Hello! Just wanted to send out an update that I have added my thesis and personal annotations for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH to this site directly. I belatedly realized scribd was a subscription service.
If you’re still interested… here are the docs:
The Book of Nicodemus and Other Apocrypha: The Works of Robert C. O’Brien as a Reflection of Technological/Scientific Anxieties in 1960s American Culture
It’s been a couple of years since I visited the National Library of Medicine to study Dr. John B. Calhoun, one of the “inspirations” Robert C. O’Brien (Robert Conly) mentioned as leading to his book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.
I spent a lot of time thinking about what Calhoun was like. I found an interesting person in those records… One who believed “compassion” was the “revolution” that would save humanity. His assignment, to study the effects of overcrowding/lack of privacy on a society’s behavior led to a dire outcome – complete societal collapse.
I did a lot of soul searching, yet again. I suppose it’s because I found what I believed to the corpse of a poisoned mouse on the pavement near my home. Perhaps it was also because I saw an article that Don Bluth wants to resurrect the beauty of hand-drawn animation and it naturally led me to think of Secret of NIMH.
At the risk of starting out sounding like Quint, “You all know me…,” well, you know how I dream of the magnificence of Conly’s book being rendered into film as intended. I think it loses some powerful messages when changed from its original form, as well as going a bit over the top in portraying scientists as mad torturers. On the other hand, I have to admit, I give it mad kudos for getting out the brave message/suggestion that perhaps we don’t have the right or shouldn’t have the right to inflict suffering… even on “rats.” Films are forced to make messages quicker, brighter, faster, and, yes… even darker. This is necessary not just for kids, but for adults, in many cases.
This being said, I have been thinking again about Conly and Calhoun, and what Conly does so well in Mrs. Frisby and in his other books, is raise the alarm about the dangers of the kinds of detachment that can make the wonderfulness of scientific discovery abjectly terrifying.
“Perfectly healthy, except dead.”
That could have summed up in four words what Calhoun’s post-rodent-apocalypse scenarios “clinically” resulted in. Healthy, but dead, rats and mice. Although these mouse/rat worlds were never short of food or water, what they were short of was a way for these creatures to preserve the “unquantifiable,” their ability to function without undue stress or pressure. The colonies broke both in “mental” collapse for the inhabitants, and scientists watched, and did not interfere, as violence and “behavioral instability” led to horrifying results. Whole segments of the populations became withdrawn, others violent, but, eventually, all died. Even the typical burial preparations disappeared in one of the mouse worlds – a situation Calhoun captured “poetically” in a poem dedicated to one of the dying females.
Conly never portrays such anything like this in his books. The rats of NIMH are simply made “smarter” and receive little more than mild shock or quick needle pricks. But it is the “detachment” that makes Dr. Schultz the “bad guy” in Mrs. Frisby. Dr. Schultz isn’t a sadist, but what he is is completely detached. He doesn’t despise the animals – he simply doesn’t acknowledge them as being sentient or worthy of compassion. He criticizes a grad student for getting the gender of a rat wrong when she observes the rat is frightened. But, most of all, it is the end of the book that tells more about how Conly seems to feel: Dr. Schultz, after failing to exterminate the rats of NIMH, notes the dead animals as “perfectly healthy.” Which, of course, they are not. Not now. But, for the experiment’s purposes, for the “reporting” purposes, the rats that he has deliberately caused to die… knowingly…. are “healthy.” Healthy in terms of the Fitzgibbons’ concern about rabies, but also healthy in terms of the only measures of health considered important to the results. Sarah Conly, 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.”
I dedicated my research to Conly because I felt like he got it right. He’s not anti-science – not in any of his books. What he speaks to is the ability of some to turn off feelings and compassion in pursuit of some perceived “better state” of things – the ability to rationalize one’s way through anything at all. He saw past the human desire to simply treat ethics as something that can be reduced to some sort of quantifiable litmus test. Conly didn’t introduce “superhuman” elements into the stories because he needed them to retain the level of “realism” needed to keep the reader actively engaged in trying to question the ethics of the surrounding actions. There was no easy “good” or “evil,” but a seemingly infinite number of shades of human grey.
I find it interesting that Mr. Conly is still challenging me to think about and rethink about the perceptions of “humanity” and “ethics” in his books. Perhaps not many people are comfortable in a world in which things cannot be quickly and easily be categorized…. I am not comfortable in a world where they can be. A false sense of security is no sense of security at all.
Even now, many years later, after the research, I still have trouble figuring out just where I feel Dr. Calhoun fell on the Dr. Schultz scale, and perhaps it is both humbling and important to remember that living with ambiguity is sometimes preferred to living where one is simply “sure of it all.” If we do not closely examine our held beliefs, we may find we believe in nothing solid at all.
Did you know that Robert Conly (Robert C. O’Brien) worked for the National Geographic Society? Did you also know that his book was at least partially inspired by the work of John B. Calhoun? Dr. Calhoun was studying what happens to societies when they can have everything they want except space from constant contact with others. Although the results were horrifying (rodent lovers beware), Calhoun was a huge proponent of compassion as the way to preserve the future of America and the world. He spoke against the extermination of rats – providing expert testimony, including defending rats for their positive features.
I remain mixed on all of this… Calhoun was a bit like Schultz in the sense that we was able to go “clinical” (or should we say sociopathic to some degree?) and watch these poor animals break down and suffer…. even harming each other (which Calhoun stated was NOT normal for rats). On the other hand, he was willing to defend rats and fervently believed in compassion being our saving grace. Calhoun even wrote about this to Nixon and presidential candidates.
P.S. About two years ago or so, the great people at National Geographic Archives allowed me to visit and take a look at their Conly files. One of the BEST days of my life.
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?
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.”
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
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.
materialism was not only dangerous to a species’ evolutionary progress,
according to Nicodemus, but it also had dangerous implications for the
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
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.
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.
“Inhumane Humanitarianism:” The Work of Caroline Earle White and H.G. Wells
“Many good people who abhor ordinary cruelty stultify their judgment concerning the extraordinary and feel rebuked when “the good of humanity” is hurdled at them as a telling argument; and when it is hinted that they are hysterical and indulge sickly sentimentality, they are silenced.” American Anti-Vivisection Society Journal of Zoophily , Volume IV, No. 4, 1895, Pg. 46
“To be kind to the race – to save it from self-destructive over-individuation.… This kind-to-be-cruel policy they formulate as that of “inhumane humanitarianism”…In a word, they are pitilessly benevolent (1933b:346). As ethical revolutionaries, they “see things unfeelingly” (1937c:72), with “cold inhuman clearness” (1933c:46). Given scientific self-discipline, they possess the “rational insensitiveness to get facts as facts and not as dreads and horrors” *1937c:72)” (49) Leon Stover on the Works and Philosophies of H.G. Wells pg. 49
A number of theories have been brought forward by historians of the anti-vivisection and animal rights movements to explain its apparent disappearance from the annals of American and English culture, in the early-twentieth century. Some attempted to explain this disappearance as a result of the Great War, while others would argue that it was the advent of anesthesia that had taken the ‘sting’ out of the opposition to the practice. In comparing the works, both fictional and non-fictional, of Caroline Earle White, the founder of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Women’s Branch of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the American Anti-Vivisection Society, alongside the fictional and non-fictional works of the well-known H.G. Wells, another factor presents itself for consideration, and one that would have implications far beyond the perception of the ‘worth’ of animals, but would have terrible implications for human relations as well – eugenics-based beliefs that would take root in the United States and ultimately manifest itself horrifically in the Holocaust. In both fictional and nonfictional works, are reflected their differing beliefs on what it mean to be “humanitarian” to all life.
In the consideration of both pain and the ‘humane motive’ in the nineteenth-century England and the United States, the morality of slavery became a point of fiery contention, featuring two sides that each claimed “God” and “humanity” were on their side. Historian Margaret Abruzzo aptly observes in her book, Polemical Pain, that “[T]he messy history of humanitarianism within the slavery debate reveals the limitations of a humanitarian ethic and the difficulty of resting moral judgments solely on objections to pain.” However, even after ethics of the slavery question had resolved, the Gilded Age would bring more sharply racial, economic, ethnic and gender divides than ever before, and, combined with Darwin’s recent theory of natural selection, emerging eugenicists continued where the pro-slavers left off. Opacity became the new rule, and those who would continue to vivisect both animals and people depended on the ability to cloak their behaviors; something never available to the slaveholder. H.G. Wells, although a ‘staple’ of science-fiction reading lists, considered himself a ‘new Puritan,’ and believed firmly in “inhumane humanitarianism.” His Island of Doctor Moreau was not a cautionary tale, as had been Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but, rather, a novelization of some of his most deeply held beliefs in what he felt would create the ‘perfect society.’ An ardent vivisectionist, he was the antithesis of Caroline Earle White and her allies, whose work to world cultural values.
Prendick, the leading character of The Island of Doctor Moreau, and Hargrave, of Love in the Tropics bear similar may feelings toward their fates at first glance, but even then their inner resolve shows some hint of things to come. Whereas Hargrave weeps, but “[A]fter a time, however, different feelings awoke in my breast. I was young and strong, and the love of life stirred within me, impelling me to preserve my existence,” Prendick bears less resilience and more bitterness. “I was empty and very faint, or I should have had more heart. But as it was I suddenly began to sob and weep, as I had never done since I was a little child. The tears ran down my face. In a passion of despair I struck with my fists at the water in the bottom of the boat, and kicked savagely at the gunwale. I prayed aloud for God to let me die…..,” read the words of Prendick. Each speaks of heart, but within Hargrave, there is, indeed, ‘love of life.’ At the surface, it may seem that these two passages may bear little reflection on the stories to come, however, their significance in regard to the way in which both writers saw ‘life’ would become far more clear.
In dealing first with the issue of cruelty to animals, the views of these two Gilded Age thinkers, there is certainly transparency. Wells had gone as far as to debate George Bernard Shaw on the issue of animal experimentation. Wells and his beliefs would remain a target of criticism of thinkers such as George Orwell. In response to Wellsian theory that “The modern state must apply the “good, scientifically caused pain” (1901a:325) of “social surgery” for the “maximum elimination of its feeble and spiritless folk” (1905c:141f),” Orwell replied that in Wellsian literature: “”one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past…. History as he sees it is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man. [Orwell 1941: 169] (26)”” In an interesting twist, Wells once considered himself the defender of vivisection in a debate against George Bernard Shaw, who he termed a sentimentalist. However, in this debate, Wells would consider Pavlov the better many because of his animal experimentation. In truth, Pavlov was a great advocate for overhauling the vivisection system, opposing it not only for ethical reasons, but because pain would contaminate the results. Moreau showed no such concern with his House of Pain. White may have consistently reminded opponents that she was opposed only to ‘painful’ vivisection on animals, Wells gave absolutely no ground.
In regard to the issue of pain, it is not only a question of whether pain is allowed to be inflicted, but rather, what the very nature of pain was. White’s view, incorporating her feelings regarding the practice as follows:
“No one would maintain that we were justified in either robbing or murdering a large number of poor people in order to confer a great benefit upon a large portion of the human race; then why are we justified in inflicting such indescribable tortures upon poor, helpless animals that happen to be in our power? It is just as much of one of God’s laws that we should be merciful as that we should not steal or murder; and is it merciful to cut up sentient creatures alive and torment them in every possible way that the imagination of the vivisector can devise? (9)”
Prendick, who does, to the reader, offer a modicum of resistance to Moreau, at first, does ask Moreau the application of such infliction of pain. Moreau replies in a way that both agrees and yet denies the presence of pain as it exists in Moreau’s work:
“So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick; so long as your own pains drive you; so long as pain underlies your propositions about sin,—so long, I tell you, you are an animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels. This pain… Oh, but it is such a little thing! A mind truly opened to what science has to teach must see that it is a little thing. It may be that save in this little planet, this speck of cosmic dust, invisible long before the nearest star could be attained—it may be, I say, that nowhere else does this thing called pain occur.”
A compatriot of Wells in the fight against the anti-vivisection movement, and an equally enthusiastic proponent of eugenics was Dr. Alexis Carrel. Carrel received the Nobel Prize despite protests from members of the anti-vivisection movement. Carrel’s own former medical brethren constantly challenged his results, however, he found a home with the Rockefeller Institute, and, later, in Vichy France where it is believed he continued his open avocation of eugenics. The Rockefeller Farm, a bugbear of White’s, became one of the sources of her most bitter defeat. Her protests against the ‘lab animal farm’ were banned from discussion by political intrigue between Dr. W.W. Keen, a fierce White opponent, President Taft and the complicit cooperation of the President of the American Humane Association.
Slavery may have ended, but imperialism certainly hadn’t, and as imperialism was a mainstay of both England and the United States, it isn’t terribly surprising that the idea of valuing one human life over another wouldn’t be extinguished along with formal practices of slavery. Despite the common accusations that the anti-vivisectionists did not care about humanity, and placed animals above them, consistent research of the movement reveals otherwise. Caroline Earle White was constantly refuting this idea, and a poignant example of her compassion toward people can be found in the introduction to her (FIRST) novel, Love in the Tropics:
“As I know… that a book stands of falls upon its merits alone, I will merely say that, whatever be its fate, it will not have entirely failed if it bring home to the minds of my readers what I believe to be certain truth, that as warm a heart, as noble a nature, and as bright an intellect may be found under a yellow, or brown, or a black skin as under a white one. (iii-iv)”
As in The Island of Doctor Moreau, Love in the Tropics begins with a shipwreck near islands generally inhabited by Polynesians. White portrays them as a kind and beautiful people. Wells may remain neutral (at best) when it comes to the Kanakas of Moreau’s Isle, derogatory terms, but his real world feelings toward the people of Polynesia are not so subtle, saying that “That large, naked, virtuous, pink, Natural Man, drinking pure spring water, eating the fruits of the earth, and living to ninety in the open air is a fantasy; he never was nor will be. The real savage is a nest of parasites within and without, he smells, he rots, he starves… As for his moral integrity, let the curious inquirer seek an account of the Tasmanian, or the Australian, or the Polynesian before “sophistication” came. (16)””
Even as the indigenous peoples in both of these books would have been perceived as significantly different in the eyes of White and Wells, the idea of ‘womanhood’ would also bear marked differences. Moreau’s Prendick even sees gendered differences among the beast people, ascribing to them descriptions such as “these weird creatures—the females, I mean—had in the earlier days of my stay an instinctive sense of their own repulsive clumsiness, and displayed in consequence a more than human regard for the decency and decorum of extensive costume.” White’s ‘leading lady’ of Love in the tropics, on the other hand, is treated positively. The native woman “wore a sulu of the finest native cloth, which reached from her waist below her knees, and was ornamented with the feathers of various birds. Around her wrists and ankles she had circlets of shells. (29)” Polygamy too is addressed, and though neither White nor Wells condone it, there is a distinctly different flavor to the choices of wording made to approve or disapprove of the choices. White, who was certainly the more religiously affiliated of the two, is kinder regarding the practice in Paloa, stating that “polygamy was practiced among the men of distinction in Paloa, but that Owahi, with the good sense and moderation which distinguished all his proceedings, chose to confine himself to two wives. (25)” Wells, however, not only leaves the males out of the system of polygamy, but unsubtly implicates the females as the instigators. “Some of them—the pioneers in this, I noticed with some surprise, were all females—began to disregard the injunction of decency, deliberately for the most part. Others even attempted public outrages upon the institution of monogamy. The tradition of the Law was clearly losing its force. I cannot pursue this disagreeable subject.”
As one investigates more deeply into both stories, and the passions that drove each of these ‘humanitarians,’ the religious focus of Wells versus the minimal reference of religion to the otherwise more religious White starts to lose much of its mystery. In The Island of Doctor Moreau, the idea that even humanity should be subject to shaping and vivisection is but alluded to. However, Wells himself put no such subtleties into his words when expressing his own beliefs. Whereas he stated that “the new Puritans are necessarily cruel to individuals. This kind-to-be-cruel policy they formulate as that of “inhumane humanitarianism” which , in their “obliteration of out-of-date moral values,” White, for her part was confronting a Christian clergyman (and doctor) who preached that vivisection with a worthy purpose was not cruel, White replied by asking:
“But who, I will ask, is to be the judge of the purpose and the motive? Are a few powerful men united in the pursuit of any object, who claim that their motive sanctifies their action, to be allowed to inflict atrocities upon helpless creatures, either human beings or the lower animals? Do we think at the present time that Philip II of Spain was justified in burning alive heretics and schematics, as it is said he did? Yet he had a far greater motive than the vivisectors of today, for they say they are only trying to save our bodies, while he hoped to save souls. Were Cotton Mather and his colleagues justified in burning or in defending the burning of witches at the stake, and were our Puritan ancestors who fled from religious persecution in England justified, after they had obtained power in this country, in flogging and even putting to death the innocent, gentle Quakers?“
However, Wells was far from alone as an advocate for scientific betterment of mankind at any cost. White reported, in her Journal of Zoophily, that the “cruelty of the dog and ear grafting in which Dr. Carrel cut off dogs’ legs and ears and put legs and ears from other animals in their stead was described by sworn witnesses who were at the Rockefeller, who mentioned it was “awful.” Indeed, one or two of the attendants left the institute because they could not endure the sight of so much suffering.” This was not a false flag, and that can be seen clearly through Moreau. When questioned by Prendick regarding the scope of his work and his goals, the vivisectors replies:
“All in good time,” said he, waving his hand at me; “I am only beginning. Those are trivial cases of alteration. Surgery can do better things than that. There is building up as well as breaking down and changing…This is a kind of grafting in a new position of part of an animal upon itself. …,—monsters manufactured.”
In examining the works and beliefs of both sides of the vivisection debate, one sees some of the same arguments which led to two sides of a story claiming moral victory, and arguing pain in disturbingly flexible terms. However, once slavery disappeared, the movement to alleviate the pain and suffering of both animals and the marginalized members of society continued. The key to implementing ‘inhumane humanitarianism’ was not openly asking people to believe that pain was good, rather, it was to be achieved either by convincing people to look the other way either out of selfishness and fear or to never give them the choice at all. In a world of ag-gag laws and distant sweatshops, we can see what appears to be a primarily successful outcome of silencing, discrediting or keeping evidence of what could be considered ‘unethical’ behavior out of the hands of those whom would share it. Fortunately for society, that level of opacity is becoming more and more difficult to maintain.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. Martin Niemöller
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
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
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
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?”
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
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.”
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.
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.
SOURCES 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.
*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.
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.
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.”  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:
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
“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
“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.”
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:
“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…
 Alsop, Stewart. “Dr. Calhoun’s Horrible Mousery.” Newsweek, August 17, 1970. John B. Calhoun Papers. History of Medicine Division. National Library of Medicine.
 “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.