History of the Colorado Audiology-Otology Ski Conference

by Jerry Northern, PhD (written in 2016)

How many of these otologists and audiologists (circa 1975) can you pick out? With no helmets and a wineglass in hand, no wonder they used to call it a “Ski Conference". Our CME Office outlawed the use of the word “ski” more than a decade ago! – Editorial Comments from the Organizing Committee

In 1966, Marion Downs, M.A., an audiologist, and Garth Hemenway, M.D., an otolaryngologist, both working at the University of Colorado Medical Center in Denver, responded to a US Public Health Service Request for Funding to hold a conference designed to encourage cross-training for their two professions. Their conference proposal was funded and included “scholarships” for 10 otolaryngologists and 10 audiologists to attend and meet for the purpose of exchanging scientific information between the new profession of audiology and the growing specialty of otology. In addition to sponsored faculty presenters and the scholarship awardees, the entire otolaryngology resident staff and hospital audiology staff also attended the conference. The conference, titled “Colorado Medical Audiology Workshop,” was held during the summer of 1967 at the infamous Stanley Hotel in beautiful Estes Park, CO and by all reports was a great success.

Riding on the enthusiasm of this initial summer meeting, Downs and Hemenway applied for second Medical Audiology Workshop grant for 1968 and a third grant for a meeting in 1969. Both applications were approved and funded. The second audiology-otology conference was also held in Estes Park, CO during the summer of 1968, but the funding for the third meeting was delayed and did not arrive until fall of 1969. Too late to hold a summer meeting, Downs and Hemenway decided to hold a winter meeting in Vail, CO in December of 1969 – which added the possibility of skiing for conference attendees. This 3-day winter meeting was held at Manor Vail because one of the clinical professors in otology (Victor Hillyard, M.D) owned a condo in that complex, thus making use of the meeting room complimentary. Again, the meeting was a small gathering of about 30 attendees and was a resounding success. 

Jerry Northern, PhD, an audiologist, returned to Denver from his military tour of duty at Walter Reed Medical Center in June of 1970.  He filled a University Hospital position vacated by Gary McCandless, PhD, who had moved on to Salt Lake City in 1968. For the 1971 meeting, the US Health Service could not fund the conference, so Northern turned to the Continuing Education Department of the Medical School for financial support and co-sponsorship of the conference. To help meet expenses, the meeting was minimally advertised and attendees were charged a small registration fee. Northern attended the 1971 Vail meeting of the Colorado Medical Audiology Workshop for the first time, and immediately began to foresee larger potential for this winter ski meeting. Northern had made the acquaintance of a number of notable audiology and otology scientists as the military representative to the NIH study group during his years in Washington DC, and he invite these expert ‘friends’ to be featured on the faculty of future ski conferences. The development of a stronger nationally-noted scientific faculty, and increased marketing through direct mail and journal announcements, boosted attendance by a wider scope of hearing care professionals. By 1973, the conference had grown to about 75 attendees and was running positively at a profit for the University Department of Continuing Education.

However, the structure of the co-operative meeting sponsorship with the University led to disenchantment felt by Northern and Downs. It was felt that the Audiology-ENT Department was doing all the work while the proceeds of the conference were going directly to the University. As an aside, Northern, who by now was Conference Director, was embarrassed with the slow system of reimbursing the invited faculty and the rules prohibiting the University to pay for social events and liquor. Northern and Downs wanted to extend the ski meeting for a full week to match travel incentives from airlines and hotels. Their plans included a number of social events during the week that would enhance the scientific program with fun activities.  

To resolve these problems, Northern, with approval from Downs and Hemenway, decided to take the workshop outside the University and establish it as a Colorado non-profit 501.C3 organization. Under their new charter and by-laws, the first meeting of the Board of Directors of the Colorado Medical Audiology Workshop, Ltd was held November 9th, 1974. During this meeting, Jerry Northern was elected permanent President and Marion Downs was elected permanent Secretary-Treasurer. Other voting members of the Board elected were Raymond Wood, MD and LaVonne Bergstrom, MD. The main purpose of the new organization was to, "...establish and carry on and provide for the delivery and holding of lectures, exhibitions, public meetings, classes and conferences, calculated directly or indirectly, to educate students, doctors and medical assistants and all other interested persons about all facets of audiology and otology and anything in anyway connected therewith or ancillary to...”. An additional purpose was "...to support and assist, and to make grants and gifts in aid and support and assistance of research and development or education in the areas of audiology, otology and/or any other areas of medical education and/for such other purposes and to such organizations as would be exempt from taxation...”

The minutes of the second Board of Directors meeting held in July of 1975 present an illuminating set of notes. Based on the successes of the Medical Audiology Workshop meetings held in Vail at the new Mark Marriott Hotel in the Lions Head area. At this meeting, the Board established the protocol of future conferences by agreeing to invite a few nationally known hearing specialists each year, and opening the program for submissions from other contributors who wished to participate. It was decided and noted "...to send letters to previous program presenters agreeing to waive tuition in return for their presentations, but all other expenses would be met by them.” Attendance at the 1974 Workshop was approximately 175 attendees. In fact, the attendance at the ski meeting continued to increase until the mid-1990s with the total number of participants and faculty reaching approximately 225 persons.

In March of 1980, the Board of Directors decided in favor of a name change for the organization. The non-profit organization had become more than just a sponsor of an annual ski meeting. Proceeds from the conference were being used to support research projects within the department, to purchase reference materials for the otolaryngology resident staff, travel and meeting registration for audiology staff who were not being supported by the University, as well as grants to other non-profit groups.  Accordingly, the Board unanimously voted to change the name to the more generic “Colorado Hearing Foundation.”  However, the ski meeting itself, in years to come, would be known as the Colorado Otology-Audiology Workshop (or Conference or Meeting). In 1983, Darrel Teter, PhD and Marlin Weaver, MD, both of Denver, were added to the Board. 

Along with the name change of the organization, we realized that we had a team of regular faculty members who were outstanding scientists and exceptional speakers who annually provided the foundation for our ski meeting. Northern and Downs decided to include these outstanding faculty members into the planning meetings for the ongoing ski meetings. A formal Scientific Advisory Group was formed and included David Lim, MD; Geary McCandless, PhD; Paul Ward, MD; Josef Miller, PhD; Charles Berlin, PhD; F. Blair Simmons, MD; and Bruce Gantz, MD. These advisors continued for many years to help in the planning of meetings, serving as moderators for the various sessions as needed, and appearing each year as the keynote speakers. 

Looking back in the history of the otology-audiology ski meeting, which was held annually for 36 years (1966 – 2002), most would agree that the meeting was unique in its conception and organization, venue, outstanding faculty, incorporation of fun social activities, and camaraderie, but primarily the conference had a national and international reputation for top level educational presentations by leading scientists and clinicians. Over the years, the conference was held at different Colorado ski areas beginning with Vail (1977 – 1981), Aspen (1982 -1987), Breckenridge (1988 – 2000), and Copper Mountain (2001 -2002). A special 25th year celebratory conference was held at Snowmass in 1991.  With the retirement of both Jerry Northern and Marion Downs from the University of Colorado School of Medicine, and the annual decline of conference attendees, the increasing expenses of an onsite ski mountain venue along with the increasing costs of skiing, the Audiology-Otology Ski Meeting was finally mothballed and put away following the Copper Mountain meeting in 2002.

This historical document was prepared by Jerry Northern and based on Colorado Hearing Foundation documents, minutes from meetings of the Board of Directors, annual conference flyers / programs and an ageing memory (written June 13, 2016). 

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