Richter's Approach

The Modus Operandi of Curt P. Richter

Curt P. Richter's Philosophy of Psychobiological Investigation

Compiled by James B. Wirth, M.D., Ph.D.

From: Richter, C.P. Animal behavior and internal drives. The Quarterly Review of Biology 2: 307-343, 1927.

... in our artificially constructed environment practically every variety of behavior observable in a natural environment is obtained. And with a record of the way in which the animal spends its time before and after such episodes much more light will be thrown on their origin.

From: Richter, C.P. The work of the psychobiology laboratory. In: S. Katzenelbogen (Ed.), Contributions Dedicated to Dr. Adolf Meyer by His Colleagues, Friends and Pupils. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1938.

The emphasis in all the investigations has been biological. The choice of material for investigation was determined largely by the availability of a useful technique. We have attacked wherever it was felt positive answers could be obtained. This will explain the apparent diversity of the various research projects.

From: Richter, C.P. Biological clocks in medicine and psychiatry: shock-phase hypothesis. Proc. Soc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 46:1506-1530, 1960.

From the prolonged consideration of these questions an idea emerged that may provide an answer to at least some of these questions. This idea came partly from the detailed study of the case histories of the large variety of patients possessing clocks, especially those seen in patients with intermittent hydrarthosis, and partly from the study of a phenomenon that has been observed in the common fruit fly. It occurred to me that what happens to the individual members of a colony of flies in response to a strong shock might also happen to the individual units of an organ that are physically closely bound together into an integrated whole.

From: Stellar, E. An appreciation of Curt Richter. In: E.M. Blass (Ed.), The Psychobiology of Curt Richter. Baltimore, York Press: 1976.

I hope the spirit of the man also comes through to the reader, for in that spirit lies the explanation of his great success. It is hard to imagine the joy of scientific investigation unless you've witnessed it directly. To see curiosity and humbleness go hand in hand, to see unabashed enthusiasm for new ideas, to see excitement over little achievements that inevitably add up to a big picture, to see that weather-eye out for the new shape of understanding, all this is to see Curt Richter.

What a model for us all in this modern age of distractions and derailments! When I visited him in his familiar laboratory when he was in his late seventies, he said proudly, "My hand is steady and my eye is good and I operate three times a week." He was making lesions, he said, "to cut out the biological clock." I understood. He was working at the same small operating table I had seen him use almost thirty years earlier, and he had the same beautifully simple conception of what a scientific investigation was all about.

It was beautifully simple. He delighted in the equipment he invented to solve his scientific problems. How do you handle a wild rat and inject him? You take the ribs of an old umbrella; cut it about a foot from the top; you sew a heavy sock to the cut ends; you cut the sock off at the ankle and tack the cut end around a two-inch hole in a piece of wood...You hold the wood tightly over the wild rat's cage door and slide the door open. The wild rat leaps out through the hole in the wood, down the sock, nose up into the top of the umbrella ribs. The experimenter quickly grabs the cut end of the umbrella ribs near the sock and squeezes down hard. The wild rat is immobilized in place and the experimenter can inject him subcutaneously, intramuscularly, intraperitoneally, and even intravenously through the umbrella ribs. When the squeeze is let up, the rat leaps back into its cage.

He is just as enthusiastic about other people's gadgets. I'll never forget the first time he saw a drinkometer Harry Hill and I built, with relays going at 6-7 per second, counting off each tongue lap the rat made while drinking. "What a wonderful thing," he said, reeling off a half-dozen good experiments you could do with something like that. "I've got to have one of those. That's wonderful."

From: Richter, C.P. Free research versus design research. Science 118: 91-93, 1953.

We seem to forget: that in the past great discoveries have with few exceptions been made by individual workers, often working in great isolation; that some of the most important discoveries have been made without any plan of research -- largely by accident or in dreams, as in the instance of Loewi's Nobel prize-winning discovery; that discoveries have resulted from a general state of what Alan Gregg has called puzzlement--puzzlement at discrepancies in findings--a state of mind which would not lend itself to any accurate verbal description; that there are researchers who do not work on a verbal plane, who cannot put into words what they are doing--whose thinking functions in terms of experiences, subconscious observations--who don't know what they have been after until they actually arrive at their discoveries.

We seem to forget too: that experimental designs only serve a purpose in most instances of confirming what is already known, filling in gaps, adding decimal points; that experimental designs are useful tools devised by statisticians to check on ideas, but that they are not substitutes for ideas; that there may be little relation between a man's ability to devise wonderful experimental designs and his ability to do research; that good researchers use research plans merely as starters and are ready to scrap them at once in the light of actual findings; that experimental designs breed "team research."

Let us not mistake experimental design for ideas.

Let us encourage researchers to return to their work benches; to make first-hand observations; and let us question whether a proposed "team research" is a product of experimental design or whether it grows out of genuine supplementation of contributions.

Let us remember what Arthus (1) said, "Indeed it is not in the turmoil of social life, not through academic chats nor laboratory gossip that we come to see the light, that interpretations become clear, that experiments are conceived, and conclusions reached. It is through solitary, profound, and sustained meditation. In order to make some progress in the experimental sciences one must meditate a great deal." He should have added that ideas do not often come from big conferences and meetings. Let us not take men away from their work for many useless conferences. Let us give them time to think consecutively.

Research Activities of the Psychobiology Laboratory

The Modus Operandi of Curt P. Richter

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