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Claire Penn (1951 - )

The Order of Mapungubwe in

Claire Penn (1951 - ) Awarded for:
Excellent contribution to the field of speech and language pathology, especially in the area of linguistics, sign language, child language, aphasia and head injury and producing ground-breaking research in understanding the complexities of human communication.
Profile of Claire Penn

Professor Claire Penn was born in Kenya in November 1951. She received her primary education at Nairobi Mombasa School. When she was 12, Penn and her family moved to South Africa where she matriculated at Springs High. She then went on to read Speech and Hearing at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). She completed her Bachelor’s degree cum laude in 1972. In 1983, she received a PhD at the same university.

For Penn, speech is the essence of human communication and her interest has been to help those who struggle with speech to communicate. At the time, few people showed an interest in this field and such studies were generally not encouraged by parents. Penn was inspired by the fact that her parents allowed her and her brother to make their own decisions and academic choices.

Her career in speech pathology spans three decades. From 1973 to 1976, Penn worked as clinical tutor at Wits. She then moved to England where she became a British council scholar at New Addenbrookes Hospital.

On her return to South Africa, Penn held various positions within the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology at her former university until 1990. Owing to her unflinching commitment to research, she spent time in Australia as a visiting research fellow in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Macquarie in Sydney.

Her love of Africa saw her come back to South Africa. She sees herself as a citizen of Africa. Her ties with Kenya remain strong, and some of her relatives still live there.

Upon her return to South Africa, Penn took up the position of senior research specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council, which she held until 1994. Afterwards, she became a consultant to various international institutions until 2004.

Penn is an A-rated speech and language pathologist who is one of the world leaders in the field of linguistics, sign language, child language, aphasia and head injury. Her interest in the complexities of human communication has seen her produce ground-breaking research.

Penn’s rich experience in clinical practice made her realise that there is a great need for better channels of communication and that it is important to incorporate cultural methods into her field. She strongly believes that, given the enormity of the challenges facing those with speech handicaps, the field of speech pathology is an essential academic discipline. Contrary to others, she is convinced that the field is best placed in the faculty of humanities and that it is in this faculty that broader research can be conducted to explore descriptive and explanatory paradigms.

Professor Claire Penn is an African intellectual who has proved that women can reach the pinnacle of academic excellence and match their male colleagues in conducting high-level scientific research. Penn stands out as an invaluable source of inspiration to millions of young women who are looking for role models across the whole spectrum of scientific disciplines.

Penn’s connection with Africa saw her climb Mount Kenya and lead bush trails as a hobby. She is a mother of two sons, and is a fulltime professor in the Department of Speech and Language Pathology at Wits and holds a part-time visiting professorship at Case Western Reserve University in the United States of America.