More than half a century ago, Harry Harlow began controversial experiments depriving baby monkeys of their mothers. Harlow forcibly separated newborn primates from their mothers and other monkeys and placed them in long-term, total social isolation and even a chamber he infamously called the “pit of despair.” As a result, the baby monkeys became severely disturbed, sometimes to the point of starving themselves to death. It became clear that the monkeys required more than sustenance; they also needed the love of their mothers and to play and live with other monkeys.
Even though Harlow’s maternal deprivation experiments have been widely criticized on ethical grounds, there are now efforts to revive Harlow’s methods – both at the Wisconsin Primate Research Center and the National Institutes of Health.
Dr. John Gluck was one of Harry Harlow’s few students. He joined me in a conversation about the new experiments inspired by Harlow’s 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s experiments, and why he now opposes forced maternal deprivation.
Dr. Gluck is currently working on a book that traces his process of coming to see the world of animal research much more critically than he had been quietly encouraged to do during his education. His book is tentatively titled Learning to See the Animals Again: From Animal Research to Animal Protection.
HF: Tell me about when you first started working with Harry Harlow.
JG: I felt very lucky to be admitted to the Wisconsin graduate psychology program in 1968. There I worked with Gene P. Sackett, John Davenport and Harry Harlow. Harlow was interested in supporting me because of my knowledge in the area of learning theory and my interest in discovering the effects of early experience on intelligence.
Harlow’s laboratory was very congenial, even a family-like environment. There was a lot of mutual support among the students and faculty and much socializing. While Harlow was an unopposed authority figure he did not carry a whip. He encouraged students to take their own experimental direction and to not necessarily follow his model. Everyone respected him in the laboratory – from his graduate students to the animal caretakers, electrical crew and metal workers who constructed housing and experimental equipment. There were a tremendous amount of research resources available for graduate students including animals [who are considered “resources” in the research industry], trained professional research assistants, statisticians, and the lab’s own dedicated library and librarian.
Harlow was always traveling, but when he was not he sometimes would show up and play Bridge with the students, faculty, and staff during the lunch hour. He walked the halls of the lab at night frequently inviting students into his office to share coffee and conversation late into the night.
I never saw Harlow’s graduate students, including myself, express dissent or concern about his research directly to him. However, Deborah Blum, in her book The Monkey Wars, described how several of his earlier post-doctoral students expressed criticism for the work and how the experiments were described to members of the public, who were already outraged by Harlow’s experiments. To say that most of the students were deaf and blind to these public welfare concerns would be an accurate characterization.
HF: What were your initial reactions to the experiments Harlow conducted?
JG: Frankly, I was primarily struck with the resources that were available for experimental use. I was initially impressed with how the monkeys were fed and housed. They had access to veterinarians and a small army of trained caretakers. The cages were clean and the animals were appropriately tested for tuberculosis. Neurosurgeons even participated in the brain surgeries in which parts of the monkeys’ brains were extracted. There were obviously more resources in Harlow’s laboratory than in the laboratories I had come from – like those of Texas Tech University.
I eventually felt conflicted about some of the experiments, which were intended to model human psychopathology. However it wasn’t unusual for other laboratories to house monkeys in isolation. At the time, every conceivable animal – dogs, chimpanzees, rodents, and others – were kept in barren conditions under the guise of studying the nature and nurture of behavioral development. Remove the social environment and see what behaviors remained. Very crude studies indeed, but not rare.
Nonetheless, I felt a dis-ease with the experiments but doubted that I had a basis to criticize them. After all, Harlow and the other faculty were all internationally famous and received enormous grants from those institutions concerned with supporting scientific progress.
HF: How many of Harlow’s students carry on his legacy?
JG: Probably not many…a small number of his approximately 20 to 30 students.
HF: How did you first hear about the recent experiments in Wisconsin and at the National Institutes of Health?
JG: Some people I keep in touch with from the University of Wisconsin Madison sent me a link to an article in the local paper called the Isthmus. There was also a lot about Steve Suomi’s experiments in the National Institutes of Health annual report.
HF: Do you know Ned Kalin or Steve Suomi, the laboratory researchers who lead these controversial experiments?
JG: Suomi and I were close friends. We shared an office in graduate school, took classes together, and socialized frequently. I didn’t know Kalin, but one of his co-researchers – Steven Shelton – came to New Mexico when I decided to euthanize some monkeys whose lives I thought were too miserable. Steve was also a friend of mine and actually had been a student at the University of New Mexico at one time before moving to Wisconsin.
HF: You eventually left animal experimentation and turned to your attention and time to the fields of clinical psychology and ethics. What prompted the evolution of your thoughts in this area?
JG: First, I started to question animal models of psychopathology. I never felt like they were very valid. When I finished clinical training at the University of Washington, I was left feeling that there were some real questions about the psychopathology models (models of depression, schizophrenia, etc.). Not one of my clinical mentors in clinical psychology ever talked about the animal experiments as being helpful in elucidating effective clinical interventions with suffering humans. To them, the studies appeared to be just irrelevant.
Then, more slowly, I came to realize the depth of the poverty and suffering of the lives of the animals in my own lab. I started to be able to see it. This was fueled by my interactions with veterinarians and students who had serious ethical and scientific questions about the experiments I was doing.
HF: What do Harlow’s other students think of your transition?
JG: Jon Lewis was another Wisconsin graduate student who had serious concerns about some of Harlow’s primate studies. He told me once that most of the group I had trained with at Wisconsin didn’t understand what had happened to me. I should say that I never tried to explain myself to them and neither did they ask me directly. Gene P. Sackett, with whom I earned my Masters degree at Wisconsin, and I have talked in recent years about my concerns. While he mostly disagrees with me he has said that he respects my work.
Harlow’s former editorial secretary, who also remains a good friend, has seen most of my critical writing. While she has offered suggestions about how to better express myself, she remains a staunch advocate of Harlow’s positive influence on the field of psychology. I learned recently that she gave her son, a writer and publisher, my papers on ethical problems with animal experimentation. He came to visit me recently and it was clear he thought my change was a very natural process and not a disloyal aberration.
HF: What do you think of the experiments that are being conducted at the National Institutes of Health and University of Wisconsin?
JG: There are a lot of obvious similarities between them.
I am very skeptical about the models they are trying to use to understand the effects of early adversity in children. The researchers use rearing conditions where infants are immediately removed from their mothers and live the first month in an incubator in order to monitor food intake and temperature. There the infant has access only to a soft inanimate surrogate for approximately one month. Then the infant is moved to a cage where [s/he] is paired with a second infant similarly raised, and the two baby monkeys stay in that situation for over a year. Members of the control group are infants who are permitted to live alone with their mothers during this time. It is quite a distortion to suggest that an infant living only with [her/his] mother is a “normal” control. If one looks at rearing in the natural environment, infants have access not only to their mothers but to other infants and monkeys of different ages and sexes. “Mother only” is not a normal condition.
It seems like rearing infants first with only an inanimate surrogate and then an age mate is like taking a developmental baseball bat and smacking them. The impact of this procedure is broad and crude. In a sense it is like the old total isolation experiments – expose infants to an empty environment and test what behaviors remain and what happens to their physiology. These researchers are not cruel people I am sure, but they seem to me to be scientifically desperate. No doubt the monkey infants will be changed neurologically and behaviorally by this treatment, but how then do you unravel what was responsible for what changes?
What changes when you remove a mother from an infant’s environment? A source of warmth, protection, facial communication – monkeys looking at faces is an important part of their development. Mothers are a source of information about what things mean – what should be and should not be frightening, what sounds to be and to not be concerned about. Mothers can show their babies it is “okay to get a little scared” – they teach them how to be resilient. A mother is a source of highly variable social transactions which are so crucial in development…all of that and more is absent.
Basically, the researchers are introducing a tremendous developmental insult in an attempt to mimic neglect, physical and/or sexual trauma in a human infant – I don’t see how it maps on to that world and to the world of therapy where medications are only rarely useful. Therapy is much about developing trust and helping individuals to reduce the power of abuse-related tendencies and powerful memories.
The researchers make the point a couple of times in the protocol that the experimental monkeys do not suffer as much as abused human infants. With all due respect, how do they know that? It may be a wish that suggests their basic humanity but it is a pretty questionable assumption on their part. We as humans are not very good at identifying pain and suffering in our own species let alone a totally different primate species like a rhesus monkey.
What they know is that when you use these devastating developmental manipulations the brain changes. That they know.
Another point on the protocol: When asked to entertain possible alternatives to their adverse procedures, the researchers say that other studies with bonnet macaques which have used a variable foraging model – this creates stress on the mother by making food availability highly uncertain which therefore interrupts normal mother-infant interactions – the researchers doubted whether the procedure would generalize to rhesus macaques. How do they raise questions about generalizability between old world monkey species but not about how experiments on monkeys would generalize to humans?
HF: Some have claimed that today’s maternal deprivation experiments are different. Are they really though?
JG: They are to some extent – at least the infants have some surrogate not just an empty cage, but a surrogate and a peer. You put young infants together and they primarily cling onto one another. I suppose it would make a difference to have another warm body – but it isn’t like that situation doesn’t create highly abnormal monkeys.
This is just about degrees of suffering – at what point does it not make much of a difference anymore what you do?
HF: It is sort of like a tortured child in solitary confinement versus keeping a tortured child with another tortured child.
JG: Good analogy.
The researchers seem to be working very hard to think of these testing situations as not terribly problematic. When discussing the removal of mother-reared infants for the purpose of testing they actually likened it to humans dropping off their kids at a babysitter. When my wife and I dropped off our kids with a babysitter, it was with someone who knew something about caring and comfort. We certainly didn’t anticipate that the sitter was going to test their response to blood draws and frightening human intruders.
HF: What do you think of the public response to the experiments?
JG: Madison is a community of highly educated people. Historically, there has been a lot of concern expressed for various kinds of social harm. Apparently, large segments of the population in Madison question whether this is valuable research, particularly in light of the harms that are produced. They want to play a part in determining that the university they love and support is involved in research they support – I wish more communities were so involved.
This is a community that during the Vietnam War was trying to get Dow chemical research support off the university campus since they made instruments of war. Their opposition to these experiments is an extension of that general concern. They want the university to express values the community can get behind. They have high expectations for the university.
I remember having a conversation with a president emeritus of the university – President E. B. Fred, who had a house on campus around 1970. He had published a book on all the memorials on campus. I got a copy and wanted to send it to my mother to thank her for paying for my education. As I sat down and talked with him I asked him to autograph his book for my mother. At the time, it was a campus enflamed in political activism. The National Guard was gassing demonstrating students on a regular basis. I asked him what he thought of these rough interactions. He said he was a politically conservative person but that he wanted to see the concern expressed. That’s the sign of a healthy university community, he said.
HF: What is your vision for a more ethical and appropriate framework for studying psychiatric disorders?
JG: People underestimate what can be done ethically with humans.
There was a study published fairly recently out of the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin. The study compared images of the brains of abused children from different categories – neglected or sexually abused children, with children who were not abused. It was done in a noninvasive and ethical way. They found important differences in the volumes of several brain structures associated with emotional functioning.
While it is true you couldn’t do the Kalin study in humans, that’s not to say you can’t do studies ethically and compassionately in humans that will open the door to knowledge about abuse and neurological changes.
To hear people say that this is the only way you can study this just tells me how little people have committed attention to creating alternatives.