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March 5, 2015

Obituary: Betty Jane McWilliams


Betty Jane McWilliams, former director of the University’s Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Center and professor emerita in the Department of Communication Science and Disorders in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, died Feb 20, 2015, at Longwood at Oakmont in Verona. She was 93.

A native of Martins Ferry, Ohio, McWilliams earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Ohio State University in 1949. Her graduate work was done at Pitt, where she earned a master’s degree in audiology in 1950 and a PhD in speech-language pathology in 1953.

She was director of the Wheeling Society for Crippled Children speech clinic 1949-50 and directed the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Speech and Hearing Clinic 1952-63.

McWilliams joined the Pitt faculty in 1954 as an assistant professor of psychology and speech, rising to associate professor in 1959 and full professor in 1967.

She codirected Pitt’s Speech and Hearing Clinic 1954-65 and served as director of the University’s cleft palate center 1969-91. McWilliams was named professor emeritus in 1991.

The University recognized her as a 2000 Distinguished Alumna awardee and a 2004 Distinguished Alumni Fellow.

An internationally recognized expert in speech pathology and audiology, she consulted with many groups that serve children with disabilities, speech and hearing impairments and published widely in her field. In addition to numerous journal articles and other publications, McWilliams coauthored the textbook “Cleft Palate Speech” in 1984.

She edited the Cleft Palate Journal 1975-81. She was president of the American Cleft-Palate-Craniofacial Association (ACPA), the ACPA Educational Foundation, the Cleft Palate Foundation and the Pennsylvania Federation of Cleft Palate Clinics. She also served as ACPA secretary-treasurer and as its 1969 international congress assistant secretary-general.

She was a fellow of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and the American College of Dentists and a member of the American Psychological Association and the American Association of University Professors.

Among numerous professional honors, she received the ACPA Distinguished Service Award in 1975, and in 1987 was awarded its Honors of the Association, given to individuals “whose lifetime of research, health care delivery or leadership has advanced significantly and uniquely the amelioration of physical, behavioral or social handicapping conditions of cleft lip and palate or other craniofacial anomalies.”

In 1995, the American Speech Language Hearing Foundation awarded her the Frank R. Kleffner Lifetime Clinical Career Award in honor of “exemplary contributions to clinical science and practice” over a period of no less than 20 years.

McWilliams was among the early proponents of a multidisciplinary approach to treating cleft palate/craniofacial disorders, appointing team members in dentistry, surgery, plastic surgery, anthropology, pediatric otology, psychiatry and social work to the Pitt Cleft Palate Center, said Thomas Forrest, who joined McWilliams at the center in his first faculty position after completing orthodontic training at Pitt in 1988.

Although such an approach wasn’t new, he said, “she was responsible for helping create what was to become the standard” in caring for children with cleft palate and craniofacial anomalies.

Forrest, son of the late Edward J. Forrest, a former dental school dean, remembered McWilliams as a pioneer and a role model. “She was a researcher, innovator, clinician, author and, in my case, a guidance counselor,” he said, recalling both her rapport with young patients and her ability to oversee a team of specialists in the center that initially was housed in the dental school. “Dad was very comfortable knowing he had her as head of a center,” Forrest said.

Professor emeritus Herbert Rubin remembered McWilliams as a “powerhouse” in the department, having first met her when he interviewed for a faculty position in 1958. She accomplished a great deal with her attitude and her competence, he said, recalling her as a feisty individual. “She backed down to no one,” he said. At the same time, she was an effective teacher, a capable diagnostician and a skilled interviewer, “able to interact with young patients very effectively,” he said.

Rubin also maintained a friendship with McWilliams, based in part on their common interest in antiques.

MCWILLIAMS SKETCHA descendant of the Wall family of noted 19th-century landscape and portrait artists, McWilliams inherited some works and collected others. The University of Pittsburgh Press published her monograph, “The Four Walls: The Lives and Work of a Family of Western Pennsylvania Artists” in 2000.

McWilliams maintained connections with former coworkers and students, Rubin said, adding that colleagues arranged a birthday celebration for her 90th birthday.

SHRS faculty member Ellen Cohn remembers McWilliams, her doctoral dissertation adviser, as an “amazing” mentor. “She would not accept less than what she considered to be excellent,” Cohn said.

Cohn said McWilliams retained an air of formality, preferring to be addressed as Dr. McWilliams, yet she could relate to a wide range of people and cultivated a diverse cadre of friends.

She was an elegant cook who maintained an elegant home, Cohn said, adding that McWilliams was fun to be with — equally able to enjoy fine dining or lunch at George Aiken’s.

She enjoyed opera and was a fan of historical mystery stories. In later life she became a sports fan, cheering for the Penguins, Steelers and Pirates and for Pitt’s football and basketball teams.

Known for her generosity, McWilliams excelled in presenting beautiful and thoughtfully chosen gifts, Cohn said.

“She was a believer in traditions. She created a family where we worked.”

McWilliams was a remarkable clinician, with keen perceptions and a professional, straightforward yet patient-centered approach, Cohn said. Above all, “she would always assert the right thing, the best thing to do for patients,” Cohn said. “She was a massive force. She set the standard for treating people with cleft lip and palate.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow