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.



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.

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

Brain without heart is far more dangerous than heart without brain.” Robert G. Ingersoll

So, just a few short months ago, I was delighted to receive final approval on my thesis for my M.A. in American Culture/Liberal Studies. It came after at least five years of my love affair with Robert Conly’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.* My thesis focused on all four of Conly’s works – three children’s/young adult books, one adult book (no longer in print) – as a reflection of science and technological anxieties in the American Culture during the 1960s. It was a fantastic ride in which I spent five days at the National Library of Medicine (to research John B. Calhoun – one of the inspirations of Mrs. Frisby, two days at the National Geographic Magazine Archives, and one day getting the fantastic chance to review original Conly manuscripts at the University of Minnesota. In the coming months, I plan to create posts that describe my research and findings. In the meantime, anyone who has access to ProQuest or the University of Michigan libraries can find a copy of my thesis online. If you’re all that curious, I have also included a link to it below. Title: 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 Author: Arahshiel Rose Silver

*Yes, it is a children’s book, as were three of his four published works, however, the deeper messages in Conly’s books often addressed the dangers of science unchecked by ethics or emotion. He was also one of the first authors to have books published for younger audiences with such content. Z for Zachariah, for example, portrayed a world in which most humans in the area had been eliminated by nuclear war.

Unlike the film, “Secret of NIMH,” Conly’s book is more subtle and does not paint science in the “mad scientist” way. It asks important questions – but his books are NOT anti-science. Conly was NOT against technology or science – he just wanted the concerns for humanity and what makes us human borne in mind.

URL: https://www.scribd.com/document/414478427/The-Book-of-Nicodemus-and-Other-Apocrypha-The-Works-of-Robert-C-O-Brien-as-a-Reflection-of-Technological-Scientific-Anxieties-in-1960s-American-Cult


Addendum: I just, very belatedly, that scribd isn’t always available to people. Here is my thesis for download.

About Robert Conly (Robert C. O’ Brien): The Man Who Started It All…

Robert Conly was born in 1918, during the final throes of World War I, to parents in the bustling megalopolis of New York City. It was a time considered by some to be America’s first loss of ‘innocence’ or ‘faith’ in the new age of technology and scientific discovery. His family moving shortly after his birth to Amityville, Long Island. His teenage years included the era of the Great Depression and the year of his twentieth birthday was marked by Hitler’s invasion of the Sudentland. The terrible power of nuclear weaponry took the world stage only years later in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

All of this before the age of thirty. Despite his later successes in the world of the printed word, Conly wasn’t necessarily an A+ student. According to wife Sally, Conly “feared school and some mornings was literally dragged screaming into the classroom.” (90) His first love wasn’t writing at all, but, much like another major figure in childhood communication, Fred Rogers (ten years Conly’s junior), the young Conly found comfort in music. “He could sing before he could talk; his favorite amusement was the family windup Victrola; and he has had a lifelong preoccupation with music both as a listener and as a performer” said his wife of him. He would later attend the Julliard School of Music, and while music (and a sense of humor) would play a part in helping him socially in his teen years, the world of music performance would not be Conly’s destiny. His college years included what he referred to as his “breakdown,” leading to his temporary retreat from the college worldm he would return to “his family in disgrace – parents being less tolerant of dropping out of college than they are now.”

No, it would be another childhood talent would pave the way for young Robert’s success. “He had a propensity and talent for dreaming,” according to his wife. “He could and did regularly create splendid imaginary worlds, with himself in dazzling, heroic roles,” she said of her husband. “While all children do this to some extent, [his] fantasy world was so vivid that he still remembers the place and hour when he (by then a student in high school) made a solemn decision to give it up and to concentrate on living in the real world.”

Instead, Conly pursued English, completing his degree and then entering the formal world of the written word in 1940, with Newsweek magazine. Four years latter (and one year after his marriage to partner Sally Conly) he would move on to a position with Newsweek and a new home in Washington D.C. A humorous article, “The Joker in the Sky,” an article on the existence of ball lightning, was just one of his articles from that time, published on April 14, 1946 in The Baltimore Sun. His decades-long work with National Geographic magazine began in 1951, a fateful appointment which would not only take him all over the world, but would result in his visit to the laboratory of Dr. John B. Calhoun, then with the National Institutes of Mental Health, and one of the most important influences of his future Newbery novel. In the early 1960s, Conly developed glaucoma, forcing him to move from the country back to New York City in 1963.

It was only during the last decade of his life that Conly took on writing fiction – it was then that he would adopt his pen name, Robert C. O’Brien. His works of fiction were published between 1968 and 1974. The first title, The Silver Crown, a fantasy-science fiction tale for young readers was published in 1968. His second book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, another title intended for a children’s audience title arrived in 1971. The least well known of his works, and the only title written for an adult audience, A Report from Group 17, was released in the next year: 1972. Conly’s final book, the post-apocalyptic Z for Zachariah, would be published posthumously in 1974; the book’s publication made possible as a result of collaboration between his wife and daughter.

His fiction often bridged the gaps between anxieties and concerns of the adult world and the world of children. Said Sally Conly, “In his fiction, though, there is some evidence that [he] has not entirely outgrown influences of his childhood. One finds in his books a fascination with valleys, with hidden worlds, with new societies; he writes with particular sympathy for and perception of children and children’s feelings.”She would go further by saying that his writing often resembled his life: along with his clear fascination and respect for nature, she remarked upon his ability to create empathy for characters, both animals and human. [7] When asked about why he wrote books for children, Conly said it was because “children like a straightforward, honest plot–the way God meant plots to be–with a beginning, a middle, and an end: a problem, an attempt to solve it, and at the end a success or a failure.”[8]

Conly described the children’s process of reading as a substantially different process. While adults who read books may simply be further exercising problem-solving skills they use in day-to-day life, for a child, these stories may present them with issues and questions they have not yet encountered. As they begin to confront situations that may raise issues, fears, emotions, and questions, they are able to take a moment to put the book down and to really thinks about everything that is going on and how they, themselves, are reacting to it. In reading a book, the child’s developing mind “learns about love, hate, fear, sadness, courage, kindness. All these things are in the world around it.” Conly also felt that children’s literature should leave some room for shades of grey and create a world in which children get the idea that everything in life can be sifted into categories of good and evil. “The mind learns that it is not easy to separate good from bad; they become deviously intertwined. From books it learns that not all doors are simply open or shut, and that even rats can become heroes.”

©Arahshiel Rose Silver 2019

EARLY BOOK DRAFT Caroline Earle White: American Animal Humane Society and Anti-Vivisection Pioneer

“All honor, I say to that woman! and to all who overcoming their natural repugnance and dislike to interfering”
Caroline Earle White

I have finally decided that it is better to post unfinished drafts of works based on my research in their raw and unfinished state than let the information rot in the privacy of my own data hordes.

And so, without further ado, here is the early draft of the Caroline Earle White book I had a dream to publish. With a lack of audience (according to publishers) and a lack of interested readers/reviewers, I gave up on it. I’ve decided that something is better than nothing. People should know about this amazing woman!

Annotations for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

This document is a set of the annotations I prepared for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Due to the obvious copyright restrictions, I cannot post the text of the book with the annotations. For now, I have organized by chapter and will shortly update this document to include the words/phrase to which the annotation refers and the page number in a first printing of the hardcover copy of book from Atheneum 1978. https://www.scribd.com/document/414739252/Personal-Annotations-for-Mrs-Frisby-and-the-Rats-of-NIMH-NO-BOOK-TEXT-Arahshiel-Rose-Silver

Addendum: I realized, VERY belatedly, that scribd isn’t available to everyone… If you’re still interested, here it is for download:

NOTE: This information is provided for educational purposes ONLY. It is NOT in any way intended for any for-profit purposes. All measures have been taken to avoid any copyright infringement. The current owner of copyright is Simon & Schuster and you can purchase a copy of the book from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Mrs-Frisby-Rats-Robert-OBrien/dp/0689710682/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2Z81ZCBZCAT94&keywords=mrs+frisby+and+the+rats+of+nimh+book&qid=1561646947&s=gateway&sprefix=mrs+fr%2Caps%2C136&sr=8-1


Caroline Earle White, the Journal of Zoophily, and “The Tortured Rat”

“This demonstration may surely be classed, partially at least, as the good resulting from intended evil. The dreadful experiment of Professor Watson, which bids fair to make Chicago’s “tortured rat” as well-known as was “the brown dog” of transatlantic fame, aroused thousands to the possibilities of vivisection mania. In an editorial, as clever as it was caustic, a journal of our own city, never committed to the specific support of Anti-vivisection, said in a recent issue: “The Chicago professor may have demonstrated to his own satisfaction that rats possess the sixth sense of direction; he certainly demonstrated to the world at large another medical fact, namely, that scientists can live without hearts” – which was probably more than Professor Watson set out to prove!”

Rats and mice may be considered ‘animals’ in phylogenetic trees, in zoology and in the public mind, however, when it comes to legal protections as awarded in the Animal Welfare Act of 1970, they are not considered animals at all. Even today, people are often surprised at the efforts of humane societies and other groups who work to rescue and adopt out rats; the idea of a ‘humane society’ typically causes most people to think solely of cats and dogs, or, occasionally rabbits or guinea pigs. Caroline Earle White and other activists, however, were outraged at cruelty to every animal, and, in the case of Dr. Watson, that fury made national news.

“An experiment upon a rat having been performed by Professor Watson of Chicago which on account of its cruelty aroused the indignation of the whole country, judging from the articles in the newspapers, your Corresponding Secretary wrote to a prominent anti-vivisectionist of Chicago, Mr. Sydney R. Taber, asking him to use his influence in the Humane Society of Illinois to induce the President to institute a prosecution of Dr. Watson. Mr. Taber in his reply said that the Illinois Society had been investigating the subject but had not succeeded in obtaining the evidence to prove that the barbarous experiment had been performed by Professor Watson.” The Philadelphia Record

It was Professor Watson of the Chicago University who drew national attention to the kinds of experiments that could be done on animals, and, in this case, “which on account of its cruelty aroused the indignation of the whole country, judging from the articles in the newspapers, (1907)” The experiment involved the gradual removal of all five sense from rats in order to determine whether or not they had a sixth sense. The progression was as follows: first, the eyes were removed and their feet were frozen. After this, they were, according to Watson’s own words, “[turned] them loose, to observed if they possessed any instinct of the direction they ought to take.” According to the accounts, such experiments proved to Watson that “that the inferior animals do possess one sense more than others – the sense of direction.” The article that detailed the above description closed with the following sentence which clearly shows that such experimentation was not felt necessary: “Rats and mice, it would seem, can manage to get along somehow without the aid of eyes and tails, and so can scientists without hearts.” – Philadelphia Standard and Times.

Looking Out for Our Hooved Friends…

The issue of cattle transportation, although not usually immediately associated with the popular perception of ‘humane societies,’ was always high on Caroline Earle White’s list of concerns. In 1876, seven years before the founding of the AAVS, she went as far as to say that “[n]ext to cattle transportation, the evil which we have felt has most demanded our attention is Vivisection.”[1] 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. Some of these fountains remain standing today after many years of service. Pictured below is the one founded with a bequest from long-time WSPCA member, Annie L. Lowry. (On the right, see Caroline Earle White in black, and, to the left, a photo of the author in December 2014.)

For example, In 1910 they boasted that their twenty-six fountains had watered 300,711 horses, 25,499 smaller animals and 170,652 had a drink. [2]

1. Women’s Branch of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Seventh Annual Report of the Women’s Branch of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Philadelphia, 1876, page 4.

2. Women’s Branch of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Forty First Annual Report of the Women’s Branch of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 1910, page 7.