Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine




Curt Richter, the man known as the "father of the biological clock," worked for nearly 60 years at Hopkins. The vast hoard of data he left behind is an archivist's dream--and nightmare.

O N    C A M P U S E S

Preserving the Life of a Lab
By Lynne Lamberg

Time tarried for a while in the laboratory where psychobiologist Curt Richter spent nearly six decades on the Johns Hopkins medical campus, a seemingly fitting homage to the father of the biological clock.

As recently as 10 years ago, a visitor to Suite 318 in the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic (now the Frank Houck Building) could still find well-worn laboratory benches, Bunsen burners, brass microscopes, 20-drawer oak cabinets crammed with charts, leather-bound record books, skeletons, and walls festooned with photos of some of the 20,000 monkeys, sloths, squirrels, alligators, porcupines, beavers, bears, rats, and other animals Richter observed, many for their entire lifespans.

When Richter died in 1988, he left behind meticulous records on all of them: a collection totaling more than 1,100 cubic feet. "The records are unprecedented in their volume and scope," says Nancy McCall, director of the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. McCall and her staff have taken on the challenge of bringing Richter's lab back to life by making his data accessible to future researchers.

The material is simultaneously an archivist's dream and nightmare: logbooks and graphs on crumbling paper with notations in fading markers, charts composed of long, narrow strips of daily activity records now coming unglued, lantern slides, and more--and all of it contaminated by lead dust from deteriorating plaster and paint in the laboratory.

Richter, a 1917 graduate of Harvard University and fresh out of the Army, came to Hopkins in 1919 to study under John B. Watson, the founder of behavioral psychology. Given a cage of rats by Watson, Richter supplied bread and milk and sat down to watch. "They just jumped all around the cage and climbed around for periods and then were quiet again," he wrote in his first paper in 1922. "I could not help but wonder what made them active." This curiosity about what he called "self-organizing" behavior set the stage for his life work.

Richter's interests were encyclopedic. He:

  • localized the master clock in the brain that generates daily cycles of waking, sleeping, eating, drinking, running, and other activities;

  • showed that deprivation of salt, protein, fat, and other nutrients sparks specific hungers for the missing substances;

  • discovered how "learned helplessness" develops;

  • improved public health by devising strategies to eradicate rats on Baltimore's streets;

  • boosted understanding of cycles in depression and other mental illnesses;

  • anticipated modern chaos theory by accounting for seemingly random aspects of medical illness.

  • Richter left behind records "unprecedented in their volume and scope." In photo at top, Richter tests a newborn's grasping reflex.
    Photos courtesy Johns Hopkins Medical School Archives
    RESEARCHERS IN NUMEROUS FIELDS hail Richter as one of their founders. "He was one of the 20th century's great biologists and psychologists," says Paul McHugh, director of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Hopkins's School of Medicine, comparing him to Pavlov and Cannon in his versatility, energy, and intellectual influence. McHugh, who lunched on crabcakes and lemonade with Richter regularly for many years, said in a recent interview, "Richter knew what was happening and what was going on. He studied both behaviors and the intrinsic mechanisms controlling them."

    Richter became director of the psychobiology laboratory in 1922, soon after receiving his PhD. Watson had been asked to resign in 1920 after his extramarital affair with a graduate student came to light. Adolph Meyer, Hopkins's legendary chief of psychiatry, groomed the young Richter to be Watson's successor.

    Although Richter wrote more than 375 scientific papers and two books, he also left vast amounts of unanalyzed data. Without McCall and her colleagues, Richter's legacy might have been crated and warehoused, or perhaps worse yet, trundled to a landfill.

    Convinced that they had a treasure in their hands, the archivists staged a cyberconference, starting in July 1996, to solicit advice from anybody, anywhere in the world, on how to preserve the records electronically and put them to use. Other archivists, contemporary neuroscientists, anthropologists, historians, sociologists, and students in all of these fields are among those who have joined in.

    Visitors to the still active World Wide Web conference site-- can learn about the nature and scope of Richter's data and about preservation and lead abatement issues. They will find the history of the psychobiology laboratory and Richter's philosophy. They can read his biography and bibliography, learn about the social and scientific organization of the eight-room lab and its staff, and see photos of lab work in action. They also will find selections from Richter's data and examples of this material in electronic formats, and they can enter their comments.

    Funding for the cyberconference came from the School of Medicine, with support provided to McCall and Lisa Mix, another Hopkins medical archivist, in conjunction with research fellowships for the study of modern archives. The fellowships came from the University of Michigan, with additional funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Marjorie Kehoe, of the medical archives staff, designed the Web site.

    The archivists are applying for grants from the National Library of Medicine and other sources to aid the preservation project. Because it would be prohibitively expensive to put all Richter's data on-line--estimates run into the millions of dollars--the archivists will select key parts of the material, aiming to provide original data for the published articles. They hope the project will prove a model for other archivists to use with other sets of records.

    Meanwhile, the publisher of Richter's 1965 book, Biological Clocks in Medicine and Psychiatry, Charles C. Thomas, has given them permission to put the book on the Web. "This will be an experiment in publishing," McCall says. "Since Richter didn't write out his research protocols, it's difficult to present his raw data without a context. His publications in essence are his protocols." The archivists will amplify the existing book with original data; they hope to enlist in the process the digital knowledge center at the MSE Library.

    It appears that the pendulum on the Richter clock has been set into motion again. In this, the Richter archives are unique. "There is no comparable collection elsewhere," McCall says. The trend, she adds, is to collect the papers of clinicians, not bench scientists. "Archivists often don't understand the basic science, and investigators have been passive about preserving their work."

    McCall urges scientists to save their lab notebooks and drafts of articles, along with their correspondence, both e-mail and traditional letters. "Make recordings of lectures, talks, and interviews, and keep artifacts, such as equipment or instrumentation, that is particularly significant to research findings," she suggests. "If it's big, take pictures of it."

    Today's scientists might do well to heed words that Richter kept prominently displayed on a bulletin board just inside the laboratory entrance: "Beyond the sundown is tomorrow's wisdom. Today is going to be long, long ago."

    Lynne Lamberg is the author of Bodyrhythms: Chronobiology and Peak Performance (Morrow, 1994). She lives in Baltimore.