Science Service, Up Close: The Sleeplessness Study, Part 2 - Adventurers

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 Fortunately, his unpublished interview notes are preserved in the Smithsonian Institution Archive' Science Service collections.

Watson Hiner Monroe (at left, behind the wheel) and Katherine Tait Omwake and Thelma Hunt (visible in the back seat), participating in driving test as part of the George Washington University “Sleeplessness Test” weekend, August 14-16, 1925. Record Unit 7091: Science Service, Records, 1902-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. SIA2015-006874.

Watson Hiner Monroe (at left, behind the wheel) and Katherine Tait Omwake and Thelma Hunt (visible in the back seat), participating in driving test as part of the George Washington University “Sleeplessness Test” weekend, August 14-16, 1925. Record Unit 7091: Science Service, Records, 1902-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. SIA2015-006875.

Alice Haines (outside at left), Robert Spencer Ward, and Thelma Hunt (at right, behind the wheel), participating in the George Washington University “Sleeplessness Test” weekend, August 14-16, 1925. Record Unit 7091: Science Service, Records, 1902-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. SIA2015-006876.

Alice Haines (outside at left), Robert Spencer Ward, and Thelma Hunt (at right, behind the wheel), participating in the George Washington University “Sleeplessness Test” weekend, August 14-16, 1925. Record Unit 7091: Science Service, Records, 1902-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. SIA2015-006877.

Watson Hiner Monroe (at left, behind the wheel) and Thelma Hunt (visible in the back seat), participating in driving test as part of the George Washington University “Sleeplessness Test” weekend, August 14-16, 1925. Record Unit 7091: Science Service, Records, 1902-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. SIA2015-006878.

Participants in the George Washington University “Sleeplessness Test,” Saturday, August 15, 1925. In the foreground with her back to the camera is Alice Haines (1904-1974). Record Unit 7091: Science Service, Records, 1902-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. SIA2015-006879.

Fred August Moss (at left) umpires a softball game as part of the George Washington University “Sleeplessness Test” weekend, Saturday, August 15, 1925. Record Unit 7091: Science Service, Records, 1902-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives, image no. SIA2015-006880.

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. SIA2015-006881.

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!

Related Resources

Related Collections

Leave a Comment

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.