many thousands of enquiries following various media programmes and articles. Quiet, the BTA Magazine, which is sent to all members quarterly, goes from strength to strength and is acknowledged as the leading journal concerned with tinnitus worldwide.
Over the last few years, the BTA has supported many campaigns, providing information for medical professionals and produced an education pack for schools to raise awareness of the risks of excessive exposure to loud social noise – Don’t Turn it Off, Turn it Down (secondary) Safe & Sound (primary). Both these initiatives have been widely praised.
In all its work the BTA is well supported by its Professional Advisers’ Committee. This group comprises the top names in tinnitus work and research in the UK and is directly involved in helping produce the majority of the self help papers available to be downloaded from this website or from the BTA office.
For several years the Younger Person’s project resulted in annual meetings, telephone and email support and an excellent information booklet Sound Matters.
There is also a regular e-mail update service available free to subscribers, so that all can be aware of the latest treatments and research in this area. There is this website which, following a revision, has been highly acclaimed. In addition there is a discussion page on Facebook for people to share their views and ideas about coping with tinnitus.
Counselling Training Seminars (now renamed ‘Tinnitus Adviser Training’) have been running since 1994 with much due to the skill of Eric Trowsdale, a Trustee and since 2010 a Vice President of the BTA. These courses have proved so popular that two and occasionally three are held annually. The majority of people attending these courses are professionals engaged in the field of audiology and many go on to provide local tinnitus support services. All of the office staff at the BTA have attended this course and the office runs the only national helpline dedicated solely to tinnitus. This is backed up by the most extensive literature available, in the form of over thirty information sheets written by the many professionals who support our work. From its foundation Jack Shapiro was an inspirational Trustee and then Vice President of the BTA. He was Chairman from 2001 to 2004 and made a significant contribution to the strategic development of the BTA, including strengthening the Board of Trustees. He continued to be an active member until his death in January 2010 at the age of 93.
For the past several years the BTA has been involved in promoting a Tinnitus Awareness Week. This has helped raised the profile of tinnitus and made many aware of the good support and information that is now available, where previously there was very little. This has helped remove the isolation felt by many and provided support so that they are more able to cope with this condition.
The BTA now sends out posters to GPs, chemists and libraries on an annual basis, which has resulted in further awareness of the BTA and tinnitus.
As well as providing information and support, the BTA promotes research in this area and embarked on a project to sponsor a Research Fellow in Tinnitus Studies at the Ear Institute at University College London, commencing in 2008 and running until 2013. The purpose of this is to help progress the range of tinnitus research with the long-term objective of developing a cure for the condition. Additionally the BTA supported research linking Professor Barnes at Birmingham University with Professor Salvi at the University of Buffalo, USA, starting in 2010 and finishing in 2012.
All of this work moves the search for a cure forward in the most positive way and is a major arm of the work of the BTA. If you are able to support this valuable work any donations, large or small, will be gratefully received at our office in Sheffield.
From being a rather obscure subject, tinnitus is now a popular subject for the media. Where there was nothing, now there is much. The only thing missing is a ‘cure’ for tinnitus, but with the great increase in research in this area, this will surely come in one form or other.
Forty years ago most people, even some doctors, had not heard of tinnitus.