The Rats of NIMH, Dr. John B. Calhoun, and “The Compassionate-Systems Revolution of 2018 A.D.”

 Two years ago,* I spent a week in Bethesda, MD. My reason for going? To spend a week at the National Library of Medicine to research Dr. John B. Calhoun, one of the inspirations for “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” by Robert C. O’Brien (Robert Conly). I had been on the research trail of Mr. Conly for long enough to get a sense that Dr. Calhoun was far from the only inspiration for the book, but given the fact that he was a named influence, I had to know.

Like so many other things in life, it might be easier to see Dr. Calhoun in black and white – either purely good or purely evil. This certainly seems to be the way in the jury of social media, at least if one judges according to the loudest voices. I am going to take a few moments, however, to speak up on behalf of Dr. Calhoun’s best nature. While I wish he had been able to show greater mercy to the rodents used in his experiments, I, from the study of his files, cannot completely condemn him.

Take, for example, Dr. Calhoun’s emphasis on compassion as one of the most important virtues that were needed to bring humanity (or at least U.S. humanity) out of the tumultuous times leading up to, and including, the 1960s. Dr. Calhoun was hired to study, ostensibly, the effects of urban crowding on civilization. His rat and mouse universes gave the rodents everything they needed to survive except space (including a sense of privacy). The collapse of behavior in these normally social animals (rats, in particular), was devastating… leading to a complete collapse of the entire colonies – with horrific and erratic behavior becoming the norm, rather than the exception.

On the other hand, Mr. Calhoun defended rats from extermination. He even wrote a poem to one elderly female mouse that was dying in the midst of population collapse. He was the product of a culture that certainly doesn’t accord the considerations toward animals as we see now. And, I will never forget, that this man wrote to two presidential candidates – advising them on the course of ‘compassion.’

Yes, he actually did this. I am including some photos of the documents related to this part of my research in this post. What you hear about Dr. Calhoun is the ‘Behavioral Sink’ and how ‘negative’ it was and how you couldn’t apply rat-to-human observations… (Funny that, sometimes humans LIKE the idea of the comparisons, sometimes they don’t. Calhoun was probably not the first to say that rats weren’t violent by nature, but that message hasn’t quite gotten out to the community yet, either….)

But here are a couple items I think are worthy of consideration. I was brought to the need to share this after watching a movie (“Would You Rather” – 2013) that made me think of the backlash against those who have tried to study/measure human behavior and found it “wanting.” I’m thinking of Milgram, Zimbardo, etc… Where the experiments were done and didn’t exactly reveal a pretty picture of humanity. However, Calhoun, just like Milgram and Zimbardo, were never the messengers who should have been shot, but those trying to warn against very real dangers in human behavior. Is it horrifying? Yes. The movie does a psychological study of power dynamics to a degree that I wasn’t expecting, and would be a great film to view in tandem with the study of the Stanford Prison experiment. I think what makes the movie “okay” to view as fiction is you see it as someone testing people chosen with certain proclivities. That’s why the Stanford Prison experiment is still shunned, but horror movies and fiction can still try to get the real messages out there… And I admire the hell out of that. That’s why we NEED the humanities.

Now, without further adieu, friends in the jury, I supply you with a draft of the letter Calhoun indicated were to be sent to Nixon and Humphrey. I prefer to supply primary documents when I can. Alongside this letter, I provide an excerpt from one of Calhoun’s documents describing his theories surrounding the necessity of compassion as an element of progress:

“This, in the presence of this increased exposure to value conflict, there will be required an augmented awareness of the necessity for others to maintain value sets differing from one’s own.
It will also be noted that I have listed the date of 2027 A.D., with possible continuance to 2400 A.D., as the time of the compassionate -systems revolution rather than the calculated date of 2018 A.D. This is because of its convergence with “doomsday” and the forthcoming transitional period into a new domain for further evolution.”
John B. Calhoun, “The Compassionate-Systems Revolution of 2018 A.D.”

All documents: “John B. Calhoun Papers,” 1996 1909. History of Medicine Division. National Library of Medicine.
All documents: “John B. Calhoun Papers,” 1996 1909. History of Medicine Division. National Library of Medicine.

All documents: “John B. Calhoun Papers,” 1996 1909. History of Medicine Division. National Library of Medicine.
All documents: “John B. Calhoun Papers,” 1996 1909. History of Medicine Division. National Library of Medicine.

There are more reasons that I, of all people, who adores rodents, still struggle with the ambiguity of the legacy of Dr. Calhoun. I both saw love in Calhoun’s admiration for the rodents and then a terrifying detachment from them. Finding a letter like that he sent to the 1968 presidential candidates makes it that much more difficult. I FOUND that damned article in 2018, but, on the last day, I also found “The Old Lady” poem. (Which caused me to run outside sobbing, a fact of which I am not ashamed.)

Calhoun said he was a poet in scientist’s garb. I’m not sure, overall, what he was, but I suppose I wasn’t surprised that a man who suggested ‘compassion’ was a solution to social problems seems to have been pushed out of the limelight once pharmaceutical solutions were considered the preferred option. I’m pretty sure that the assumed dialogue surrounding Dr. Calhoun needs some adjustments. I think I better get on this….***

*Well, two and a half years ago, but who is counting?
**See other articles from my site.
*** Yes, I promise I’ll get all this other content written. I think I’ve finally been inspired.

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