Social and Scientific Organization

Social and Scientific Organization in the Psychobiology Laboratory, 1935-1978

by Christine M. Keiner

Team production and responsibilities of staff
Principal investigators

Principal technicians

Creation and maintenance of records

Team production and the responsibilities of staff

Throughout his career, Curt P. Richter had distinct classes of personnel assisting him in the production of scientific knowledge. Between 1935 and 1950, when the lab pursued several lines of inquiry simultaneously (chiefly neuroendocrinological studies of spontaneous activity, electrical skin resistance and the galvanic skin response, behavioral homeostasis, and poison development), the lab employed approximately twenty workers at any one time, consisting of about twelve technicians, two medical students, one full-time collaborator, and five maids. From 1950 until the late seventies, when the biological clock constituted the lab's sole line of inquiry, Richter employed about half as many assistants, usually five technicians and three maids.

From 1922 until the late seventies, the psychobiology laboratory occupied a suite of eight rooms connected by two long hallways on the third floor of the Phipps building. At various times, smaller laboratories augmented the main one located in Phipps 318. In the late 1930s, a small lab on the fifth floor was used to house monkeys, perform operations, and test patients for studies of electrical skin resistance. From the late 1940s until the late fifties, a lab in the basement was used for the skin resistance studies, while the main lab was used for research on behavioral homeostasis, poisons and thioureas, and domestication.

The first group of assistants consisted of faculty members from the hospital and university, chiefly in the fields of anatomy, psychiatry, and neurology, people whom Richter called "collaborators." Although most of his collaborators were professors or physicians with their own labs, a few worked in the lab for several years on a daily basis.

A second group of laboratory assistants consisted of medical students who worked for an hourly wage on a specific research project, usually during the summer. From the 1930s through the 1950s, each July two medical students usually entered the lab. Some continued to work during the school year after classes and during the evenings, and several returned for three or four consecutive summers. Within the context of Richter's prevailing lines of investigation (mainly skin resistance and dietary self-selection), the medical students proposed their own research projects and followed through with design and implementation of experiments and coauthorship of papers with Richter. The majority of medical students were male, but there were a few women.

The third group of workers consisted of long-term, usually female, technicians with limited scientific backgrounds. The technicians performed routine duties such as caring for the laboratory animals, making daily records of their food and water intake, plotting the records on individual charts, and photographing, indexing, filing, registering, and retrieving the charts for Richter. Such duties were vital to Richter's modus operandi since he considered accurate records of food and water intake and running activity the foundation of any experiment. From the 1930s through the 1940s, the lab contained from twelve to fourteen technicians at any one time; this number decreased sharply as Richter grew older, set narrower research goals, and received less grant money, such that by the 1960s, only five technicians remained.

The final group of workers were the maids. Three to five maids were needed to clean the rat cages, the food containers and bottles, and the lab itself.

Until about 1950, Richter and his most ambitious medical students planned and organized the experiments, and Richter wrote the experimental reports himself or with collaborators, or he had the medical students or technicians write up first drafts for his approval. After 1950, Richter tended to work alone on experiments and papers, almost all of which dealt with biological clocks. Throughout Richter's six decades as director of the Psychobiology Laboratory, he designed and constructed the instruments used in experiments (i.e., the special rat cages for measuring activity and nutrient intake), while the technicians operated them and the maids scoured them. The technicians were also responsible for maintaining standard conditions for the experiments and for measuring and recording the experimental phenomena.

The different types of work of the psychobiology lab can be conceptualized according to the following schemes:

Technical work
Richter ----> Head Technician (Ardis O'Connor, 1944-78) ----> Medical students, Technicians, Maids, Handyman

Administrative work
Richter ----> Secretary (Peg Brunner, 1950-72; Barbara Carberry Cross, 1972-80)

Intellectual work
question (Richter & colleagues, if any) ----> experimental design (Richter & colleagues) ----> experimental execution and data collection (medical students, technicians) ----> manipulation and analysis of data (Richter & colleagues) ----> reporting conclusions of the study - publication (Richter & colleagues)

Principal Investigators

Richter's most frequent coauthors included three medical students (Bruno Barelare, 9 papers; John Eckert, 6; and Edward Schmidt, 4), two technicians (Kathy Clisby Campbell, 6, and Bettye Woodruff, 4), and four collaborators (Sally Dieke, 4; Marion Hines, 5; Orthello Langworthy, 6; and Katherine Rice, 9). All contributed to the work and publication record of the lab between 1935 and 1950, and all except Campbell and Woodruff possessed medical degrees or doctorates from Hopkins.

Barelare (M.D. 38), Eckert (M.D. 38), and Schmidt (M.D. 41) performed research on behavioral homeostasis and dietary self-selection in the late 1930s and early 1940s before leaving the lab to pursue their own careers. Woodruff, who possessed a bachelor's degree in nursing education, worked on the sympathetic nervous system and assisted with patients in the skin resistance laboratory between 1939 and 1945. Dieke (Ph.D. Chemistry 38) worked in the Psychobiology Laboratory from 1943 to 1953, chiefly on rat poisons. Rice (M.D. 41), the Phipps Clinic Research Psychiatrist in the early 1940s, published with Richter on thioureas, single food choice, self-selection, and cyclic behavior. Between 1930 and 1967, Langworthy (M.D. 22), a Hopkins professor of neurology, collaborated with Richter on several miscellaneous topics, such as decerebrate rigidity in the beaver and the quill mechanism of the porcupine.

Principal Technicians

Most of the women technicians in the 1940s had some sort of college background, though not in science. For example, Ardis O'Connor had a nursing degree and had completed a year of college, Carol Dubkin had a bachelor's degree in psychology from Barnard, Janet Fisher Miller had a master's degree in geography, and Bettye Woodruff and Billie Eaton each had a bachelor's degree in nursing education.

After 1960, Richter tended to hire people without advanced degrees in the sciences. For example, he hired Agnes Molloy, Barbara Carberry Cross, and Maryann Taylor right out of high school. Several of the lab's women technicians remained with Richter for years, which benefited his research by building up a base of craft knowledge, minimizing the disruptive effects of high turnover, and providing continuity and dependability. O'Connor worked from 1944-78, Molloy from 1963-88, Cross from 1972-80, and Peg Brunner from 1950 to 1972. (Cross and Brunner fulfilled secretarial as well as technicial duties.)

Creation and Maintenance of Records

Richter's individual-oriented approach and his emphasis upon rigorous record keeping merged in the form of the daily activity charts, the Esterline Angus charts that his technicians produced by ironing the daily cyclometer strips onto ruled poster board, and the corresponding graphs of nutrient intake and body weight. Every morning, including weekends and holidays, the technicians measured each rat's running activity and food and water intake for the previous 24 hours by checking the revolving drum and cyclometer recorders of each cage. They then charted and graphed these records, resulting in several charts and graphs per rat per year.

By the late 1950s, thousands of charts filled the shelves and cabinets of the lab. On the basis of the huge supply of raw data, Richter found many different cyclic manifestations of behavior whose existence might not otherwise have been suspected. Though originally produced for other lines of investigation, the activity charts nevertheless recorded the precise and mysteriously stable shift of the biological clocks from day to day. Thus, when the idea of studying exclusively the biological clock occurred to Richter around 1959, the facts already discovered and the data already collected took on new significance. (See a visual demonstration of the production of Esterline Angus charts.)

Because Richter's staff maintained such careful records, and because Richter did not publish the results of many of his experiments, the Esterline Angus and activity charts constitute a vast, untapped resource for contemporary psychobiologists.

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