A Brief History of the
Psychobiology Laboratory (1908 - 1989)

by Nancy McCall

The Psychobiology Laboratory was located in the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic of The Johns Hopkins Hospital and The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

Principal activities of the Psychobiology Laboratory included basic and applied research, teaching and training of students, and diagnostic testing of patients.

Establishment (1908-1916)
Shifting the Focus (1921-1922)
The Enterprise of Richter's Laboratory (1922-1978)
The Long Farewell (1978-1989)

Establishment (1908-1916)

In 1908 Henry Phipps, the wealthy industrialist from Pittsburgh, donated funds to The Johns Hopkins Hospital for the establishment of a psychiatric clinic. Officials at Johns Hopkins recruited Adolf Meyer, the eminent Swiss psychiatrist, to direct the proposed clinic. One of his first responsibilities was to oversee the architectural planning and construction of the clinic.

Meyer and the architect Grosvenor Atterbury embarked upon a comprehensive and highly idealized planning process which included tours of the most modern and highly regarded clinics in Europe. Meyer's goal was to develop a facility that would support the integrated functions of patient care, research, and teaching.

To incorporate functional needs in the architectural design, Meyer and Atterbury involved the clinicians and scientists who were scheduled to occupy space in the clinic in its planning. (Architectural plans.) Since Meyer had selected John B. Watson, the behavioral psychologist, to direct the proposed psychology laboratory, he and the architect sought Watson's collaboration at various stages of design and construction.

In 1913, when the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic opened, the press and professional journals proclaimed that it was one of the finest facilities of its kind. (Views of the clinic, exterior and interior.)

Due to a budgetary deficit, the psychology laboratory was not completed until 1916. While Meyer sought additional funding, he, Atterbury, and Watson continued to plan for the highly specialized functions of the laboratory.


(Watson's recommendation for electrical wiring.)

Watson occupied the laboratory for only a short period. In 1920, the president of the university requested Watson's resignation after he had become involved in an extramarital affair with his graduate assistant. As the shock of Watson's sudden departure subsided, Meyer began to groom Curt P. Richter, a doctoral student of Watson's, for the directorship of the laboratory. Richter completed his Ph.D. in 1921; Meyer appointed him director of the laboratory in 1922.


Shifting the Focus of the Psychology Laboratory
from Behaviorism to Psychobiology (1921-1922)

Meyer was pleased to have found that Richter shared his research interest in the biological basis of behavior. Although Richter had been a student of Watson, the imposing behaviorist, the topic of his doctoral research was spontaneous activity. With Richter's appointment and Meyer's encouragement, psychobiology became the basic orientation of the laboratory. The Psychology Laboratory was renamed the Psychobiology Laboratory.


The Enterprise of Richter's Laboratory (1922-1978)

Curt Richter had a talent for laboratory organization and operation. His early association with his family's iron factory in Colorado had undoubtedly provided him with models of industrial organization and honed his mechanical skills. Familiar with assembly-line practice and division of labor, he was able to conceptualize experiments in terms of the workforce that would be needed to conduct them.

With his mechanical knowledge and manual dexterity, he was able to design and construct a large part of his own laboratory apparatus and instrumentation. Moreover, his adeptness with instruments enabled him to develop expertise in animal surgery and to devise new means for creating and plotting data.

From his industrious German family, Richter had acquired a strong work ethic and high standards of performance. With the discipline of his upbringing, he was well prepared for the rigor of laboratory research. (See poster session on the Modus Operandi of Curt P. Richter.)

Richter was able to assemble, train, and keep an exceptional staff. Although he was quietly authoritarian in his leadership, he inspired the respect, loyalty, and affection of his laboratory staff. (See poster session on Social and Scientific Organization in the Psychobiology Laboratory.)

From the many accounts of former staff, the Psychobiology Laboratory under Curt P. Richter appears to have been an enjoyable workplace. He had a whimsical sense of humor and could easily laugh at himself. This engaging sense of fun helped to create a light and friendly ambience in the laboratory environment. In this spirit of the workplace, the principal investigator and his closely-knit team were enormously productive in their collective and individual endeavors.


The Long Farewell: Closing the Psychobiology Laboratory (1978 - 1989)

In 1978, Richter disbanded his animal colonies, equipment, and technical staff. However, he retained the laboratory space, secretarial assistance, and nearly six decades of research data. Records, from logbooks to activity charts and Esterline Angus charts, lined every wall. Richter had intended to do several major projects in the twilight of his career. One was to publish a book of animal surgery from the laboratory's vast collection of drawings and photographs. Another was to review and reinterpret old data in light of new knowledge and with more recent methods of data analysis.(1)

While Richter did publish several articles in his post-retirement years, failing health prevented him from completing the major works that he had intended to produce. When well enough, he enjoyed spending time amidst his records and, most of all, the visits of faculty and students.

In 1982, the department of psychiatry moved to new quarters that were named in honor of Adolf Meyer. The Phipps building was renovated and renamed for Frank Houck, a former assistant director of the hospital who had left a large estate for the maintenance of the hospital's buildings.

Despite the move of the psychiatry department to the new Meyer building, Richter refused to vacate the laboratory space and firmly stood his ground without heat or air conditioning as the rest of the Houck Building was renovated. Although hospital and university administrators had offered Richter alternative sites for an office, he would not consider a smaller space that could not accommodate his massive collection of data.

Shortly after Richter's death in 1988, administrators requested that the staff of the Medical Archives dismantle the laboratory and move the records and remaining equipment to an offsite warehouse. Before the move was undertaken, the Medical Archives and Department of Psychiatry held a "deconsecration" of the Psychobiology Laboratory with Richter's family, friends, and former staff and students.

As the staff of the Medical Archives began to inventory the contents of the Psychobiology Laboratory, they became concerned about the quantities of crumbling plaster and flaking paint on equipment and records on open shelves. They contacted environmental health specialists who, after finding high levels of lead in the paint and plaster dust, declared the laboratory to be a hazardous site.

A lead abatement firm worked with hepa-vacs and other cleaning equipment to remove paint and plaster dust from open surfaces in the laboratory. The Medical Archives staff proceeded with the move, which they completed in November 1989.

The surviving records of the Psychobiology Laboratory are largely the documentation of research activities. There is very little documentation of laboratory administration, finance, personnel, and grant and contractual projects. It appears that nearly all of the non-research documentation may have been destroyed. The administrative and other non-research records of the Psychobiology Laboratory had been placed in a storage area at another location in the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic. During renovations of the building, workers cleared the storage area and threw away the records.

Fortunately, some documentation relevant to the history of the Psychobiology Laboratory exists in other archival holdings at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere. For example, the Adolf Meyer papers in the Chesney Medical Archives contain significant documentation about the origins and development of the Psychobiology Laboratory.

The imbalance that exists between the abundance of research data and the scarcity of administrative documentation requires implementing two archival strategies. First, the abundance of research data makes it necessary to develop stringent criteria for selecting the body of research data to be preserved. On the other hand, in order to compensate for gaps in administrative documentation, it is necessary to develop criteria for creating new records such as oral histories.




1. Personal communication from Eliot Stellar to Nancy McCall, 3 January 1990.



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