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Modern-day sleep studies usually confine their experimental subjects within quiet, controlled environments and attach them to monitoring devices. For the seven student volunteers involved in the George Washington University (GWU) Sleeplessness Study, the weekend of August 14-16, 1925, was, instead, packed with lighthearted activities, many of them outdoors and documented by diligent observers.
The study's director, GWU psychology professor Fred August Moss (1893-1966), had approached Science Service with the idea for the weekend. Moss offered exclusive access to the news group because he believed they would not sensationalize the research. Science Service's biology editor Frank Thone privately regarded it as a "bughouse idea," but decided gamely "to go ahead with it and see what would happen." He and staff member Emily C. Davis wrote articles for the syndicate's clients, placing them in about a dozen newspapers. Thone also took photographs and interviewed the participants. Fortunately, his unpublished interview notes are preserved in the Smithsonian Institution Archive' Science Service collections.
As described in Part 1, the students spent their first night of "midsummer madness" driving in the countryside, "far away from reporters and bright lights" while "singing to the accompaniment of a 'uke' or mandolin." Louise Omwake (1907-2008) told Thone: "We were all alive and peppy, and if anyone contends that automobile rides bring on sleep I challenge him to ride with our crowd while we revive every song from 'K-K-K-Katy' to 'Who Takes Care'."
On Saturday afternoon, August 15, they played baseball. Moss initially intended to take the group to a National League game between the Washington and New York teams but decided against such a public appearance. The reporters whose papers had not purchased the Science Service coverage were beginning to hound the students. And so they "fled to the country and swelled the audience at a smaller but equally exciting ball game between two teams of youngsters," with Moss acting as umpire.
One unanticipated inconvenience for the volunteers was that the physiological tests affected their meal schedules. Medical School professor Oscar B. Hunter had insisted that breakfasts be postponed until after 8 a.m. Louise Omwake insisted in return that a chocolate bar, gobbled early one morning, was "candy" not "food." Louise was overruled and forced to wait hours before eating her next meal.
Sleep deprivation reportedly did not affect scores on the four intelligence tests administered during the weekend. The group may, in fact, have tuned their mental acuity by continually interspersing scientific testing with friendly verbal sparring. Thelma Hunt (1903-1992) explained that sleeplessness did not impair their ability to solve crossword puzzles or excel at vocabulary games. "Neither a night's sleep nor a dictionary was necessary to recall the meaning of 'erudite', the opposite of 'nonchalance', or a synonym for 'opulent'." (So, gentle readers, how did you do at that test?)
On Saturday night, they gathered for a supper party, danced until midnight, and then once again drove along country roads. The Boston Globe wrote that a favored dance tune that night was "Three O'Clock in the Morning." Nevertheless, Alice Haines (1904-1974) explained, the long hours without sleep began to have an effect: "The motion of the car was not conducive to wakefulness; the mandolin was picked vigorously for a while, then more softly, then not at all."
Dawn on Sunday signaled less than twelve hours to go. The afternoon's reward (and distraction) was a picnic excursion to Plummers Island, a wildlife preserve in the Potomac River. Purchased by the Washington Biologists' Field Club in 1908 (and now owned by the U.S. National Park Service), the twelve-acre island, nine miles from Washington, had been systematically studied by area scientists (including many Smithsonian staff) since 1899. William Middleton (1893-1970), an entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a graduate student in psychology at GWU, was a member of the Plummers Island club. He and his wife Alice Louise Browning Middleton (1896-1980) served as chaperones for the young people throughout the weekend.
For the groggy students, the island's diverse flora, fauna, and outcroppings apparently held little scientific interest. Instead, they imitated Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn ("We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness."). The more athletic and adventurous participants jumped into the water. Louise Omwake swam along the shore and even made it to the other side and back (the Potomac was about 500 feet at that spot).
The students who "scorned the river" and remained on the island later regretted the choice. Robert Spencer Ward (1906-1968) had taken and passed his final history exam mid-way through the weekend experiment. He later became a U.S. Foreign Service officer, posted in Canton and Peking during the 1930s and achieving distinction for insight into Asian politics. Displaying his wry sense of humor, Ward confessed to Thone that he had made a "valuable scientific discovery" during the island trip: "Chiggers make no distinction between people who have slept for the last 60 hours, and those who haven't. This will doubtless open a new field in biology."
For most of the group, the study ended at 6 p.m. on Sunday, but Lester Marshall Petrie (1901-1979) and Watson Hiner Monroe (1907-1992) agreed to remain awake for another eighteen hours. Although the two young men reportedly did "resort to caffeine," they stayed the course through Monday afternoon. Petrie stated that, after several sleepless nights, he was fine as long as he kept moving and did not sit down, a lesson that undoubtedly proved useful when he entered medical school and became a physician. Monroe, one of the brightest volunteers, made an almost perfect score on the intelligence test even at the end of his extended wakefulness period. He became a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, later summing up a lifetime of adventures in his aptly-titled autobiography, Memories of a Long and Happy Life (1993).
Songs, swims, siestas, snoozes, and "Nature's soft nurse" at the end of a scientific experiment. Sweet dreams!
- Who Takes Care Of The Caretaker's Daughter - Whitey Kaufman's Original Pennsylvania Serenaders
- The Washington Biologists' Field Club: Its Members and Its History (1900-2006)
- Watson Hiner Monroe, Scientific institutions of Washington (Washington [National Capital Press] 1933), published in conjunction with the International Geological Congress, XVI session, United States, 1933.
- Science Service collections at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
The fictional character Don Quixote described sleep as the great equalizer, as the "coin that purchases all the pleasures of the world cheap," for king and shepherd alike. In August 1925, a group of George Washington University (GWU) scientists persuaded seven students to forego such equalizing sleep for sixty hours. Beginning at 8 a.m. on Friday, August 14, and ending at 6 p.m. on Sunday, August 16, the volunteers embarked on a "three-day insomnia spree."
The research had a serious purpose: measuring the psychological and physiological effects of sleep deprivation. For the seven students - Louise Omwake (1907-2008), Katherine Tait Omwake (1903-1993), Thelma Hunt (1903-1992), Alice Haines (1904-1974), Robert Spencer Ward (1906-1968), Lester Marshall Petrie (1901-1979), and Watson Hiner Monroe (1907-1992) - the weekend quickly became a music- and laughter-infused lark.
The "Sleeplessness" study was the brainchild of psychology professor Fred August Moss (1893-1966). Moss was charismatic, attractive, and ambitious. He had received an A.B. from GWU in 1921 and his Ph.D. the next year while already on the faculty. By 1925, Moss was head of the psychology department. His research was focusing on automobile safety issues, such as how to measure reaction times or driver skills. Students "clamored" to take his classes, not the least because of his showmanship. In one stunt, Moss pulled white rats out of his pockets, named them "Anthony" and "Cleopatra," and proceeded to demonstrate that their drive for food was greater than their drive for sex.
The weekend proved to be an exercise in compatibility and comradeship as well as science. Although all the students had gone to classes or part-time jobs during the day, they joined up for supper and a theatre outing on Friday night. Given what was playing that weekend in Washington, it is probable that they attended a production of Guy Bolton's Chicken Feed, or Wages for Wives at the National Theater, about a mile from the university. That comedy's theme (townswomen move into a hotel, vowing not to return home until husbands and fathers acknowledge the value of "unsalaried" housework) would undoubtedly appealed to the study's four female participants, all of them on the brink of extraordinary professional lives.
The Omwake sisters eventually became psychology professors. The younger sister, 17-year-old Louise, was an excellent student and a star athlete, especially in basketball and tennis. Louise was also a loyal friend, receiving public praise in 1928 for offering a blood transfusion for a fellow student. By 1931, Louise had earned a Ph.D. at GWU and joined the psychology department at the University of Minnesota, embarking on an academic career that included widely cited research on humor and path-breaking work on early childhood education (she organized the first White House Conference on Education in 1956). Her most ambitious out-of-classroom adventure, however, may have been sailing to Hawaii and back on the schooner Invader during the summer of 1941, a feat she documented in a colorful memoir.
Louise's older sister Katherine Tait Omwake preferred the adventure of undergraduate teaching. Katherine earned three degrees (A.B., M.A., and Ph.D.) at GWU, and by 1930 had joined the faculty of Agnes Scott College, focusing on applied psychology and continuing to work and co-publish with Moss and her friend from high school, Thelma Hunt.
In 1925, Thelma Hunt was described by a journalist as "one of those modern young women who without losing their attractiveness manage to become astonishingly learned Portias." She spent most of her impressive academic career as a member of the GWU faculty. After graduating from high school in 1921 (her classmates included Leonard Carmichael, who would later head the Smithsonian Institution), she rapidly earned an A.B. (1924), M.A. (1925), and Ph.D. (1927) at GWU. While studying for her graduate degrees, Hunt worked part-time at the U.S. Civil Service Commission, and later made significant contributions to employment and admissions test construction. In 1928, she began to study medicine at GWU, earning an M.D. in 1935. In 1938, she became head of the university's psychology department, and continued to teach full-time until 1969.
One of the weekend's tests required the weary volunteers to parallel park, maneuvering a black "Lizzie" into a tight spot on the street outside university buildings. In news photographs of the stunt, Alice Haines leans on the car door, her face radiating confidence and resolution. In 1926, Haines was named the outstanding GWU senior for both scholastic and athletic accomplishments. Her life after graduation included study in Germany, and then a job in New York City as illustrations editor for Encyclopedia Britannica. In 1930, she moved to Hollywood to work for Warner Brothers, where a serious illness (described as poliomyelitis) left her blind. Undaunted, she returned to the East Coast and began planning a new adventure. With no previous agricultural experience, she bought a dilapidated Virginia property and turned it into a model poultry and sheep farm, operating it for almost three decades. In 1953, when chicken and ewe thieves repeatedly stole her livestock, she had characteristically shifted gears and begun growing and selling sod for suburban lawns.
After attending the theater on Friday night, the seven young men and women had played games at a professor's home, took periodic intelligence tests, and spent their first sleepless night driving along deserted Virginia roads. "Being students of psychology," Science Service journalist Frank Thone wrote, "they voted down the idea of singing any popular songs suggesting sleep, but the old song 'When Do We Eat?' was rendered lustily." As "Sleeplessness, Part 2" will describe, the insomniacs had discovered that missing a meal could sometimes matter as much as missing sleep - or counting sheep.
- Louise Omwake account of her 1941 voyage from California to Hawaii
- Thelma Hunt biography, George Washington University
- Biography of Fred Moss, Ashville Citizen-Times, December 19, 1965, Fred Moss Charity Trust
- Science Service collections at the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- If you are looking for an exciting livestream, check out the University of Arizona, who's playing host to two baby hummingbirds. [via Wired]
- The world's oldest multicolored printed book has been opened and digitized for the first time. [via Colossal]
- The power of the user - Library users at the Los Altos main library in California rejected the new online catalog in favor of the old one. [via InfoDocket]
- For your viewing pleasure NASA is now on Tumblr. [via The Verge]
- The National Archives UK has redesigned the "Records" section of their website to help users find what they are looking for. [via The National Archives Blog]
- History in the making - The invention of digital photography at Kodak. [via Lens blog, NYT]
- Exactly how do you put on an Apollo spacesuit? The folks at the National Air and Space Museum explain. [via AirSpace blog, NASM]
- One step closer to Mars - Astronauts taste lettuce grown on the International Space Station. [via The Verge]
As an intern in the Institutional History Division of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I have had the pleasure of listening to the oral history interviews of Dr. Theodore Reed, Smithsonian National Zoological Park director from 1958-1984. Just like at the Smithsonian Museums, the National Zoo has always prided itself in its collections, particularly since the direction of Dr. Reed began.
Dr. Reed was a veterinarian first, a forerunner in the field, and procurer of some of the most unique animals from around the world, including endangered species. But these animals weren’t just for show. In 1975 Dr. Reed created the Conservation and Research Center (now Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute), a facility designed to study, breed and protect endangered animals, some of which hopefully will be released back in to the wild.
Some rare animals have lived at the National Zoo including giant pandas, black footed ferrets, clouded leopards, golden lion tamarins, Bactrian camels, and maned wolves. But one of the rarest animals ever to join the National Zoo collection was the white tiger. During a 1989 interview, Dr. Reed discussed the somewhat difficult procurement of the first white tiger in America. This magnificent animal was aptly named Mohini after the only female embodiment of the Hindu God Vishnu. Goddess Mohini was known to be an enchantress and sometimes even femme fatale. Mohini was among the first litter of white tigers in the world ever to be born in captivity. In 1960, Dr. Reed purchased Mohini in India for the sum of $10,000. Today, that would be around $80,000.
Contrary to popular belief, white tigers are not albino. Their very rare white fur color occurs when both parents contain a recessive gene that controls fur pigment (or the lack thereof). White tiger cubs can be born from two orange parents, one white and one orange parent, or two white parents. Because obtaining tigers with this recessive gene has proven to be so expensive and difficult, most of the captive white tigers in America today are direct descendants of Mohini. Mohini had only one white cub who survived, a male named Moni. But her orange cubs would have also possessed the white pigment gene, so they were bred to other tigers in hopes of producing white tiger offspring.
Eventually, the inbreeding of white tigers became problematic. Many of them had severe defects including shortened legs, kidney problems, crossed eyes, and psychological issues. Most white tigers didn’t survive past infancy. When the last white tiger at the National Zoo Panghur Ban (great grandson of Mohini) died in 2002, the National Zoo ceased the collection of white tigers.
Several zoos around the country continue to keep and breed white tigers in captivity, but due to ethical standards, the National Zoo will no longer do so. Current curator of Great Cats at the National Zoo Craig Saffoe explains, “We no longer house, manage or breed white tigers because it is not responsible (in terms of conservation) to do so.” Saffoe went on to say that the white fur gene might actually need to be bred out of tigers as it does not help them evolutionarily. White tigers are easily spotted by predators in the wild. In addition, white tigers tend to have genetic defects and die young, even if they are not inbred. While visitors to the National Zoo are no longer able to view white tigers, they can take pride in the fact that the Zoo strives to adhere to the highest ethical standards of animal care and will continue to keep the best interests of the animals and their conservation at the forefront of its work.
- Historic Images of the National Zoo, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- History of the National Zoo, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 9568 - Oral history interviews with Theodore H. Reed 1989-1994, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Scenes from the Scurlock Studio Collection at the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History. [via Smithsonian Collections Blog]
- Yeah! Another crowdfunding goal achieved - The University of Texas at Austin successfully funded a recording studio in the Fine Arts Library. [via InfoDocket]
- 70 years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, researchers are archiving the longest running study of A-bomb survivors. [via Motherboard]
- Opening this week is the National Postal Museum exhibition: PostSecret: The Power of a Postcard, which presents a contemporary look at mail and the postal service, highlighting the aesthetics of postcards and the juxtaposition between anonymity and shared experiences. [via Pushing the Envelope blog, NPM]
- Coming together - 100 year old images at Cambridge University's Museum of Archaeology and Antrhopology have been digitized and are being reunited with the communities they depict. [via Motherboard]
- Lonnie Bunch, Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture was on NPR last week talking about why he decided to start gathering items from the Ferguson protests and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement. [via NPR]
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