Just the Rats (of NIMH), M’am. Just the Rats

I’ve finally decided to extract just the Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH chapter of my thesis for your viewing pleasure. After all, since science has recently revealed that they’ve trained rats to drive cars to get food ( https://www.newscientist.com/article/2220721-scientists-have-trained-rats-to-drive-tiny-cars-to-collect-food/?utm_medium=SOC&utm_source=Twitter ), I felt like it was important to mention that it was O’Brien’s rats who did it first – once they found the Toy Tinker’s truck in the woods.

Original illustration of the Toy Tinker scene by illustrator Zena Bernstein. This may still be under copyright law, but is being used for educational purposes only on this site.

You know what’s interesting about the study? Well, maybe about what they discovered? That rats find learning new tasks relieve stress. I will tell you, honestly, my love affair with rats was the only time I’ve believed in love at first site. When I met one, their clear intelligence and curiosity was just one of the many things that won me over. I always enjoy when rat research shows positive things about rats – who are often vilified – but at the same time, I feel disheartened because I know that rats (as well as mice and birds) are not offered the same protections other animals are offered under the Animal Welfare Act. I respect those who have put guidelines in place to prevent animal suffering and I am heartened by moves to alternate models, but progress takes time.

All of that aside, I still find it’s incredibly cute to watch a rat get into a little car and go after their treats (which of course, they would be inclined to share with friends( https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21256-rats-free-each-other-from-traps-then-share-chocolate/ ). I also felt like it was a good time to extract just my Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH chapter from my thesis in case anyone felt like taking a look. (IMPORTANT: This excerpt, as it appears in my thesis is FULL of citations and references that can be seen in my thesis. I have omitted them for readability.)

Chapter Two: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

The story was part of a book of essays, and the reason I had read it so eagerly was that it was called “The Rat Race” – which, I learned, means a race where no matter how fast you run, you don’t get anywhere. But there was nothing in the book about rats, and I felt bad about the title because, I thought, it wasn’t a rat race at all, it was a People Race, and no sensible rats would ever do anything so foolish.

Called “[i]ngenious, credible, and sometimes moving” in Children’s Books of International Interest, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH has been, ever since its release, praised highly by scholars and reviewers of children’s literature. In 1985, Alethea K Helbig called Mrs. Frisby “a combination of science fiction and animal fantasy” that described “fantastic situations with scientific accuracy. Scholar Paula T. Connolly noted the book for Conly’s “gradations of moral understanding and culpability” while dealing with “such problematic issues as the roles of science and technology, identity, idealism, family life, forms of community and means of survival.” The positive reviews for Conly’s pivotal work seem endless, as do the number of issues the ambitious Conly set out to address in the novel.

Of Conly’s four books, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is not only the most well- known, but it is also the book which addresses the broadest range of social issues. It also almost didn’t come to pass. Conly began writing his most famous book in November 1967, while working on The Silver Crown, and had almost abandoned the book in March 1968 – after only two chapters. Then, in 1969, Conly’s work with National Geographic took him to the laboratories of John B. Calhoun, a behaviorist researcher who worked for the National Institutes for Mental Health. Calhoun, who was then doing research on the improvement of intellectual capacities in rats, had been well-known in the 1960s for his work on overcrowding and his development of the concept of societal breakdown which he called the “Behavioral Sink.” The visit would “set him thinking.” That fateful meeting may have been the spark that would lead to the creation of a tale that would address American concerns about genetic engineering and technological materialism.

The Biological Time Bomb, written by Gordon Rattray Taylor and released in 1968, is notable for its intent to bring the ethical concerns of biological engineering to the public at large. Geneticist and philosopher C.H. Waddington, author of books such as The Ethical Animal (1960) and Biology, Purpose and Ethics (1971) included the following passage in the review of Taylor’s book in The New York Review of Books:

His book is in fact the first major exposition, addressed to the general public, of questions which are going to be very much with us in the next few decades. The main question his book raises is simple to state, and very difficult to deal with. It is that the pursuit of knowledge eventually brings the power to control the subjects the knowledge is about; and power can be used for many purposes, including undesirable or evil ones as well as good. Taylor’s aim is to show that biological knowledge is on the point of presenting us with powers that might be as double-edged as the control of atomic energy proved to be.

In The Biological Time Bomb, Taylor warns that the privileged reputation of the scientist as a “miracle worker” could eventually become one of a “mad engineer, applying his arcane knowledge regardless of the human consequences, causing disasters, manufacturing monsters, prepared even to move the earth from its course or extinguish the sun to test his theories.” Books such as Taylor’s often used the words of scientists to support their assertions. For example, Taylor quoted famed geneticist Francis Crick, who suggested that “the development of biology is going to destroy to some extent our traditional grounds for ethical beliefs.” James T. Patterson, in his non-fiction book about the 1960s The Eve of Destruction, quoted the words of scientist Rollin Hotchkiss who ominously predicted that research into the manipulation of DNA could not be stopped. “It will surely be done or attempted,” Hotchkiss said, adding that “[t]he pathway will be built from a combination of altruism, private profit, and ignorance.”

It is important to note here that Dr. Schultz and his graduate students in Conly’s book are not the mad, sadistic scientists portrayed by the 1982 Bluth film, The Secret of NIMH. Conflation of the two movies often gives Conly an unfair reputation for being virulently anti-scientist and anti-science. This point is reiterated by reviewers of the text who deride the movie for muddling the subtle commentary that Conly provided in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Part of the effectiveness of the book lies in its portrayal of real-life issues in shades of grey, not in black and white. Paula R. Connolly supported this view when she said that “[d]espite O’Brien’s obvious criticisms of the overambitious goals of science and the dangers of experimentation, he is careful not to provide facile characterizations of scientists.” Nevertheless, the book was not well- received in scientific circles. Catherine L. Elick cites a Science magazine article in which authors Deborah Runkle and Ellen Granger attacked “juvenile magazine articles and novels like Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” for “propagandizing” children and accused “teachers of subjects other than science” of “promoting the animal rights agenda during a discussion of civil rights.” The Smithsonian Institution, which included the book in a teaching list about animal research issues, also gained the ire of the American Association for the Advancement of Science whose members felt the book was an unbalanced attack on scientific research.

Conly’s book, indeed, does not condone Dr. Schultz and experimentation he conducts on the rats. It is his subtlety, which, in fact, makes the message more effective: Alethea K. Helbig describes Dr. Schultz as having a “cold, dispassionate manner [which] increases the horror of what may happen. Conly’s daughter, in her essay “Intelligence and Utopia in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH ,” notes the willingness of the scientists to “attack with cyanide gas a group of rats they believe to be as intelligent as themselves.” Catherine L. Elick, in Talking Animals in Children’s Fiction, said that Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH presented “not only a harsher view of humanity but also a stronger call to see animals as intelligent, rights-bearing individuals.” She also alludes to Shelley’s Frankenstein, proposing that “Dr. Frankenstein’s inexorable hunt for his creature through frozen wastes” parallels the attempt to exterminate the rats of NIMH.” The literate rats of NIMH are well-aware of their differences to regular rats, noticing the changes in their size and intelligence, as well as the ways in which their former brethren seem to be intimidated by them. This is clear in a discussion between Nicodemus and Jenner in which Nicodemus says:

The real point is this: We don’t know where to go because we don’t know what we are…. But the fact is, we aren’t rats any more. We’re something Dr. Schultz has made…Where does a group of civilized rats fit in?

There is another possible reason, however, that Conly’s scientist chooses to be willing to attempt to exterminate the possibly re-discovered rats of NIMH rather than capture the rats under the Fitzgibbon rosebush at the conclusion of the book. Many animal experiments, including those in the fields of genetic engineering, end in the purposeful deaths of the animals in order that the scientists can then dissect the corpses in order to learn the effects of the experiments upon the physiology of the animal. This practice, which still occurs today, is done not only in the name of scientific analysis, but simply because any additional upkeep of laboratory animals post- experiment is viewed as too costly.

Materialism – and the thing about “things” – is another of Mrs. Frisby’s major foci. Alexis de Tocqueville, in now famous observations of mid-nineteenth American culture, declared that materialism was a “dangerous disease of the human mind,” a phrase which closely resembles Nicodemus’s own talk of “a feeling of discontent [which] settled upon us like some creeping disease.” Nicodemus was here describing the feeling of the rats after they had given themselves every gadget and luxury in their home beneath the Fitzgibbon rosebush.

America, too, was feeling some of this malaise, as evident in the anti-materialist sentiment that rose to the forefront in 1960s counterculture. By the 1960s, the proliferation of technology led to a whole new facet to such materialism. Elaine Taylor, in The Commodity Gap: Consumerism and the Modern Home, stated that Richard Nixon linked “consumer aspirations to scientific expertise” in 1959. An exchange between President Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, now immortalized as the “Kitchen Debate,” featured a Nixon who trumpeted the capabilities of American technology against a Khrushchev who jokingly asked the President if the United States had “a machine that puts food in the mouth and pushes it down?” Ruth Schwartz Cohen’s More Work for Mother noted that American affluence wasn’t just indicated by the typical signs of wealth such as home size and automobile make, but also by “toilets, refrigerators, and washing machines.” Popular culture, too, expressed a sense of malaise with materialism, such as in the Monkees’ 1967 hit, “Another Pleasant Valley Sunday,” in which the singer laments that “[c]reature comfort goals, they only numb my soul” and “make it hard for me to see.” Anti-materialism was a prominent theme in 1960s counterculture, with many members eschewing such consumerism and advocating a return to a simpler life, including those which advocated a return to the land.

Anthropologist Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey (1962) opens with a chapter in which the author describes himself observing a community: “[L]istening to the talk ringing out from neighbor to neighbor” and “seeing the inhabitants drowsing in their doorways.” It is not a human city, Eiseley reveals, but “prairie dog town.” Eiseley then relates a tale of human evolution in which the roles of rodents and the early primates play pivotal roles. Eiseley describes the rodent predecessor as a “shabby little Paleocene rat, eternal tramp and world wanderer” and the “father of all mankind.” Using detailed scientific language, Eiseley suggests that without these rodents, the early primates would have remained tree-dwelling mammals.

Compare Eiseley’s theories in The Immense Journey to the following passage from Mrs. Frisby:

But there was one book, written by a famous scientist, that had a chapter about rats. Millions of years ago, he said, rats seemed to be ahead of all the other animals, seemed to be making a civilization of their own. They were well-organized and built quite complicated villages in the fields. The descendants today are the rats known as prairie dogs. But somehow it didn’t work out. The scientist thought maybe it was because the rats’ lives were too easy; while the other animals (especially the monkeys) were living in the woods and getting tougher and smarter, the prairie dogs grew soft and lazy and made no more progress. Eventually the monkeys came out of the woods, walking on their hind legs, and took over the prairies and almost everything else. It was then that the rats were driven to become scavengers and thieves, living on the fringes of a world run by men.

Rats taken out of the wild and kept in captivity had also been observed to undergo profound changes. In Mankind Evolving (1962), Theodosius Dobzhansky concluded that the laboratory rats of the mid-twentieth century had undergone significant evolutionary changes since being sequestered from their wild cousins in the mid nineteenth-century. Because the lab rats’ “struggle for survival no longer exist[ed]” they exhibited “smaller adrenal glands and less resistance to stress, fatigue, and disease than wild rats.” Such observations could have influenced Conly’s work. This can be seen in Dr. Schultz’s dialogue with the men who have trapped Nicodemus and the other city rats. When one of the men reports to Dr. Schultz that the wild rats seemed “almost tame,” Schultz replies, “I hope not. I already have enough tame ones.”

There had been other twentieth-century books that had included rats and mice in discussions of science and technology and its effect on human civilization, including Doctor Dolittle’s Zoo (1925) and Flowers for Algernon (1966). It seems likely that the character of Nicodemus may have been inspired in part by a rat in Doctor Doolittle’s Zoo. In a story called “The Volcano Rat,” the leader of the rat and mice complain of how he fears “rat and mouse civilization” may regress due to its proximity to humans and their technology. He calls the rats and mice who want to continue to live in this way “parasites,” a description that resembles Nicodemus’s assertion that to stay on the Fitzgibbon farm would make the rats like fleas on a

drowning dog.59 The story also includes a white mouse – a possible inspiration for Mr. Ages, the white mouse who, along with Mr. Frisby, escapes from the lab with the rats of NIMH. However, Conly’s book takes the story much farther, making a far more comprehensive commentary on the rodents’ situation, and, rather than leaving the story in dystopia, creates a path toward utopia in Thorn Valley.

Technological materialism was not only dangerous to a species’ evolutionary progress, according to Nicodemus, but it also had dangerous implications for the environment.

Nicodemus’s allegory of “Keeping up with the Joneses” reveals that the damage caused by materialism is far greater than that of the dent in the pocketbook, but environmental degradation:

I was reminded of a story I had read at the Boniface Estate when I was looking for things written about rats. It was about a woman in a small town who bought a vacuum cleaner. Her name was Mrs. Jones, and up until then she, like all of her neighbors, had kept her house spotlessly clean by using a broom and a mop. But the vacuum cleaner did it faster and better, and soon Mrs. Jones was the envy of all the other housewives in town – so they all bought vacuum cleaners, too. The vacuum cleaner business was so brisk, in fact, that the company that made them opened a branch factory in town. The factory used a lot of electricity, of course, and so did the women with their vacuum cleaners, so the local electric power company had to put up a big new plant to keep them all running. In its furnaces the power plant burned coal, and out of its chimneys black smoke poured day and night, blanketing the town with soot and making all the floors dirtier than ever. Still, by working twice as hard and twice as long, the women of the town were able to keep their floors almost as clean as they had been before Mrs. Jones ever bought a vacuum cleaner in the first place.

Compare this to a passage from French technology-critic Jacques Ellul’s description of the problems of household technology from his book, The Technological Society:

For example, to make housework easier, garbage-disposal units have been put into use which allow the garbage to run off through the kitchen sinks. The result is enormous pollution of the rivers. It is then necessary to find some new means of purifying the rivers so that water can be used for drinking. A great quantity of oxygen is required for the bacteria to destroy these organic materials. And how shall we oxygenate the rivers? This is an example of the way technology engenders itself.

Americans, including American President John F. Kennedy, were also thinking about the effects of science and technology on the environment – in no small part because of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The work which was first serialized in The New Yorker and eventually published in 1962, immediately gained wide readership and bestseller status. Her whistleblowing on the pesticide industry may have gained her friends, but it also gave her dire enemies. The book is considered the spark for the environmental movement which would fully emerge with vigor in the 1970s.

Overall, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, served to provide children with a fully- fleshed out story, replete with messages of friendships and the importance of community, with a sub-story of far deeper implications. As in his other books, Conly’s sense of concern for humanity’s future in the face of rapidly expanding science and technology rings clear, giving both children, and, in some cases, their parents, much to think about and discuss.

2 thoughts on “Just the Rats (of NIMH), M’am. Just the Rats”

  1. Thank you for your post fleshing out the messages from this interesting book. Do you know whether the Mrs Jones vacuum cleaner allegory came from an actual work? It evokes an anti-consumerist pamphlet of the 1960s in my imagination!


    1. That is a fascinating question. I did not come across that exact pamphlet during my research, but this would not surprise me at all! And now I am curious! I had done a paper strictly on the anti-materialist nature of the book as well as delving deeper into it while later researching my thesis. One book that was very helpful was “May, Elaine Tyler. “The Commodity Gap: Consumerism and the Modern Home.” In Consumer Society in
      American History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999. ”

      Thank you so much for your question! You’ve given me something new to track down, and, for me, that’s exciting!


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