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Book Forum: Biography   |    
Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection
WILLIAM T. McKINNEY, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2003;160:2254-2255. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.160.12.2254
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By Deborah Blum. New York, Perseus Publishing, 2002, 336 pp., $26.00.

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Earlier this year I was at a national meeting where I heard a lecture by a prominent psychiatrist who disparaged the relevance of animal research to psychiatry, using examples of animal studies that on superficial analysis seemed to bear little resemblance to human behavior or psychopathology but revealing little awareness of the numerous advances that ensued as a result of the very experimental animal paradigms cited. In a similar vein, I can just imagine how Harry Harlow’s work with surrogates—cloth versus wire, stationary versus rocking, noisy versus quiet, weird faces versus pleasant faces—or putting rhesus monkeys in boxes to see how quickly they could learn tasks would have been received. Work with primates has revolutionized our understanding of human development and has provided the basis for ongoing studies of the short- and long-terms of early experience. It is amazing how quickly this has been forgotten, and this book reminds us all of the origins of much that we now assume.

Love at Goon Park is a marvelous and easy-to-read history of the development of what Deborah Blum terms the "science of affection"—a great phrase. She interweaves the biography of Harry Harlow with the development of the science of affection, combining historical scholarship with interviews of people who were involved in his life. As she says in the prologue, "I didn’t know whether I was going to like Harry Harlow. I thought, correctly, that he would be a sharp-edged subject—fascinating and troubling, and underneath the prickles the velvety gleam of brilliance." Incidentally, some of the interviewees in this book probably started out having some of the same thoughts about Deborah Blum on the basis of previous books that were not understanding of or friendly toward animal research in general. Yet, we provided her whatever historical and scientific material we could to help her do her job. The result is outstanding.

What we now assume regarding the basis of attachments was most definitely not assumed when Harlow was a graduate student at Stanford and when he began his work at the University of Wisconsin. In those days, psychologists and other mental health professionals argued vigorously against cuddling children and in general against the study and importance of emotions—certainly not love or affection. Most physicians sided with them, and newborns were sealed behind protective curtains to avoid the spread of germs. As Blum says, "Leaders in the field tended to dismiss behavior that couldn’t be measured or quantified." She carefully describes the history that formed the context in which Harlow’s pioneering work needs to be understood.

Also discussed in the book are the contributions of Harry Bakwin, John Bowlby, Katherine Wolf, William Goldfarb, David Levy, Loretta Bender, René Spitz, James Robertson, and others whose writings seriously questioned the prevailing notions of not cuddling infants or providing much love and affection. All of these people underwent professional ridicule and isolation as they presented their theories. It is a painful chapter in the field of human and animal development, and psychiatrists were prominent in promulgating this viewpoint. Harry Harlow played a major role in obtaining and presenting data, based on his experimental work with rhesus monkeys, to support the role of supportive physical contact and love in development. He took the field well beyond drive reduction as explaining the basis of attachments.

Love at Goon Park has a prologue, 10 chapters, an epilogue, and an extensive index of references. It is about love and affection, how they are studied in primates, and how important they are in human lives, including the subject of this book, Professor Harlow.

First, here are a few facts about Harry Harlow as Blum presents them in this book. (It would have been useful to have a table summarizing this as part of the book itself.) He was born in 1905 in Fairfield, Iowa, to Alonzo Harlow Israel and Mable Rock Israel. He was the third of four sons. One of his older brothers was chronically ill, and Harry says, "I have no memory of partial maternal separation, but I may have lost some percentage time of maternal affection and this deprivation may have resulted in consuming adolescent and adult loneliness." From early on he liked to write poetry and draw pictures. At age 17 he wanted to "be famous," but he made a prediction that he would more likely "end up insane." His parents wanted education for the boys, and three of them, including Harry, attended Stanford; Harry was the only one to graduate from there. Robert, the eldest brother, spent most of his career as chief psychiatrist at the state mental hospital in Warren, Pa.

Harry arrived at Stanford in 1924 and eventually became a graduate student in psychology working directly under Calvin Stone, a well-known animal behaviorist, and Walter Miles, a vision expert. Looming over all of them at Stanford was Lewis Terman, the developer of the Stanford-Binet IQ test. The book describes each of these three men and their respective relationships with Harry in interesting detail. Blum is extraordinarily skillful with words, e.g., "There was no doubt that self confidence was the order of the day when Harry was at Stanford." Some things never change. It is hard to believe, but Harry approached Stanford "with all the tentativeness and shyness you might expect from the son of a failed doctor in rural Iowa." He described himself as "a shy retiring youth with a rather poetic outlook on life. I tended to apologize to doors before opening them." He graduated from Stanford in 1930. On Terman’s insistence, he changed his last name from Israel to Harlow because of concern about the negative consequences of having what appeared to be a Jewish last name—although the family was not Jewish.

Harlow relocated from Stanford to Wisconsin for his first faculty position in 1930. He started his faculty life at the University of Wisconsin in Madison with a small office in the basement of a building and no laboratory. For many years the university showed no interest in providing him laboratory space. When they did, they provided him with an old building "on the wrong side of the Milwaukee Railroad tracks." How this old building over time became transformed into a nationally and internationally premier primate research facility is an interesting story that Blum tells well, integrating it into the history of Harlow’s scientific development.

The work was not easy in the beginning. Harlow’s way of thinking was not generally accepted in psychology, and the kinds of studies he wanted to do with primates were for a long time considered irrelevant to human behavior. Although the Wisconsin General Test Apparatus eventually became a famous design, when it was first created it was the subject of considerable controversy, as was the whole concept of studying learning in primates. Blum weaves the development of this research into what was going on in Harlow’s personal life. One sidebar of note: although Harlow came to Wisconsin in 1930, he struggled for many years, and it was well beyond what we now consider the boundaries of the "tenure clock" that he became research productive by the usual criteria—but it was worth the wait!

Harlow had to deal with the University of Wisconsin nepotism rules in the case of his first wife, Clara, and his second wife, Peggy, both of whom were talented professionals but who were unable to obtain tenure-track faculty appointments. Blum spends considerable time describing Harry’s personal life and the loneliness that ensued when his first marriage ended in divorce in 1946. He later married Peggy Keune, who died of breast cancer. He then remarried his first wife, Clara, in 1972 and was with her until his death Dec. 6, 1981.

The title of the book, Love at Goon Park, merits some explanation. Even having lived in Madison for 23 years, I did a double take on it and had several free associations until it was clarified in the book. The Department of Psychology’s address was 600 N. Park. However, if a sender scrawled the address carelessly it could easily look like GOON Park. Many of the occupants thought this mistake occurred frequently, but as one faculty member said with a bit of irony, "The mailman always knew right where to deliver it." Goon Park became the Department of Psychology’s unofficial nickname partly because it reflected the uneasy politics of the place, and Blum details some of these.

The book’s strongest point is a successful weaving together of biography and the development of science in a particular research area, namely, affection or love. Harry Harlow was an extremely complex person and scientist. Many words come to mind—creative, different, bright, manipulative, ruthless, caring, sensitive, difficult, addicted (more on this later), etc. The list could go on and on, and the essence of Harry Harlow would still never be captured. I had the unusual opportunity to work at the Wisconsin Primate Laboratory from 1969 to 1993. I owe Harry a large debt of gratitude for affording a young psychiatrist the opportunity to become the first psychiatrist to become part of what has traditionally been a psychology fiefdom.

When I arrived as a brand-new faculty member in 1969, I had no office at the laboratory. Harry invited me to share his, which I did for several years. It was a spacious office, and when visitors would come to talk with the by-then famous Harry Harlow I would offer to leave so he could talk with them privately. Rarely was I taken up on this offer, and so I had a chance to see him in everyday action. He was brilliant, irreverent, and unpretentious, and he could be offensive. He could also write sensitive poems for others. He was addicted to work, cigarettes, and alcohol, and all of these took a toll on him over the years. I think the book in parts overglamorizes his use and abuse of alcohol. It was not a pretty scene in this regard and went well beyond going out to the corner bar with graduate students. He also struggled mightily with depression, which the book does describe.

It is striking that with this many addictions of major proportions, Harry Harlow managed to make such incredible scientific contributions. Blum’s discussion of why they have been incorporated so quickly and their origins forgotten is very perceptive and it relates to Harry Harlow as a person and his political incorrectness. Many individual contributions could be cited, but perhaps his most important and enduring legacy has been his love and commitment to the science of primate behavior and his demonstration that one can learn a lot about human development and psychopathology by studying animals, including primate behavior—a lesson to be remembered as we strive to increasingly integrate the basic neurosciences into our clinical specialty.

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