Science Service, Up Close: The Sleeplessness Study, Part 1 - Insomniacs

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.

Students who volunteered as subjects in the George Washington University “Sleeplessness Test,” August 14-16, 1925. Left to right: Louise Omwake, Katherine Tait Omwake, Thelma Hunt, and Alice Haines. Record Unit 7091: Science Service, Records, 1902-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. SIA2015-006867.

Participants in the George Washington University “Sleeplessness Test” weekend, August 14-16, 1925. Back row (left to right): Lester Marshall Petrie, William Middleton, Alice Louise Browning Middleton, Thelma Hunt, Fred August Moss, and Watson Hiner Monroe. Front row (left to right): Alice Haines, Robert Spencer Ward, Katherine Tait Omwake, and Louise Omwake. Record Unit 7091: Science Service, Records, 1902-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. SIA2015-006868.

Katherine Tait Omwake, Louise Omwake, Thelma Hunt, and Alice Haines, George Washington University “Sleeplessness Test,” August 14-16, 1925. Record Unit 7091: Science Service, Records, 1902-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. SIA2015-006869.

Thelma Hunt, parking a car in front of the George Washington University Home Economics Department, Washington, D.C., August 1925. Record Unit 7091: Science Service, Records, 1902-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. SIA2015-006870.

Thelma Hunt, parking a car in front of the George Washington University Home Economics Department, Washington, D.C., August 1925. Record Unit 7091: Science Service, Records, 1902-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. SIA2015-006871.

Alice Haines, parking a car in front of the George Washington University Home Economics Department, Washington, D.C., August 1925. Record Unit 7091: Science Service, Records, 1902-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. SIA2015-006872.

Participants in the George Washington University “Sleeplessness Test” weekend, August 14-16, 1925. Standing left to right: Alice Haines, Louise Omwake, Katherine Tait Omwake, Thelma Hunt, Lester Marshall Petrie, Watson Hiner Monroe, and Fred August Moss. Visible at right inside doorway is William Middleton. Record Unit 7091: Science Service, Records, 1902-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. SIA2015-006873.

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 have 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.

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