Memorial - Wirth

Richter and Magendie

Talk given by James B. Wirth, M.D., Ph.D. in Celebration of Curt Richter
The Henry Phipps Psychiatric Service
1 May 89

Curt Richter's laboratory in his 90's was himself. In addition to experimenting with his ailments and medications, a request for a brief biography prompted him to attempt to understand his success as a scientist. He was particularly concerned to understand how he suddenly became productive after arriving at the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic. In reviewing his education, he recalled that the French physiologist, Magendie, whom he admired, had an unusual early education and he read Olmsted's biography of Magendie. He discovered a number of similarities between his own education and approach to science and those of Magendie. I will sketch these for you, as I understand them from conversations with Richter and from reading the biography of Magendie by Olmsted. I have chosen this approach to celebrate Curt Richter because you can come to know him by learning how he came to understand an important aspect of himself and because his understanding makes a point about scientific creativity which I think he would like to celebrate, freedom of research.

Curt Richter was one of the creators of a conceptual framework in science of which Magendie was the earliest representative. Magendie (1773-1875) was the founder of experimental physiology as a discipline. His student, Claude Bernard (1813-1878) developed the concept of the regulation of the internal environment of the body from the results of his experiments and those of his mentor, Magendie. Curt Richter (1894-1988) established the role of behavior in the control of the internal environment.

I will proceed by describing parallels in Magendie's and Richter's lives and approaches to science which supported Richter in his view of the origin of his scientific creativity. The first point is that scientific creativity is fostered in a youth by encouraging play and restricting formal education. Richter was struck by similarities in his early education and that of Magendie. Magendie was a child of the French Revolution. His father tried to apply Rousseau's educational formulas to Magendie's education. This approach is summarized in an excerpt from Rousseau's Emile.

"The first education ought to be purely negative and ought to consist not at all in teaching virtue or truth, but in shielding the heart from vice and the mind from error. If you could do nothing and allow nothing to be done; if you could bring your pupil sound and robust to the age of twelve years without his being able to distinguish his right hand from his left...Leave your pupil to himself in perfect liberty, and observe what he does without saying anything to him."

Apparently, Magendie's father succeeded in applying Rousseau's principles to his son to a large extent, since Magendie passed his 10th birthday without being able to read or write.

Richter said that he had little emphasis placed on his reading and school work during his early years. Instead he spent a great deal of time playing and tinkering with gadgets on into his teens.

Both Richter and Magendie lost a parent when they were young. Magendie lost his mother when he was nine and this may be a reason why Magendie's father was so successful in the application of Rousseau's educational principles. When Richter was eight, he lost his father in a hunting accident. His mother went off each day to run the factory and left Richter to organize his life largely for himself.

Their early professional training was also less formal than is usual. Magendie was educated in Medicine during the upheavals of the French Revolution and the early reign of Napoleon. There were frequent changes in the philosophy how to educate medical students and in the administration of medical schools and hospitals, giving Magendie less didactic training than was Usual and more freedom to pursue his own dissections with the advice of wise experts. Richter received his training in physiology and anatomy in his mid-20's after arriving at Hopkins. Informally and at his own rapid pace, he learned physiology by doing experiments with the advice of Professor Howells, pharmacology by attending those lectures of Professor Abel which interested him, anatomy by dissecting two corpses provided by and with the advice of Professor Grey. Richter felt that this free and relatively less structured approach to his training encouraged his enthusiasm and let him pursue that which interested him.

The second point about scientific creativity, which Richter made repeatedly to me in conversations and discussed in print on at least one occasion, is that scientific creativity requires free thought and freedom to explore. Both had their early choice of career dictated by family tradition. It was not until Magendie and Richter had been given greater professional freedom that they became productive. Magendie's father was a physician. Magendie took up the study of medicine at the age of 16. He began his medical career as a surgeon and a prosector in anatomy. Although he was a successful lecturer in these, he was not a productive researcher. At age 30, he switched from surgery and anatomy to medicine and experimental physiology and began lecturing and doing demonstrations in physiology on living animals. He published new findings consistently from then on for more than 30 years. Richter had an even more dramatic transformation. Richter's father manufactured steel parts for buildings. Even though his father died when Richter was eight, his father had told Richter that he wanted him to become an engineer. After high school Richter, without much reflection, decided to study engineering in Dresden, near where both his parents had been born. His academic career was undistinguished until age 25, when he came to do a Ph.D. with John Watson in the new Henry Phipps Clinic at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Here is Richter's description of this transformation:

"Then came what was to be the great turning point in my life and the start of my scientific career. Watson said, "I want you to know that I am only interested in getting a good piece of research. You do not have to take any courses or attend any lectures. You are strictly on your own." From that moment on I knew that I had made the right choice in coming to The Hopkins, and I know now that Watson's remark was pure vintage Gilman.

This clearly was the great event of my life. Suddenly for the first time I knew what I wanted to do and was set to do something about it. What a wonderful feeling! I had real freedom of research. I could now go directly to what I wanted to do without getting entangled in all the academic red tape. How to explain this great change in me? I have thought of various possible explanations and have concluded that Watson's "freedom of research" announcement had released my innate gene and that this had resulted in an overwhelming change in my whole being--freeing my initiative and self-confidence and restoring or renewing my early enthusiasm."

Both Magendie and Richter had similarities in their approach to research. They both believed that which they saw for themselves. They were more interested in experimental results, facts, not hypotheses. Magendie said

"Let the results of haphazard experiments collect and they will speak for themselves." (Olmsted . 239)

In publishing his Journal of Experimental Physiology he explained to his readers:

"I ask all those who wish to send me an account of their work to do so at least a month before the publication of an issue, in order that I may have time to repeat the principal experiments myself before sending the journal of press".

The "facts" Richter was interested in were the "answers" his rats gave him to the questions he asked them. He spent much time looking at the charts of individual rats spread across his floor, contemplating the patterns of responses of the "hands of the clock" of each rat, including food intake, water intake, activity, weight, vaginal epithelial cycle. His goal was to have a question emerge from his reflecting on these patterns which he could then "ask his rats".

Both he and Magendie first did the experiments which occurred to them and then looked at the literature to see what others had done.

They were both experimental opportunists in the sense that they attempted to answer those questions which were amenable to answer by an available method. Magendie vividly described his experimental opportunism in a quote to Bernard which so struck Richter that it hung on his bulletin board in the entrance way to his laboratory for many years. Dr. Epstein has quoted it in his talk and I think it bears repetition.

"Everyone compares himself to something more or less majestic in his own sphere, to Archimedes, Michelangelo, Galileo, Descartes, and so on. Louis XIV compared himself to the sun. I am much more humble. I compare myself to a scavenger; with my hook in my hand and my pack on my back I go about the domain of science picking up what I can find."

And again I repeat his statement

"Let the results of haphazard experiments collect and they will speak for themselves".

A good example of Richter's opportunism occurred in the early 20's during one of his visits to Barro Colorado Island in Panama. He observed sloths in their natural habitat hanging upside down. He had seen that quadruped mammals that walk upright extend their extremities when decerebrate. He wondered what a sloth would do when decerebrate. He performed the experiment in Panama and found that the sloth reproduced its usual flexed hanging posture. Richter distrusted planned series of experiments and, from his own experience, knew that his discoveries resulted from one experiment leading to a question which led to another experiment until a big phenomenon emerged.

Both Magendie and Richter were bold generalists in experimentation. For them the entire realm of bodily function was their domain. Magendie threw down the gauntlet to his successor in an introduction to his winter courses at the College de France in 1851 at age 68.

"There is still plenty to do. Let our successors trouble themselves over the future. I bequeath to them the thyroid, the thymus, suprarenal capsules, the sympathetic nerve, etc., whose functions are totally unknown."

A review of Richter's bibliography shows just how literally and effectively Richter took up the gauntlet.

Richter and Magendie believed in and fought for freedom of research. They emphasized the importance of freedom from preconceived ideas. Richter saw this lack of prejudice as fostered by a lack of formal education in youth, by avoiding hypotheses, and by proceeding one experiment at a time, spending much time reflecting on the results with the hope that they suggested another question amenable to experiment. Richter often emphasized the importance of having the time as well as the facilities to pursue ideas as they emerged.

Richter's exploration in his 90's of the roots of his scientific creativity led him, as I understood him, to three concepts about scientific creativity. First, it is mysterious, largely non-verbal, and largely genetic in its origins. Secondly, it is fostered by restricting formal education and encouraging free exploration. Thirdly, it cannot be forced. Rather it requires for its emergence those circumstances uniquely suited to a man's unique talents. Those circumstances cannot be easily be predicted except that, given freedom to explore and given freedom from a premature commitment to a particular life's work, a man may find them for himself.

Richter did not believe in giving advice. He had a quote in his laboratory which, translated, meant

"Talk is futile, only example enlightens".

Nevertheless, at a crucial juncture in American research in the 1950's, Richter was asked his advice as to how to foster creativity in the sciences. His advice was to support men, not projects; support freedom of research.

Reminiscences about Curt P. Richter

The Modus Operandi of Curt P. Richter

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