Memorial - Smith

Remarks at a Memorial Meeting for Curt Richter at the Department of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins Medical School

by Gerard P. Smith, M.D.
1 May 1989

I had heard of Curt long before I met him. When I returned to Penn in 1964 as a member of John Brobeck's Department of Physiology, Curt was a shadowy legend whose name often came up in the Feeding Seminar. I was spending a lot of time collaborating with Al Epstein and I asked him one day to tell me about Curt Richter. Al's eyes lit up and he began to speak with a combination of awe and enthusiasm. Since Al is not an easy man to interrupt, he went on for some time. I learned three things about Curt. First, he had been doing important and interesting work for 45 years. Second, his laboratory and his presence sounded something like the Wizard of Oz. Third, that no matter what new phenomenon you thought you had discovered, if you showed it to Curt, he had usually published it, and if not, had certainly seen it and could show it to you in his marvelous research records.

The conclusion was that Curt had done everything. I was young enough at the time to be skeptical of such a claim. Only a few years later, when Jim Gibbs and I were preparing our manuscript on the satiety sequence, I remembered the idea that Curt had done everything and decided I better have a look at his papers on feeding and activity. Sure enough, in the 1922 paper entitled "A Behaviouristic Study of the Activity of the Rat," figure 24 depicted the critical part of the satiety sequence, that is, that when rats stop eating, they engage in a brief period of non-feeding activity before they rest and go to sleep. We emphasized Curt's observation in the manuscript and from then on I no longer doubted that Curt had done everything.

I finally met Curt in 1976 when Paul McHugh asked me to give the Curt Richter lecture that year. At the end of the lecture, Curt murmured some polite praise, but I sensed that neither the lecture nor the occasion had given him much pleasure. I learned later that he did not like being memorialized while he was still so active and as his memoir made clear, Curt always knew what he didn't like, so the lectures were discontinued.

Sometime in the next year Jim Wirth arranged for me to visit Curt on one of my trips to Hopkins. Jim did all the negotiations that made the visit possible. In more recent years Tim Moran took over this role. As any of you know who have arranged such visits, Curt was not an easy man to pin down, so I am very grateful for all the tact and diplomatic skills that Jim and Tim employed in my behalf.

The first visit was unforgettable. Walking through the door to Curt's lab was as close as I've ever gotten to the experience when Alice walked through the mirror. I was stunned by the labyrinthine nature of Curt's lab. I was fascinated by all the details, the records, the manilla folders, and the small table and chair for the telephone. More than anyone I've ever seen, Curt's laboratory was a world that he had created and maintained.

On that first visit, I was not prepared for Curt's full attention. When he looked at me, I felt that the whole man was there and that he expected me to be interesting. For all his humor and kindness, I knew in that moment how formidable Curt was and as our affection for one another grew, I never forgot how formidable he could be. There was steel will in Curt and it carried him through more than 60 years of rigorous science. It made him the model and friend he was, but I would not like to have been his enemy.

Fortunately I had brought some data about the sham feeding rat. Curt thought this was a great preparation. He wanted to know all about it -- surgery, maintenance, nutrition, reproducibility. The stream of questions was interrupted every so often by that wonderful chuckle of appreciation and the happy ejaculation, "Isn't that great."

The visits extended for more than a decade and occurred about twice each year. I always arrived with the data from the lab that excited me most -- you know --the data that is a big effect, the meaning of which is hidden. Curt always made some point that made the meaning a little more accessible. Sometimes his answers were simpler than I expected. For example, I once asked him why he had never been interested in studying the ingestion of fats when he had spent so much time studying the effect of sugars. He just laughed and said that he never got around to fats because the sugars always gave such neat results.

Last spring was the final visit. Curt surprised me and Tim by appearing in a bright, yellow sweater and, despite his difficulty in walking, seemed as quick and alert as ever. Over lunch, we pored over some taste experiments I had been doing in preweanling pups. Developmental work was new for me and the discussion ranged over issues of sweet and fat tastes, development of the nervous system and brain dopamine. I had the feeling that Curt thought that what I was doing was a little too complicated, that I was in over my head. He's probably right and I'm certainly worrying about his reaction as the work continues. So even in his 90's, Curt was still shaping science just by his reactions to the work presented to him. I think that was Curt's most outstanding trait -- he never tired of looking at the new and sifting it for meaning. He's no longer alive, but who would dare to say that he is not present in this room today. Such is the influence of a man who serves learning.

I would like to make one final point. Curt was a basic scientist with no medical or psychiatric background. Yet he had his entire career in the Department of Psychiatry. That means he had the support of his Chairmen from Adolf Meyer to Paul McHugh. That kind of support -- clear-eyed, continuous, and generous -- made Curt's achievement possible. In pausing to remember Curt today, this Department reminds itself of the best of its tradition, the tradition articulated by J. B. Watson when he told Curt that the only thing he was interested in getting from Curt was a good piece of research.

Reminiscences about Curt P. Richter

The Modus Operandi of Curt P. Richter

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