Dr. John B. Calhoun – Not Quite Dr. Schultz?

“Perhaps I am a poet in scientist’s garb.”

Almost all of the widely published information regarding Robert C. O’Brien’s (Robert Conly’s) influences for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH cite researcher John B. Calhoun’s work at the National Institutes of Mental Health. While it is true that Conly’s visit to NIMH and Calhoun played a role, I believe that there are many who are naturally inclined to therefore believe that Mrs. Frisby’s Dr. Schultz is an exact representation of Calhoun. Even more of a stretch is to believe that Calhoun was the kind of mad, sadistic scientist portrayed in Secret of NIMH. In truth, the impression of Calhoun I received was far more complex.

Calhoun openly expressed his belief that he had been the prototype for Dr. Schultz in a 1982 Washington Post article – claiming to have remembered “the late O’Brien, the book’s author, visiting the facility in the late ’60s or early ’70s.” However, perhaps the greatest irony can be found in the article’s next passage: In fact, Calhoun believes that Mrs. Frisby’s name came from the blue Frisbee he kept hanging on his door “to help when things got too stressful for us.” [2] While Calhoun and his associates had outlets for their stress, the rats and mice in his ‘universes’ did not, and hence the suffering that ensued. It was simply no wonder that one article on his work would be called “The small satanic worlds of John B. Calhoun.” While there are plenty of reasons to believe that Dr. Schultz was not a carbon-copy of Calhoun, the shades of some of his attitudes toward the suffering of his subjects certainly haunt the pages of Conly’s book.

But was he Schultz – completely? There certainly appears to be a detached ability to study captive rats, but there are some facts about Calhoun that are contradictory. One prime example of this is that Dr. Calhoun, rather than believing in the extermination of rats, as does Dr. Schultz at the end of Mrs. Frisby, was vocally against the poisoning/extermination of rats. This is clear in his letters to government officials in New York, NY in which he protested the city’s plan to use poisons to exterminate the rats (something Dr. Schultz had no problem doing). Dr. Calhoun praised rats for their many positive aspects, including the joys of pet rat ownership.

This, perhaps, isn’t surprising, when you consider that Dr. Calhoun started out as a zoologist whose career path took him down the same paths many zoologists end up taking in order to put food on the table – research involving animal experimentation. In the collections I studied, I found a number of letters that children sent to Dr. Calhoun after reading Mrs. Frisby or watching Secret of NIMH. Many of the children’s letters inquire about where the research rodents came from, and even inquiries about how they might re-create the experiments on their own. Interestingly enough, the children were sometimes even invited to come to the research labs. From the letters I found in the collection, it appears form-like letters were sent on behalf of Calhoun’s team, not as directly from Calhoun himself.. It provided a great deal of information and an expression of regret of any animal suffering, but an assurance it would make life better for future animals and humans.

Excerpt from one of the letters that addressing the treatment and experiences of the rats:

Calhoun, John B. John B. Calhoun Papers. 1909-1996. Located in: Archives and Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 586.
Calhoun, John B. John B. Calhoun Papers. 1909-1996. Located in: Archives and Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 586

Note: The color variation of the paper is due to using photographs from two different samples of the letter.

Indeed, there is no question that Dr. Calhoun had some clinical detachment from his research subjects. Photos and descriptions of the behavioral breakdowns in the crowded “universes” are not for the squeamish. In one particularly empathy-arousing article by leading journalist Stewart Alsop, “Dr. Calhoun’s Horrible Mousery,” Alsop used the following language to describe the conditions he witnessed:

“The lowest of all – the proles – were the mice who found no nesting sites at all. They swarmed over the bottom of the box – sad, scruffy little animals, mostly rejected males, a few viciously aggressive females.”

“All the mice were afflicted in varying degrees with what Dr. Calhoun calls a “withdrawal syndrome.” Only the proles on the open floor retain the capacity for “little bursts of violence,” Dr. Calhoun said. “They chew on each other, and the ones being chewed on don’t run away.” He pointed out a couple of mice on the floor, and sure enough, one was gnawing on another’s bottom, while the other sat passive.”

“Their fellows had found the release of death in the “carbo-box,” a mouse Auschwitz filled with carbon dioxide.”

“In one of the boxes, six survivors, terrified of the unaccustomed surrounding space, huddled together, clinging to each other desperately as though in a great cold.”[1]


And yet, in another twist, nearing the very end of my research at the National Library of Medicine, I discovered a poem that Dr. Calhoun had written about one of the last surviving mice in one of the “mouse universe” studies:

Calhoun, John B. John B. Calhoun Papers. 1909-1996. Located in: Archives and Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 586.


“The Old Lady”

I’m not ashamed to tell you that when I read this I burst into tears and had to leave the library for more than a few minutes. Of course, it could be argued that these emotions are simply anthropomorphic projection. While Dr. Calhoun certainly possessed and encouraged compassion in human society, I could not locate any absolute proof that this also applied to the non-human animals he worked with.. Nevertheless, I think that these examples of Dr. Calhoun’s work and statements exclude the possibility that he was a heartless monster devoid of sanity. I believe he was a man who was genuinely interested in non-human animals and, in order to make a living through his chosen field of study, had to develop a detachment that many such scientists had to do and have to do today.

I can’t judge. My jury is permanently out…


[1] Alsop, Stewart. “Dr. Calhoun’s Horrible Mousery.” Newsweek, August 17, 1970. John B. Calhoun Papers. History of Medicine Division. National Library of Medicine.

[2] “Rats! The Real Secret of NIMH: The Magic Inside the Local Laboratories Where the Rodents Are Getting Smarter.” The Washington Post. July 21, 1982. John B. Calhoun Papers. History of Medicine Division. National Library of Medicine.

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