1880-1882: The Philadelphia Physician Factory, Racism, and the Trial of Forbes

Note: This was taken from my rough book draft, so please excuse any typos.

1880 – “If you get into any trouble, I’ll see you through”. (419)”
T.B. Miller to undercover reporters investigating the selling of medical diplomas

In 1880, the London edition of Puck Magazine published a cartoon entitled “The Philadelphia Physician Factory.” The cartoon, and the scandal which inspired it, was originally published in the American version of the magazine and was an embarrassing indication that the undisputed center of the budding medical profession in the United States was riddled with problems. Ultimately, however, the existence of such a scandal shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise in 1880 as it would to 21st-century eyes. Historian Harold J. Abrams said of early Philadelphia physician education that the city had set the standard and that the requirements for the M.D. required that students attend schooling for only “two winters and take each professor’s course of lectures. This pedagogic foible, at first justified as an expediency, became by 1820 the universal practice in American medical schools because it was the custom in Philadelphia. (23)”

The scandal, which saw the light of day only because members of the Philadelphia press had taken the initiative to investigate the rumors surrounding the selling of medical diplomas, cast a shadow not only on the reputation of those who practiced medicine in Philadelphia, but also in the United States. In Abraham’s wonderful and impressively-detailed work, The Extinct Medical Schools of Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia, the complex webs of deception and corruptions are described. It was on February 27, 1880 that the revelations began. Two reporters from The Philadelphia Record would contact the Dean of the Philadelphia University of Medicine and Surgery. For the mere fee of $100 each (plus some textbooks), Miller promised that he could make them practitioners of medicine, with no actual formal schooling. Diplomas would be provided, with one of three institutions listed on the document: The Philadelphia University of Medicine and Surgery, the Quaker City Business College of the Arts and Sciences or the Pennsylvania Medical University. Seals were to be applied to the certificates the next day. For Miller, however, that was the end of his giving – the next day he would receive the news that the two ‘students’ were undercover reporters and that his activities had been discovered.

Miller would not be the only ‘physician’ revealed as charlatan in the course of the scandal however, with other major players, Dr. Buchanan and Dr. Paine, also unveiled in the New York Times and the Chester Times in the same year. “There are some names uncomfortably near this city, whose owners’ cheeks will tingle when they see their names in print, reads the latter article, and the news would hardly be restricted to the localities in which they occurred. By July 30 word had been sent from Secretary of State William M. Evans to “Pennsylvania Governor H.M. Hoyt, urging him to take steps to prevent further damage to American medical institutions such as had been done by the sale abroad of fraudulent diplomas from the American University of Philadelphia. (449)

In 1882, another scandal would drape the Philadelphia medical community in shame and distrust. Dr. Forbes, ironically the same Dr. Forbes who created the Anatomy Act in order to secure an ample supply of ‘legal’ cadavers for medical research, was indicted for his collusion in the stealing of bodies from an African-American burial ground. To add appalling insult to profound injury, rather than providing apologies to the families, the students and Dr. Forbes showed abject disrespect to the aggrieved families.

“Waiting for Dr. Forbes’ lecture to begin on December 7, the students yelled threats to the reporters who had shown up, physically expelled several, and sang racist songs threatening “niggers” with more body snatching. When the story first broke at the college, one student was reported to have said, “I shouldn’t mind if we were [mobbed]. There are 600 of us, and I guess we might have some fun. We might make a few fresh stiffs too.” The same disrespectful behavior was also shown at the trial. As Alan Braddock writes, some of them mockingly sang abolitionist songs and threatened black passersby near the medical college with murder and dissection during the time of the trial. This wouldn’t be the first, or last, time that some medical students and their faculty members took a callous view of life and death, to the detriments of their own reputations.

W.W. Keen and Caroline Earle White – Across the Lines of Battle

Note: This was taken from my rough book draft, so please excuse any typos.

William Williams Keen – The Epitome of Brain without Heart

The speedy disposition of so many uninjected animals in summer, when the world was mainly done, presented many serious obstacles, until, at last, during the regime of one ingenious assistant (who generally superintended such matters), nothing was heard of them either in the way of trouble or expense. On inquiry, a true stroke of genius was discovered. The baggage trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad used to go out Market Street at night, and he simply tied them by a rope to the tail of the train. Those dogs never needed sepulture. (25-26)”
Dr. William Williams Keen
The History of the Philadelphia School of Anatomy and Its Relationship to Medical Teaching -1875

Of all those of the medical profession that would clash head-on with Caroline Earle White, Dr. William Williams Keen was the most outspoken and prolific. Dr. Keen, who was born in Philadelphia in 1837, just four years after White, is most well-known to medical historians for his work in brain surgery (he was purportedly the first brain surgeon in the United States) and his consultations with American presidents. Dr. Keen was an intimate of the Philadelphia medical ‘esprit de corps,’ and shared with them many views regarding vivisection, women and race. Not as frequently researched as other pro-vivisectionists of his time, such as S. Weir Mitchell (another fierce opponent of White), and Alexis Carrel, Keen’s memoirs are a revealing insight into an individual whose personal ethics were not as lofty he purported them to be.

One of the most telling lectures given by W.W. Keen that is documented in the records was given on March 1, 1875 at the dissolution of the Philadelphia School of Anatomy. The lecture, which intended to be a discussion of the school’s role in medical teaching included passages that were racist, insensitive, and in at least one case, supported the role of Dr. William S. Forbes, the creator of the Anatomy Act that Forbes would later be prosecuted from breaking. Along with Dr. Forbes, Keen would praise Dr. Agnew, a notorious misogynist; it was clear that within this inner circle, which would fall under dire scrutiny in the 1880 “Philadelphia Physician Factory” events, everyone was likely aware of the less than savory activities of their compatriots, at least so some degree.

Even more troubling, however, was the degree to which Keen showed openly his lack of respect toward human and animal life. Although it was fairly admitted by his own apologists that his sense of humor could be rather unsuited for pleasant company, his ‘jests’ in this speech cannot be accounted for as just mere lapses of judgment. This was more than gallows humor. Aside from the quote that opens this chapter, Keen also made a statement that belied his inherent racism:

“It can now be easily understood how not so much even as a chip has ever been stolen from me with such occupants in the building, both dead and alive, although the inhabitants of Chant Street, when I first began, as Bret Harted described them, of “blazing ruins,” and though the door has often gone unlocked and the cellar was almost always accessible. Even a former office-boy (of African extraction) could not be induced to put foot inside the building, alleging that “he’d heerd of their layin’ for colored boys before now! (26)”

Considering the fact that this statement was made just five years before Dr. Forbes and his unruly and racist students would mock the African American families who sought justice for the instances of grave-robbing that had affected their own families, it was not only an example of insensitive humor, but a clear revelation of how African Americans and others were viewed in the eyes of these ‘upstanding representatives’ of the medical community. 

His antics with the dead bodies and his irreverence toward the feelings of those whom had not been deadened to empathy was defended by Lederer as not “further evidence of the demoralisation that vivisection necessarily entailed,” but, “rather than a means to alleviate anxiety. (247-8)”

However, the usage of humor and ‘pranks’ has often been used in the most malefic organizations to make unethical deeds more palatable.

Take for example the tone of the following passage, which, while it may have been amusing to the doctors involved would have likely resulted in a lawsuit in our current times, had such details been known:

“My friend Dr. Weir, of New York, tells an amusing story of a patient he was once etherizing for the late Dr. Gordon Buck. Touching the eye and finding no response from the lids, he said, “The patient is ready, Dr. Buck.” At the first touch of the knife, the patient drew the leg sharply away. ‘A little more ether, Dr.Weir,” said Buck. Again, after the same test, “The patient is ready now, sire,” and again the leg was drawn away. “Can’t you give the patient enough ether so that I can operate, sir?” was the surgeon’s reproach. “But sir, the corneal reflex is entirely gone” was the excuse tendered. “Which eye did you test?” asked Buck. “The right eye, sire.” “Oh, that’s a glass eye.” ((158=9)”

Another, perhaps unintentional, Keen apologist, Amy Werbel, in her book on the artist Thomas Eakins, described “William Williams Keen, Eakins’ colleague in teaching artistic anatomy, in particular shared “humorous” anecdotes in his copious writings,…Keen’s willingness to share amusement at the gory vision of a sawed-off head, jaws chomping and the comic relief of the brain finally “in hand,” indicates his expectation of an appreciative audience. (33)”

It was in this 1886 speech that White’s own words refute some scholar’s assessment of her as an extremist compared to other anti-vivisectionists such as Dr. Alfred Leffingwell (who actually worked closely with White for many years). Rather than exhibiting “stridency” when expressing her beliefs, as suggested by Dr. Susan E. Lederer in her work The Controversy Over Animal Experimentation in America, 1880-1914, White often expressed that she did not wish for a complete abolition of vivisection, but, rather, that experiments be conducted with attention paid to anaesthetization and transparency.  “Dr. Henry J. Bigelow, of Boston, and Dr. Leffingwell (whom Lederer indicates was more moderate), both of whom I have quoted,” White stated in her address, “unite in believing that vivisectional experiments should be restricted to those that can be performed entirely without pain, by the through administration of anesthetics and the killing of the animal operated on, before the return of consciousness. (24)” While it is true that White’s AAVS had, for some time, advocated complete abolition, it was for a limited period of time.* * There is some suggestion that the decision to learn toward abolition was the result of another doctor’s letter to the AAVS, Dr. Matthew Wood. In Wood’s letter, he that stated he would ally with the group only if it worked to eliminate vivisection in its entirety.* Interestingly enough, it was Woods who later had to resign his position due to the fact that he felt he could get more done if not associated with the very AAVS he himself felt was once not abolitionist enough.

One of Keen’s most popular tactics when it came to White and the AAVS was to publicly state misrepresentations of facts. In 1893, he claimed that long time AAVS ally, Lawson Tait had “had recanted and had admitted that great benefits had been gained by vivisection, (82)” a statement which was later disproven by Tait’s own words. In a letter published by the Rock newspaper, “where he had been attacked by Mr. Horsley, on the 24th of Feburary, 1893, he stated this his “professional bretheren know perfectly well that he had not changed his mind on the subject of Vivisection. (31)” When denying the reality of Dr. Finger’s infamous experiments upon women who had given birth to children, Keen stated that the article that detailed the experiments were false, and that “No such paper by Finger is published in that journal, at least from 1890 to the present time.” However, the Journal of Zoophily called Keen’s bluff, producing the report which had been released in 1885. By dodging the dates, Keen attempted to lead people astray. In 1914, just months after the well-publicized trial of Dr. Sweet and four other University of Pennsylvania employees, Dr. Keen claimed “”minute care” [was] shown for animals by surgeons, physiologists and pathologists, when they have performed on them.”  

Interestingly, in 1900, when Keen was President of the American Medical Association, “a Dr. Bernhein, of Philadelphia, presented to one of the Sections an account of some twelve experiments he had made upon human beings, — six upon a mulattoe and six on a “woman patient.”” Anti-vivisectionists openly stated while these were not the worst cases of human experimentation, it was troubling because of its “expressions of tendency toward that disregard of human rights which underlies all such experiments on the ignorant and poor.” Keen also discounted experimentation done on insane patients; explaining that “they were probably incurable,” and offered no further condemnation of the fact that poisonous substances were given to them.  

 Other doctors also were wary of Keen’s claims. In response to his article on brain surgery in Harper’s Magazine, an English surgeon stated “Dr. Keen would like us to believe, only one third reco ver, and of that third nearly every one is subsequently afflicted with paralysis. He adds that the treatment for abscesses of the brain, has been much more successful, but that in the localization necessary to this treatemnt, experiments upon animals have been of no use whatsoever. (105)”  In 1903, Dr. Frank Woodbury, “although saying he did not like to be quoted in opposition to Dr. Keen” denied that Keen’s assertion that methods of brain localization was achieved solely through vivisection and said “Methods were long ago learned by the results of disease…. (5)” Others denied that surgery on dogs had helped improve surgery on humans, with Dr. Tait and Dr. Frederick Treves stating that such experiments had “led them astray” (CEW 125)” Dr. William Osler, when asked whether the abolition of Yellow Fever (an event trumpeted by Keen as an example of vivisection) had anything to do with animal testing, he replied “It is not absolutely, unless you speak of man as an animal. (12)”

When one doctor, who was certainly not a supporter of anti-vivisection, but was in support of regulation made the ‘mistake’ of saying that “the anti-vivisectionist agitation, ‘with all its expensiveness, idiocy, bad temper, untruth and vexatiousness,’ continued because the medical profession as an organized body refused to recognize the legitimacy of the concern for animal and failed to act responsibly by establishing a code of ethics, enforcing the rules and condemning those practitioners who transgressed, “Keen was wrathful. Like Ahab and the ‘Great White Whale,’ Keen “wrote letters to several anti-vivisectionist publications challenging the veracity of James’ assertions and continued in his own articles and books to dispute James’s reading of the corporate responsibilities of American physicians and physiologists.” For Keen, anti-vivisection and his personal animosity toward White would continue long after White’s death.

In 1910, it was Keen who had masterminded the silencing of anti-vivisection discussion at the meeting of the American Humane Association. Using his influence over President Taft (Keen was known as a doctor to at least six Presidents), he wrote to “[call] his attention to this and expressing the hope that he would not take such an anti-scientific (and also anti-human) attitude.* Taft not only agreed to block the discussion, but immediately sent a copy of his own letter to the President of the Humane Association (Dr. Stillman), who “pledged that no discussion of vivisection would be permitted at the congress.” Gloating in victory, Keen stated in his memoirs “Thus, fortunately, I was able to block their game. Dr. Stillman was true to his promise. But in their journals, the antivivisectionist fumed and frothed at being this muzzled. (215-216)”

*Again, another misrepresentation. Anti-vivisectionists were generally not anti-human, and White most certainly cared about the lives of human beings.

In 1916, Keen attacked The Journal of Zoophily over an old interchange that had concerned testing of an antidote for snake bite. When White suggested antidotes to snake bites be researched and administered to those whom had been bitten, he failed to take her entire statement into context, and, instead, attempted to use one of the pro-vivisectionists favorite arguments, that she valued animals above humans. What had actually been discussed was not whether animals were more important than humans, but, rather, whether or not the drugs could be put to more immediate and helpful use if attempted on the lives that needed them most at the time – not after taking extended periods of time on animals, tests which may or may not conclusively show that the same curative effect would take place on animals. Keen’s assertion that White and the Journal of Zoophily was “is the last paper which should urge any objection to “human vivisection,” for its late editor-in-chief, Mrs. Caroline Earle White, was an avowed advocate of “human vivisection.”” It was one of his many biting criticisms which seemed to emerge after the passing of White, and, as was typical, did not at all accurately represent White’s views, and, coming after her death, one that may be suspected of cowardice as his old nemesis was dead.

Another event that occurred after White’s passing in 1916 was the inappropriate honor bestowed upon Keen in 1922:  Henry Jacob Bigelow Medal. While the awarding committee stated ot Keen that he “deserved [the medal] not only for your accomplishments and services to medicine, but for that which means more than these – for that more enduring quality – your professional character,” the reality was that Henry J. Bigelow* would not have approved of the committee’s selection. Bigelow was known as an ardent and vocal opponent of vivisection. As in the case of S. Weir Mitchell and Alexis Carrel, many honors were bestowed on men whose personal beliefs would certainly disqualify them for such an honor today.

*Memoirs: “The first murder trial I remember as a boy (and I read every word of it), was that of Prof. Webster for the murder of Prof. Parkman, both of Harvard Medical School. (110)” played a minor role in the apprehension of the culprit in the Parkman–Webster murder case.

“To the Graduates of the Twenty-Third Commencement of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania:”

Note: This was taken from my rough book draft, so please excuse any typos.

“Having accidentally, a few days ago, been led to take up and read the address delivered before you by Professor Keen, on the occasion of your graduation, I feel a strong desire to state to you some of the facts on the other side, and to show you how illusory I, as well as those connected with me in the Anti-Vivisection agitation, consider his claim to a long list of benefits derived, within the last twenty-five years, from experiments upon animals.

I am not, it is true, a student or graduate of medicine; but the fact that I am, in the first place, one of your own sex, interested as you are in the advancement of true science, and in the progress of the human race; that, secondly, I was one of the first originators of the American Society for the Restriction of Vivisection )the only such Association in existence in the United States): and that, thirdly, for years I have given this subject of experimentation upon animals careful and serious student, reading without reserve both sides of the question, will, I hope, entitle what I now say to respectful consideration at your hands. (3)”

“I think his expression, “to pain or even slay” a few animals, decidedly an inverted climax, and would substitute for it “to say or even to torture, “since we do not object to the slaying of animals, when by doing so we can derive undoubted benefit for mankind; but it is the torture, or as the Doctor terms it, the “pain,’ against which we protest, considering it a far greater evil than death, and in fact involving death, as a general thing since we have scarcely ever hear of an animal which was made the subject of sever experimentation and then allowed to recover and live. (4)”

“For Dr. Keen’s expression of a “few” animals, I should like to substitute “millions.” (4)”

“Dr. Keen speaks at length of the value of experimenting upon animals to ascertain the effect of drugs and poisons, which surprises me, since in no respect are erroneous deductions more likely to be made than in these experiments. It is true that the action of these substances upon men and the lower animals may sometimes be analogous, but no matter what experiments were made in the hydrochlorate of cocaine upon the animals mentioned by Dr. Keen, they were absolutely inconclusive as regard man until the crucial experiment was made upon the latter. (6)”

“Dr. Alfred Swayne Taylor, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, Lecturer on Medical Jurisprudence, in his examination before the English Royal Commission to investigate the subject of vivisection, was asked the question, “Do you imagine that experiments are likely to do much good for that purpose” (.i.e. , of obtaining an antidote for snake bites)? He replied, “No, I do not. I have read them all with great care. Ammonia has been recommended by Dr. Halford, in Australia, but this has proved utterly inefficient when the experiments have been fairly performed and in truth, if you consider for a moment the mode of death from poison, you will see how difficulty it is for any antidote by injection to operate. (11)”

“But Dr. Keen says, as if resolved to meet every difficulty that may arise, “We may reject carbolic acid and the spray.” Reject carbolic acid and the spray ! ! ! Then we reject what many high authorities consider the essence of Listerism. Lawson Tait concludes by saying that Sir Joseph Lister as done much good by careful attention to details, but for a knowledge of the fact that this carefully attention to details, was so vitally necessary to success we are not indebted to experiments on animals. (17)”

“I do not ask you to urge the total abolition of experiments on animals, if you are satisfied that they are sometimes of benefit to mankind, but that, wherever you may be settled, you will agitate the subject unceasingly until you have obtained a law that will render impossible such scenes as may to-day be witnessed in the laboratories of nearly every part of the civilized work – scenes so atrociously cruel that they would disgrace a Sodom or Gomorrah – a law that will, in short, put a stop to the abuses of Vivisection…. Dr. Henry J. Bigelow, of Boston, and Dr. Leffingwell, both of whom I have quotes, unite in believing that vivisectional experiments should be restricted to those that can be performed entirely without pain, by the through administration of anesthetics and the killing of the animal operated on, before the return of consciousness. (24)”

Caroline Earle White – Early American Animal Rights Advocate

“When it comes to the last hour….” Caroline Earle White’s Appeal to Conscience

Note: This was taken from my rough book draft, so please excuse any typos.

The following was written by Caroline Earle White near the end of her life. It speaks deeply of the love and compassion she exemplified in her work.

“When it comes to the last hour of your life, do you not think if reasoning faculties are spared to you that it will be a great consolation to feel that you always protected the poor, the helpless and the unfortunate, and that you exercised a particular care toward those animals, who, unable to tell you of their sufferings and miseries, could only by an imploring look beseech your assistance. Would you not like to feel that there could be truly applied to you that passage in Pope’s universal prayer, slightly altered, where he says:

“Blest is the man whose kindly hear
Fees all dumb creatures’ pain,
To whom the supplicating eye
Is never raised in vain.

Peace from the bosom of his God,
My peace to him I give;
And when he kneels before the throne
His trembling soul shall live.”

American Anti-Vivisection Society, “Journal of Zoophily,” Journal of Zoophily XXII, no. 12 (1913).

Caroline Earle White: Compassion for Livestock and the 28-Hour Law (1873)

Note: This was taken from my rough book draft, so please excuse any typos.

I am much obliged for the enclosed sketch which pleasured and amused me very much. I am glad you go about in “high top boots” ferreting out abuses and attending to the wants of the often persecuted “brute creation.” I should like to see you at your work. If I were a man, I am quite sure I would follow your example, but as it has pleased the Almighty God to create me a woman, I must be satisfied with a more limited sphere of labor and do the little good that I can with my tongue.

Caroline Earle White – from The Journal of Zoophily (202)

In 1869, the first animal shelter was created in the United States by Caroline Earle White.  Just two years before, in 1867, she had founded that Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Although she had founded the PSPCA, she was not, as a woman, destined to be president of the fledgling organization. While not an ardent feminist, White showed compassion and empathy toward a multitude of humans and animals. Her work gained funding from the city of Philadelphia, who would contribute $2,500 toward her “humane work.” The animal shelter served not only as a place to take in stray or surrendered dogs, but also a place to protect such animals from being seized as research animals. She would later defend shelters against researchers who wanted to legally claim the animals and/or pay fees to buy them for their own usage. One of her fiercest enemies, W.W. Keen, was a highly praised doctor, but also a racist and misogynist, goading his students to attack those who, like the African Americans whose deceased family were being taken from their graves, protested his practices.

Of the many issues which Caroline Earle White pursued with great fervor, and an issue which remains at the forefront of many animal rights organizations today, was the humane treatment of animals destined for human consumption. Railway transportation would become a focus of attention, with the United States experiencing a surge in the number and length of railways across the nation. In the age in which ‘robber baron’ became a commonplace term, it wasn’t just investors or workers feeling the painful pinch. Abuse of animals on the railways was an urgent enough issue to cause White to personally travel to Washington in defense of a bill defending livestock, stating that “[f]earing that a fate similar to that of the preceding year might befall it in the Senate, unless some attempt was made to influence that body, I went on to Washington last May, accompanied by one of the ladies of our Society.”

 White reported that she was received courteously and, in this case, the legislature was amenable to her cause, and the law was passed on March 3, 1873. The 28-Hour Law, as it was known, was the first federal protection law for animals, and was the result of the efforts of those who witnessed the horrific suffering of the cattle and other animals that were being raised largely in the western and southern United States. It stipulated that animals being transported could not be kept without food, water or exercise for periods of time that exceeded 28 hours. However, despite the optimism of White and other allies at the time of the law’s passing, as is so often the case with legislation that threatens to cut the profits of moneyed interests, constant challenges to the law and lack of enforcement would haunt advocates for decades to come. As a matter of fact, White would return to Washington in 1900, with a Mrs. Totten of the Washington Humane Society, to again personally advocate for the cattle, successfully preventing legislation initiated by western railroad companies that intended to increase the minimum time from 28 hours to 40. Certainly not alone in questioning the motivation for this increase in time, a later request for the same adjustment caught the attention of the New York Evening Post

 In a 1903 article, the paper said of the Live-stock Association’s request: “And all this to increase the profits of an organization which boasts that it represents a capital of $600,000,000!”

 The WPSCA claimed some notable victories in respect to the law in at this time, such as 1897’s case:

Woman’s Branch of the S.P.C.A vs. the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad

Leading agent, Thomas S. Carlisle, responded to a report that a car-load of horses had arrived in perilously bad condition. Evidence collected from others, including some of the employees of the railroad (testimony which White attributed to Carlisle’s “skill and tact,”) showed that the horses had endured at least fifty-two hours without water and rest, with only a modicum of hay which had been provided at the inception of the journey.

 The complaint, which was received on November 27, 1895, which would take over two years to resolve in court, ultimately resulted in a guilty verdict in December 1897 and a fine of $200.

 In 1902, the WSPCA prided itself in its Thirty-Third Annual Report that “the year is memorable on account of our having instituted five prosecutions of the Reading Railroad Company for violation of the act of Congress preventing cruelty to animals in transit, and having obtained a conviction in all these prosecutions.”

 One of the ways in which White attempted to work with the railway companies after the passage of the law was to negotiate with transporters for better railway cars. In the WSPCA’s seventh-annual report, White spoke optimistically of the invention of cars that would provide at least the food and water demanded by the 28-Hour Law, if not the exercise or rest. Along with attempting to achieve her ends by wisely appealing to the ‘bottom-line’ interests of industry. Pitting the cattle ranchers against robber barons, White encouraged the ranchers to challenge the railway owner’s practices of delaying cattle trains in favor of higher-paying freight trains. Ultimately, according to White’s account in 1908, two of the cattle rancher associations wrote to Dr. Stillman on the subject, and as this is precisely what we want, the two so long conflicting factions are now in harmony.”

 The issue of cattle transportation, although not usually immediately associated with the popular perception of ‘humane societies,’ was always high on White’s list of concerns. In 1876, seven years before the founding of the AAVS, she spoke of its priority in the following way:”[n]ext to cattle transportation, the evil which we have felt has most demanded our attention is Vivisection.”

Her watering fountains, distributed throughout Philadelphia, supported not only horses and dogs, but also served to quench the thirst of cattle, with the WSPCA citing at least once incident of a near-stampede of cattle to one of the fountains in 1890.  

Fowls, too, received consideration from White’s quarter. In 1901, then Superintendent Thomas S. Carlisle responded to frequent reports of cruelty in the transportation of fowls; complaints that appeared to come in the greatest numbers during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. Not only did that year see the crowding of transported fowls addressed, but the Philadelphia legislature was persuaded to pass a law which was described as “giving many details as to the size and appointments of a building which should be used for the killing of poultry.”

Such successes were also cited internationally. In a 1902 White received a copy of an Indian publication entitled “Railway Horrors” which addressed the need to reduce suffering in the transportation of cattle in India, but also included a section entitled “American Women’s Noble Work.” The segment, which detailed the WSPCA’s recent Reading Railway prosecutions, directly discussed the “efforts of our Superintendent, and the diminution in the number of fowls picked while alive.”

 White’s concern for the treatment of cattle did not end at the end of the railway line, however. In 1890, some thirteen years before Upton Sinclair’s iconic work, The Jungle , was published, WSPCA agents Currier and Royal were involved in the prosecution and trial of a West Philadelphia abattoir. White, harboring hopes that the abattoir would be improved was disappointed to find that even prosecution did not persuade the owners to rebuild the slaughterhouse in a manner that “would allow a humane and merciful way of slaughtering the cattle” but, rather seemed to exacerbate the suffering.

Concern regarding the sheer amount of cruelty involved in mass slaughter, and the psychological effects that slaughterhouse work had on workers, was not limited to Chicago and Philadelphia. In 1901, The Journal of Zoophily, under the heading “Is This Civilization?” discussed the publication of an article, “A Glimpse of Hell,” an article which described the conditions of slaughterhouses in Kansas City. The piece described the vast number of killings (“The killing bed for hogs contains about one hundred at a time”) as well as sharing with the reader that the animals “more often than not arrives live and kicking…”

 Although White was an advocate of transparency in matters involving animal welfare, the Journal of Zoophily article also indicates the disturbing fascination that the spectacle held for some people, “The creatures who flock to the scene of carnage become so fascinated that the yard with difficulty driven from the spot…One well-dressed woman was noticed with a twelve-months old babe in her arms, taking in the picture.”

The Zoophily treatise draws particular attention to the effects which such work could have on women and children.

“What do you think of little boys, twelve to fourteen or fifteen years old, with rubber boots on reaching their thighs, wading in and scooping blood all day long, and girls of the same tender age cutting and slashing in all this bloody meat from morning until night? What kind of men and women do you think they will be when matured? What kind of progeny will they produce?”

 The detrimental effects on the workers were also discussed in the annals of Zoophily, with various issues, such as the possibility that such work resulted in ostracization and demoralization of workers. Leading member of the WSPCA and the AAVS, Mary F. Lovell poignantly asked in 1907: “And what about our brother man? What humanness is there in providing a brutalizing, degrading, disgusting, occupation which, because the pressure of necessity, some of our brother men must undertake.”

 Annie Besant’s trip to the Chicago slaughterhouses in 1903 caused her to state in an article that “these men are made a class practically apart from their fellows,” while Rev. Wilbur T. Atchison was to have reported that a Whitechapel butcher, when asked how he could handle the horrors of the slaughterhouse, replied “I’m only doing your dirty work, sir. It’s such as you makes such as us.”

Such words mirrored those of Upton Sinclair who stated that “it can be hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.”

Religious traditions were also challenged, with efforts to make the Jewish methods of slaughter less painful. In 1886 the WSPCA managed to enact changes which included the usage of rope rather than chains in the suspension of cattle for kosher slaughter. I also required that the rope would be placed around both of the hind legs rather than only one. Outside of the United States, laws that outright banned such methods were enacted, including one in Switzerland passed in 1894, a move which the WSPCA called “a great step for the Societies for the Protection of Animals to have gained.”

 As other issues debated during White’s time, such laws are being made and debated even today. In very recent news, an ICE raid in the United States resulted in the deportation of undocumented immigrants. The reality is that the work is so unpalatable, that companies resorted to employing such immigrants to save money and to have someone do the jobs others were not willing to do: https://www.knoxnews.com/story/news/crime/2018/04/05/ice-raids-meatpacking-plant-grainger-county/490673002/

Note: All sources located in my rough draft of my Caroline Earle White book which is included on this site.

“Z for Zachariah: a complex exploration of power and gender” – An Article in Praise of Robert C. O’Brien’s Belief in Women

I just came across this lovely article written about Conly’s Z for Zachariah. Written by Jenny Downham for the Guardian, the article explores how Conly’s Ann Burden became an inspiration for future books. Downham, the author of books for teenage readers, addresses such powerful topics such as coming to terms with death and the struggles of young women to find an identity.

Says Downham:

“This book gave me far more than relief from fear of nuclear war. It gave me a life-long belief in the strength of girls and women. The nightmares still came, but when I woke shivering in the dark, I reminded myself of Ann’s bravery and competency and told myself that I was also capable of being such a person.”

I find, unfortunately, sometimes books are declared as anti-woman or anti-feminist because of one or two passages without taking into account the greater picture. For example, in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, some might take umbrage at the fact that the female rats don’t always attend the mass meetings and are described as attending to things like decoration (like the colored glass in the rats’ colony). However, the tale features a female protagonist, Mrs. Frisby, who takes great risks to help her son, Timothy. Conly’s other children’s book, The Silver Crown, also features a female protagonist who must face great dangers as she tries to reach the home of her aunt. It is she who frees the captured children in the book. It is she who takes the initiative despite the loss of her family and the knowledge that there are dangerous people after her.

In reviewing Conly’s manuscripts and other original documentation, one learns that Conly respects women and consciously tries to make them appear strong. While he does express a concern about not coming across as too “women’s lib,” it is unclear whether or not he is concerned about the movement or more about the possible resistance to the idea from the greater public. It is my opinion that, far too often, some critics are quick to accuse an author of being anti-woman without taking other factors into consideration. Since Conly worked in the newspaper and current events world, he would have to be aware of his audience. Considering his three children’s books all feature female characters, I’m going to go with this theory.

Please check out this wonderful article here:

You can find Jenny Downham’s books on Amazon and at other retailers:

In the Event of a “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” Re-Boot: A Plea

Okay, it sounds like the same old thing everyone says: “But the book is better than the movie!” My feelings about Secret of NIMH are very mixed ones. I know there is a large number of Secret fans, and I’m not here to criticize the Bluth endeavour or try to challenge anyone’s fandoms. However, I will say that it is almost impossible to really think of the text and the movie as the same thing. Yes, there are similar names (except not, in terms of the Frisby-Brisby change), such as Nicodemus, Jeremy, Justin, and Jenner. Yes, Mrs. Frisby is trying to save her imperiled child. Yes, there are references to the ethics of animal testing involved. Beyond that, however, comparing the two is the epitome of the phrase “comparing apples and oranges.” Maybe I’m a little biased because I spent six years and three research trips researching Robert Conly (Robert C. O’Brien’s real name) and his books. Maybe.


I guess you could call this my personal plea to MGM Studios, who, according to news from 2015, bought the rights to the film, to go back to the (book) basics and take advantage of the talent and passion Mr. Robert C. O’Brien (Robert Conly) poured into his novel.

The most powerful difference between the two is the insertion of magic into the mix. Nicodemus, in Secret of NIMH, is a wise, old, wizard type who helps Mrs. Brisby via a magic amulet. In the book, Nicodemus appears no differently than the other biologically “boosted” rats who shared his travails at NIMH and who is a leader sort of by default, by merit of his decision making and experience. He doesn’t help Mrs. Frisby via magic, but the application of technology and his words of wisdom. Nicodemus is a lean rat who has seen a lot of struggle during the years between NIMH and the Fitzgibbon farm – losing his sight in one eye (which sports a patch) and almost all of his sight in the other.

The second significant differences is the degree the issue of animal testing is presented and the extremes to which the scientists are “judged.” I personally believe this is the most unfortunate difference as the movie can more easily be dismissed as hyperbole by those who have an interest in preventing discussion of the ethics of animal testing. Secret is called my many a source of nightmares in general, with its ominous eyes and frightening animation, but it also heads deep into the “mad scientist” territory which skews the reality and causes O’Brien’s more tempered approach to be utterly forgotten in the fray. While the book itself has cited by some scientists as anti-science (which is patently false), the movie just invites easy dismissal. Which isn’t to say that I disapprove of the portrayal of the suffering that occurs during animal testing, however, I am upset by the lack of respect then heaped on O’Brien’s works.

Still from “Secret of NIMH”
Image is not my own. May be subject to copyright.

In the book, this is not how the cages are described. The cages in the books are wire cages and are not described as terribly uncomfortable – the primary problem is lack of space. That may be the primary similarity.

I would have to say the next “damaging” difference to O’Brien’s work is the portrayal of Jenner as a power-hungry schemer and murderer. Nicodemus does NOT die in the book, at all, and his conflict with his long-time friend Jenner is over the decision that Nicodemus and the majority of the rats make to abandon a great deal (not all, mind you, and this is significant as it shows O’Brien is not a luddite) of their technology and move the colony from the Fitzgibbon farm to Thorn Valley – a place where they believe they can escape the possibility of discovery and sustain themselves in an agricultural setting. Nicodemus feels this is necessary to solve the “malaise” that has overcome the rat civilization and will keep them from being simply a sort of “flea” on human civilization.* Jenner and his group simply choose to leave to see their own fate. This too, is unfortunate, as O’Brien’s purpose was to give children stories in which everything is not “black and white.” He said so himself. In his Newbery-Acceptance speech O’Brien stated that it is through good books that “a child’s mind also has the opportunity to learn that “it is not easy to separate good from bad,” and “that not all doors are simply open or shut.”

Scholars have also made similar comments about these aspects of the book and/or the profound differences between the book and movie – with the word “ambiguity” being a central concept. Scholar Paula T. Connolly noted the book for Conly’s “gradations of moral understanding and culpability” while dealing with “such problematic issues such as the roles of science and technology, identity, idealism, family life, forms of community and means of survival.” 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.” 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.” Indeed, the book addresses more of the “Frankenstein” effect that Nicodemus and the rats go through – it’s not just the testing that occurs, but the fact that the rats must come to terms that they no longer belong in their own world and that they find themselves alone as an entirely new species.

The movie also does not address one of the major issues addressed in the book. In Mrs. Frisby, Nicodemus speaks at great length about the problems of technological materialism in society – cleverly playing “The Rat Race” idea against human behavior and showing the vicious cycle that occurs when one is “keeping up with the Joneses.” It’s such a powerful lesson which invokes the thoughts of De Tocqueville and Huxley and other thinkers who wondered what would happen when materialism and technology became central to human existence, and when it eliminated human labor completely – or simply made life, in Huxley’s words, “too easy.”

Those are the major things about the book/movie translation that trouble me. Too often, when I talk to people about my research, they say how much they love the movie, but, when I ask them if they’ve read the book, they usually say no or tell me that they did, but they don’t remember it. Now, many would say that one should be grateful because the movie probably made more people aware of the book than would have been aware had Bluth’s groundbreaking film not been made. Again, I don’t really hate the movie, but it’s just so terribly different that I find myself hoping that if anyone DOES decide to give Robert C. O’Brien’s masterpiece another go, that they will give young minds more credit and portray the deeper issues of the book and let them come to their own conclusions. The truth is, Bluth’s Nicodemus isn’t anywhere near as awesome as O’Brien’s – and I’ll stand by that. Don’t @ me.

Oh, and Mr. Ages is waaaay cooler and not so grumpy in the book.

These are the sources I refer to directly in this post, however, all of my references can be found in my thesis:

Connolly, Paula T. “Frisby-Turned-Brisby: The Resolution of Ambiguity in The Secret of NIMH.” In The Antic Art. Fort Atkinson, WI: Highsmith Press, 1993.

Helbig, Alethea K. “Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH: Through the Eyes of Small Animals.” Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children’s Literature, Volume One, 1985, 204–12.

“Robert C. O’Brien.” In Authors & Artists for Young Adults. Gale, 2006.

Of course, there’s even MORE good stuff in my Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH thesis chapter, but I suppose I’m biased for saying so.

*Those who have read the Dr. Dolittle books may be reminded of The Volcano Rat, here. O’Brien drew on myriad inspirations for his books, but can never be accused of outright plagiarism. As a newsman and enlightened citizen (for the lack of a better term), one of his strengths was to take in a huge number of inspirations and weave them into his own morality plays.

But Robert C. O’Brien Wrote Children’s Books!

Robert Conly/Robert C. O’Brien

While not every person, student, faculty member, friend has phrased it this way, believe me, I’ve been more than aware of the fact that this is what they were thinking. It’s been a consistent barrier for me to overcome – primarily in my efforts to be “entertained” as an intellectual or to have my research taken seriously by elites (or even non-elites). However, the older I get, and the further along I plug away at academic pursuits, the more I realize that this sort of argument is not only coming from a place of “Oh, but kids books aren’t serious material in an adult world,” but also seriously misguided and harmful.

Robert C. O’Brien (real name Robert Conly) was famous for his Newbery Award-Winning book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh – a book that, despite its opprobrium from over-protective/self-conscious researchers – was one of the first to present ethical questions about materialism and scientific ethics to young audiences. Sadly, some of the instant hatred of the book from scientific circles is due to Secret of NIMH, while other criticism is from audiences that haven’t taken the time to read the book. Hell, if people paid attention to the actual meaning, maybe it would be the marketing and capitalist-driven individuals that would be channeling their ill-will toward the book. However, I digress.

Here’s the reality: I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, a child who bathed in the afterglow of what was left of the energy of Silent Spring, the anti-nuclear movement, and the fiery desire for social justice. There were still sparks of that “not-everything-is-happy-in-1950s-land” simmering about, no part due to the teachers who were instilling in us a desire to do better. Of course, in retrospect, I was fortunate enough, despite being a member of an upper-lower class mobile-home childhood, to be privileged enough to attend progressive-minded schools in the Chicago suburbs. We were taught the truths of Native American genocide, the horrors of slavery, and the dangers of polluting our planet and destroying its natural resources. We still knew about hiding under our desk in case of nuclear attack and took it seriously (even if we ALL knew that in a nuclear attack, the best it would do is shield us from debris).

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH talked about the ethics of animal testing, yes, but it other important questions as well. What DOES “intelligence” mean, and does it really make us happier? While technology is great, what is the end purpose — Does it just make things easier (and, by the way, Huxley warned about this sort of thing decades before) – or does it create larger problems in terms of what happens when capitalism makes room for selling technology but not room for those who need jobs in the wake of those “time-saving” gadgets? What is the end game of “keeping up with the Joneses?” What happens when a scientist is willing to go to any measure to protect intellectual property (and what may drive a scientist to do so in a culture that doesn’t reward knowledge for its own sake?)?

Robert Conly, however, was worried about more than the things he gained recognition for in Mrs. Frisby. In 2019, we find ourselves being amused by leaders who suggest that using nuclear weapons might be a good solution for hurricanes, but, all joking side, we also find ourselves living in an era where the “Space Force” or “Space Command” is resurrecting Reagan-era “star wars” ghosts. And no one takes it seriously. Or not seriously enough. Treaties are being thrown aside, new nuclear accidents and tests are being reported, and millions upon millions of dollars are being funneled into new nuclear weapons efforts. Conly’s Z for Zachariah addressed the very real possibility of a nuclear holocaust – leaving one, young, teenage girl to move forward in a world where her first, best hope is a lab worker who has killed his colleague for a radiation-proof suit. A man who is willing to first murder, and then attempt to rape a lone young woman in the aftermath of apocalypse. A man who echoed a disturbing lack of empathy in American culture – the kind seen in the Aug. 18, 1961 Time article “Gun Thy Neighbor,” in which a man said in an interview:

“When I get my shelter finished, I’m going to mount a machine gun at the hatch to keep the neighbors out if the bomb falls. I’m deadly serious about this. If the stupid American public will not do what they have to to save themselves, I’m not going to run the risk of not being able to use the shelter I’ve taken the trouble to provide to save my own family.”

I’ve addressed The Silver Crown in a separate blog post, but I will take the time to say now this book addressed the dangerous “brainwashing” that was possible with technology and the horrific consequences of a culture that believed that only quantifiable results of inquiry were worth notice. Conly was never against the scientific method, however, he was against a world in which the quantifiable was prioritized in the face of the qualitative. He constantly asked us, without directly saying it, whether a life dictated by quantifiable measures was one we should strive for. Did Conly preach the supernatural? No. He never did. What he did preach was the heart in the face of the heartless – the human in the face of what would be left in the face of unethical and unchecked analysis.

After all of this, you may ask me: So what do children’s books have to do with this? It’s interesting, now, that we live in a culture where the wondrous Mr. Rogers is being hearkened back to as a guiding spirit in these times. I wonder how many people, who so look forward to the ever-popular Tom Hanks playing the incomparable Rogers, remember that Fred Rogers created an episode in which King Friday called for more guns and fences (links not available, but watch the great Won’t You Be My Neighbor for footage).

Many people do not realize that these important topics were not considered fare for children until caring and concern citizens like Conly and Rogers took it to the young in order to help raise awareness of the perils that would face them in adult life. People have always tended to underestimate the intellect of children. I was just a decade or so after these first tendrils of awareness were sent out to the young, and I personally believe that it was the work of these individuals that made some of us more aware and more determined to help than the generations before us.

Is my generation perfect? No. As I have mentioned earlier, some of my worldview is indebted to the teachers, ELEMENTARY SCHOOL TEACHERS, who didn’t feel that youth was a time to teach the young that the world was “just fine” and that we should just blindly follow those who happen to be in power at the time. My generation is aware of the good and bad that has preceded us, and, I, personally speaking, know that we can’t just scream “BOOMERS” at those who came before us.

I am taking this time, on Labor Day, to thank all of those who questioned authority, worked for the powerless, fought against the powerful, and who reached out to even the “children” to create hope for a better world. We talk about saving the children, and the fates know there are so many children to save right now from the horrors of abuse, being ripped away from their parents, and being left alone. However, we should also think about children’s literature and audio/visual media as ways to “save” children from a future in which they are not equipped to make a better civilization – one with a future with heart and mind.

Robert Conly cared about that. He cared enough to reach out to his own and future generations – both through his newspaper and National Geographic work, and through his fiction. I respect and admire his great work and want more to know about it – and emulate it. Maybe my research doesn’t make for great academic journals or scientific study, but I just happen to think it’s pretty damned important for humanity’s future.

Nuclear War, Human Mind Control, and Cold War Biowarfare – The Other Books of Robert C. O’Brien

While his most famous work, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, addressed the ethics of animal testing, genetic engineering, and the dangers of materialism, Robert Conly (Robert C. O’Brien) didn’t limit his concerns to one book. He continued to address anxieties of the time in his three other books – two of them for children and one for adults. It would be difficult to describe them all in depth (even my thesis didn’t allow for the expression of the deep research of them), I will try to give an overview of the three books and the kinds of worries that he conveyed through his fiction.

The Silver Crown:
The Silver Crown was Conly’s first published work of fiction. The intended age group was about the same, if not perhaps a little lower, than Mrs. Frisby. The story is a fantasy story, but like so many other fantasy stories, the villains and other obstacles are representative of real world dangers. The primary dangers in The Silver Crown are those posed by mind control, systematization of education, and gun violence. In the novel, the mind control and malignant education is administered by something called the Hieronymus Machine. The dark king who has the machine is himself more a puppet of the machine than a villain with their own agency. The victims are children taken from the streets and other places where they were less likely to be reported missing. They were given numbers instead of names and taught subjects with names such as “Elementary Destruction” or participated in exercises in which they were encouraged to attack police officers. The minions of the dark king murder a man early in the tale, Conly directly describing the shooting and death of the victim.

This book is still print from Simon and Schuster: https://smile.amazon.com/Silver-Crown-Aladdin-Fantasy/dp/0689841116/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=silver+crown+book&qid=1564771277&s=gateway&sr=8-2

Z for Zachariah:
Z for Zachariah, a book aimed at the young adult audience, quickly identifies itself as a book concerned with nuclear apocalypse, however, the book also addresses other issues. The antagonist is a scientist who has murdered his co-worker for the protective suit that allows him to walk into affected lands. Additionally, the antagonist quickly tries to dominate the female protagonist – a teenage girl who is the sole survivor of her family. When looked at in the context of the time it was written, it also points out the kinds of violent stances some people were taking in terms of defending their fallout shelters (one man who was interviewed for a August 18, 1961 Time magazine article called “Gun Thy Neighbor” proclaimed “”When I get my shelter finished, I’m going to mount a machine gun at the hatch to keep the neighbors out if the bomb falls. I’m deadly serious about this. If the stupid American public will not do what they have to to save themselves, I’m not going to run the risk of not being able to use the shelter I’ve taken the trouble to provide to save my own family.”) and portrays scenes in which the female protagonist becomes a target for rape. The girl leaves on her own, stealing the suit, and refusing to become submissive to the scientist. (Note: While this book was mostly written at the time of Conly’s death, his wife and daughter finished it for publication. In personally reviewing the available manuscripts at the University of Minnesota, I believe that most of Conly’s overall intentions were preserved. See my thesis for some additional details on these changes.)

This book is in print and available from Simon & Schuster: https://smile.amazon.com/Z-Zachariah-Robert-C-OBrien/dp/1416939210/ref=sr_1_1?crid=29XRU24BMDOB0&keywords=z+for+zachariah+book&qid=1564771365&s=gateway&sprefix=z+for+z%2Caps%2C138&sr=8-1

A Report from Group 17:
A Report from Group 17 was Conly’s only book for adults. It returns to the issues of scientific testing ethics – this time including a human test subject. Even the names of the scientists are almost the same – Dr. Schultz vs. Dr. Schulz. A Cold War thriller, it also includes covert biowarfare, Nazi war criminals who have escaped prosecution, and sexual sadism. One gets the impression that Conly is saying things about unethical scientific practices that he could not address in his children’s works. It also seems likely that there is an allusion to Dr. Mengele in his antagonists. These antagonists are working on a drug that will make the victims passive toward those who control them. I feel it also subtly suggests (or at least leaves the option open) that these kinds of outlawed studies are going on even in the United States.

This books is no longer in print, but places like the fantastic abebooks.com may have used copies for sale.

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.