Archive - 2011
Volume 24 - Part 5 - (May 2011)
Looking back: Finding Little Albert
Hall P. Beck, with Gary Irons, reports on a seven-year search for psychology’s lost boy
In 1920 the British Psychological Society invited John Broadus Watson to address a symposium on behaviourism (Watson, 1920). Watson was disappointed that his university was unable to fund his crossing. This article provides new information about a study Watson would most likely have presented to the Society had his monetary circumstances been more favourable.
In the winter of 1919/20, Watson and his graduate assistant, Rosalie Alberta Rayner, attempted to condition a baby boy, Albert B., to fear a white laboratory rat (Watson & Rayner, 1920). They later reported that the child’s fear generalised to other furry objects. The ‘Little Albert’ investigation was the last published study of Watson’s academic career. Watson and Rayner became embroiled in a scandalous affair, culminating in his divorce and dismissal from Johns Hopkins.
Despite its methodological shortcomings and questionable ethics (Cornwell & Hobbs, 1976; Samelson, 1980), the attempted conditioning of Albert is a staple in psychology textbooks and one of the most influential investigations in the discipline. The continuing appeal of Watson and Rayner’s research is not solely due to the importance of their purported findings. Much of the fascination with the study is attributable to Albert himself.
After the last day of testing, Albert left his home on the Johns Hopkins campus. His disappearance created one of the greatest mysteries in the history of psychology. ‘Whatever happened to Little Albert?’ is a question that has intrigued generations of students and professional psychologists (Harris, 1979). This article is a detective story summarising the efforts of my co-authors, my students and myself to resolve a 90-year-old cold case.
What was known about Albert
In addition to written descriptions, a movie that Watson (1923) made of Albert and other infants provided a critical information source. By concurrently examining the investigators’ write-up, the movie and Watson’s correspondence with President Goodnow of Johns Hopkins we determined that Albert was born between 2 March and 16 March 1919. Adding 12 months 21 days, the age of the last assessment, to the birth date indicated that data collection concluded between 23 March and 6 April, 1920. The process by which these dates were derived is more fully described elsewhere (Beck et al., 2009).
We had learned a great deal about Albert. Now came the most difficult part of our inquiry: finding an individual whose characteristics matched Albert’s attributes.
Traces of Albert
Efforts to uncover patient and employee records at Hopkins were equally futile. With no private papers, no patient records, and no employee records to guide us, we were without direction. At this point, we could only confirm why previous attempts to find Albert had failed.
If I had thought through the implications of the information Watson and Rayner provided, I would have known where to look for Albert on the initial day of our inquiry. Two of the first facts we learned were that the investigation was performed during the winter of 1919/20 and that Albert and his mother lived on the Hopkins campus. In 1920 a census was conducted throughout the US. If a census was taken at Hopkins then it might include Albert’s mother and perhaps Albert.
On 2 January 1920 a census taker recorded the names of 379 persons residing on the Hopkins campus (US Bureau of the Census, 1920). I downloaded a copy of the census, but did not have time to study it. I was packing for Germany to conduct a series of human–computer interaction studies.
The census provides a clue
Her attention was caught by the census. No one under 14-years-old was listed even though Watson and other sources indicate that children were living on campus. Almost everyone on the census was single, divorced or widowed, so it is reasonable to speculate that the census taker never asked about children.
Neither were any wet nurses included on the census. Three women, Pearl Barger, Ethel Carter, and Arvilla Merritte, however, were listed as ‘foster mothers’. Foster mother is an occupation encompassing a variety of activities involving the maternal care of another’s child. Levinson’s discovery of the foster mothers gave our inquiry new direction, but did not constitute proof that these women were wet nurses. After returning to the United States, my students and I set out to discover whether Pearl Barger, Ethel Carter, and Arvilla Merritte were lactating during the winter of 1919/20.
Ethel Carter gave birth on 26 August 1920 at Hopkins. She could have been a wet nurse and probably knew Albert. Ethel, however, was not Albert’s mother. She was a black woman and her child was a female.
Arvilla Merritte was a 22-year-old Caucasian. On 9 March 1919, she delivered a boy (‘Baby Merritte’) on the Hopkins campus (Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 1919). The father was listed as William Merritte.
Further searches for Arvilla Merritte yielded no additional information. Like Albert and Pearl, she had disappeared. For months, Levinson, my students and I searched for clues, finally noticing that an unknown individual had jotted down Arvilla’s maiden name on the birth record:?‘Irons’. Maiden names were not typically included on these documents, so I asked myself: What motivated someone to add it to this record? Did the record keeper believe that Arvilla was unmarried? One of my most trusted students was assigned to investigate.
The breakthrough came when she entered ‘Arvilla Irons’ into a genealogical database. Suddenly, the ancestors and descendents of the foster mother appeared across her screen. Arvilla’s grandson, Larry Irons, left an e-mail address so relatives might contact him. I responded, describing the importance of Albert to psychology, and requesting further contact.
Meeting the Irons family
Could Douglas be Little Albert? Descriptions of the Harriet Lane Home (Howland, 1912–1913; Park, 1957) and blueprints of the facility suggest that there were never many, probably no more than four in-residence wet nurses at any time. Douglas was certainly at Hopkins when Albert was tested, but was he Albert or Albert’s nursery mate?
What is the likelihood that a Harriet Lane Home wet nurse would give birth to a male between 2 March and 16 March? To better record my own reasoning, I made my assumptions explicit. If half the babies were male and births were randomly distributed throughout the year, then the probability that the child would be male and born in this period would be 1 in 52 (1/2 x 1/26). Although my assumptions were estimates, the calculations definitely showed that it was unlikely that anyone other than Albert would share these attributes.
The strongest argument against Douglas is his name. Why did Watson not refer to the baby as Douglas? As we will see, Arvilla was reluctant to share aspects of her personal life. Although it is possible that Arvilla requested anonymity, a more probable explanation is that Watson did not know the baby’s name. In 1920 Hopkins was a very stratified social environment (Park, n.d.). Interactions between professors and wet nurses were almost solely restricted to professional matters.
But why call the child Albert B.? At the 2008 meeting of the Southeastern Psychological Association, I asked the eminent Watson scholar, Charles Brewer that question. He reminded me that Watson was named after a prominent Baptist minister, John Albert Broadus.
Naming Albert for his own namesake might not have been Watson’s only playful use of names. John and Rosalie married soon after Watson’s divorce. They had two children, William and James. Perhaps it is coincidence, but it is interesting that Watson greatly admired his predecessor, the philosopher-psychologist, William James.
In 1918 Arvilla became pregnant again. Later that year or in early 1919, she moved to Baltimore, leaving her parents to raise Maurice. Before giving birth, she lived in the Baltimore Home for Fallen and Friendless Women, a Christian facility 1.1 km from the Hopkins campus.
Arvilla went to work at Harriet Lane shortly after Douglas’ birth. In the early 1920s, she and Douglas left Hopkins and moved into the home of Raymond Brashears, a farmer in the area of Mount Airy, Maryland. Raymond’s wife, Flora, was very ill; she needed help fulfilling her domestic duties and caring for her young daughter. Flora succumbed to meningitis on 15 May 1924 (‘Deaths: Mrs. Flora Belle Brashears’, 1924).
In 1926 Arvilla married Wilbur Hood. Thirteen years later, a daughter, Gwendolyn, was born to the couple. ‘Hoody’ and Arvilla grew apart after Gwendolyn’s birth and divorced in the 1940s. Arvilla’s senior years were healthy and vigorous. She died in 1988, leaving behind a trunk containing her most precious possessions, the landmarks of her life.
Following her mother’s funeral, Gwendolyn discovered two photographic portraits in the trunk. One was of Maurice when he was four or five years old. The second was of a baby she did not recognise. Puzzled, Gwendolyn asked if Gary knew who the child was.
Many years before, Gary had inadvertently come across the open
Comparing the portrait and film
After the portrait arrived, several colleagues compared Douglas’ photograph to stills of Albert made from the Watson movie. No one saw any features indicating that the two boys could not be the same person. Therefore, I felt that a more expert assessment was justified.
The principal shortcoming with the photographic evidence was that we did not know Douglas’ age when the portrait was taken. Babies’ facial features rapidly change making positive identification impossible. The quality of Watson’s movie was another problem. Albert’s eyes look like black dots; it was not possible to determine where the eye sockets began and ended. Enlarging stills from the movie brought forth some features, but the resolution was poor. Although we could not confirm that the two boys were the same individual, a disconfirmation might be possible. In other words, the baby’s features might be so different that they could not be the same individual.
Money is no object if you have none. When in need, I have always depended upon the kindness of scientists. Friends called friends and I was eventually put in contact with Dr William Rodriguez of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. He graciously consented to compare Douglas’s portrait with a number of stills of Albert.
As expected, Rodriguez (personal communication, 13 June 2008) noted
that the fast rate of tissue growth during infancy precluded a definitive identification of Albert. He then addressed the question: Did the photographic evidence reveal that Douglas and Albert were different people?
'My examination using a simplified cross sectional ratio comparison appears to suggest that one cannot exclude the subject in question as possibly being baby Albert. There are certainly facial similarities based upon my observations even taking into account the differential chronological age of the subjects depicted. In conclusion the two photographs could be the same individual' (personal communication, 13 June, 2008).
Standing beside Douglas’ grave, my prevailing feeling was one of loneliness. Douglas never grew up; our search was longer than the child’s life. The quest, which had for so long been a part of my life, was over. I put flowers beside my little friend and said goodbye.
To conclude that Douglas’s story ended in a rural Maryland graveyard overlooks much of the significance of his life. Although we found no indication that Watson and Rayner’s procedures provoked criticism in the 1920s, Douglas’s treatment now exemplifies the need for an ethical code to protect the rights of participants. All behaviour therapies trace their lineage to Mary Cover Jones’s (1924) counterconditioning of Peter, a follow-up to the Albert investigation. Watson and Rayner’s simple study of fear acquisition and generalisation encouraged the development of effective treatments for phobias and an array of other behavioural problems.
Box 1: Why are we drawn to Little Albert?
Albert’s fame is widespread. As much as Pavlov’s dogs, and Skinner’s pigeons, Albert is the face that psychology shows the general public. A more important, and often ignored role, is that stories, like that of Albert, are part of our collective memory. Our identification as psychologists is predicated upon a knowledge and appreciation of our mutual history.
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