In 1990, a researcher speaking to a group of neurologists told a patient story that was so unusual, a write-up of the case study was published in newspapers across the country.
The researcher described a Baltimore man who suddenly began speaking with a Scandinavian accent after suffering a stroke. The man had no experience with foreign languages, the researcher explained, yet he sounded Nordic and unfamiliar with English.
The patient suffered from a rare condition known as foreign-accent syndrome, and the reporter writing the story reached out to Mayo Clinic researcher Arnold Aronson for help understanding the problem.
There were only about a dozen other cases describing the ailment in the scientific literature, Aronson was quoted as saying, adding that he had evaluated about 20 people with the syndrome including a British person with a French accent and a young Czech with a Polish accent. The newspaper report published in the Star Tribune and other outlets added: “About 40 percent of cases produced German, Swedish or Norwegian accents,” said Aronson, who added that a person’s native tongue has no bearing on which accent appears.”
Aronson, of Minneapolis, died Nov. 1 after suffering a recent stroke and congestive heart failure. He was 90. In 36 years of work at the Mayo Clinic, he treated patients, mentored students and led research that made him an authority in the diagnosis of motor speech disorders and the treatment of voice disorders, said Joseph Duffy, an emeritus consultant and speech pathology professor at the Mayo Clinic.
“His clinical, research and scholarly contributions were enormous,” Duffy said in remarks he prepared for Aronson’s memorial service. “They helped set the course for an entire profession, and their influence endures today.”
Aronson was born in Milwaukee and earned degrees in speech pathology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps before becoming a professor at the Mayo Clinic.
Aronson started working at the clinic in 1962 and served as head of speech pathology in the neurology department from 1979 until 1992. He wrote influential books in the field and co-authored key research papers that established how the profession approaches classification of motor speech disorders, according to Duffy.
“I was fortunate to be among 35 men and women who did postdoctoral work at the Mayo Clinic under Arnie’s guidance,” Duffy said in remarks for the memorial service. “He helped foster our dreams and aspirations by believing in us. He wanted us to be better than we were, and treated us like he believed that was possible.”
Foreign-accent syndrome was one of several rare voice disorders that Aronson specialized in throughout his career, said daughter Ann Aronson of Minneapolis. The unusual cases came with the territory at Mayo, she said, since patients came to Rochester when they couldn’t find answers from clinicians close to home.
Outside of work, Aronson was an amateur pilot who loved reading nonfiction, particularly books about World War II. He started playing violin at age 5, and picked it up periodically throughout his life. In his 60s, Aronson took up tap dancing.
Through it all, Aronson was a connoisseur of deli food, whether kosher sausage or smoked fish. And he was known for the phrase: “If not now, when?”
“If you asked him if he wanted to do something or try something or see something, it was his way of saying: ‘Why not?’ ” Ann Aronson said. “You never know, unless you try.”
Services have been held.