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.


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.

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:

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.