May 2007

Colleen Mondor


Wire Mothers: Harry Harlow and the Science of Love by Jim Ottaviani and Dylan Meconis

Jim Ottaviani has crafted a fascinating niche among graphic novelists with his startling and surprising titles on the history of science. I reviewed last year’s look at paleontology Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards and enjoyed it very much as a rousing adventure tale that just happened to be true. The latest tale from Ottaviani and G.T. Labs is Wire Mothers: Harry Harlow and the Science of Love. As a history of psychology, I assumed it would be dry and maybe even a tad bit dull (forgive me but I still have horror flashbacks to those required college psychology courses), but I was way off base on this one. Wire Mothers is compelling, shocking and deeply disturbing.

The story is set in 1959 and initially follows a temporary janitor who is cleaning the offices and primate labs of Dr. Harry Harlow. The professor recalls to the janitor his early unsuccessful academic experiences and his use of rats and cats in behavioral studies. The research is basic -- how fast rats can navigate a maze -- but when Harlow was starting out, lab animals were tested only once and then “sacrificed.” This forced everyone to repeat the same experiments over and over, making them virtually useless. “Planned obsolescence” is how Harlow explains it, and it was completely acceptable.

Harlow was clearly frustrated by the typical processes and also had problems dealing with financing and space for his lab work. He ended up with monkeys almost by default, and only a few drawn panels in the book of what life was like at the zoo for primates makes it clear that, once at the mercy of humans, life was not good for them. Harlow wanted to research something very simple, though -- that it takes more than one experiment for a subject to learn. So the primates learned simple tasks through repetition while he and his students studied how they learned. Pretty basic stuff, but it was groundbreaking at the time. His big discovery came basically by accident. He began placing new monkeys in quarantine to reduce the spread of disease, but they became nearly nonfunctional when left on their own. What he was using for isolation was the “Skinner Box,” the prevailing wisdom of the day for scientific experiments. A couple of pages about the 1933 World’s Fair show just what that prevailing wisdom was all about. “The public loved progress, and loving progress meant loving science,” recalls Harlow. “We promised to conquer hunger, and disease. All we needed to do... was to apply scientific principles to everything.” The key illustration is of a baby’s bib with the words, “Please! Don’t Kiss Me / I Don’t want To Get Sick.”

Harlow could see what isolation was doing to the monkeys’ ability to learn, and he made the logical leap to wondering just how not being touched and held would affect babies and children as well.

At this point in the narrative, Ottaviani explores the research of scientists who were against showing physical affection for children. They were speaking, “on things they knew nothing about,” but the public was eager for expert opinion and dedicated to believing the words of those who seemed so clearly to know more than them. Harlow began to work methodically against the tide and, after becoming president of the American Psychological Association, he decided to do something with his new position. He gave a keynote address on “The Nature of Love,” and used his own experiments on the detrimental effects of isolation on primates to prove that a mother’s love was critical to emotional well being. This is where the book gets less than pleasant, though, for everyone who likes their monkeys happy. To prove that love was necessary, Harlow had to deprive infant monkeys of all living contact. Then he had to watch them suffer.

Ottaviani points out that Harlow’s experiments cannot be duplicated today, but then again, neither can some of Professor Skinner’s, even though, contrary to urban legend, he never did put his daughter Deborah in a box (Ottaviani does show Skinner with his daughter in her “baby tender,” constructed to keep the baby in an essentially germ free environment while sleeping which, when presented in Ladies Home Journal, did look more than a tad bit creepy).

I’ve given a lot more plot information on Wire Mothers then I normally would in a review, but it is such tightly written historical fiction that knowing what it is about is half the draw. The artwork is realistic and compelling -- it’s hard to look at the young monkeys without feeling more than a heavy dose of compassion and pity. Artist Dylan Meconis has hit just the right mark here, and adds to the story while still making it about the real people she depicts and not her interpretation of who they were.

Jim Ottaviani shows a lot of dedication with his books and Wire Mothers will be appreciated by those exploring the history of psychology specifically or the history of science in general. It’s a great jumping off point for students (homeschoolers, do you hear me?) and just might spark some actual interest in those poor souls, like myself, that have only the dullest professors on earth to recall when they think of the subject. Honestly, I’m just impressed that someone is writing books like this -- I think it is wicked cool what Ottaviani is doing. It’s a very interesting read and I actually learned something -- something less than pleasant, but still. Good for you, Jim Ottaviani and please keep it up; I’ll be back for the next book, I promise.

Wire Mothers: Harry Harlow and the Science of Love by Jim Ottaviani and Dylan Meconis
G.T. Labs
ISBN: 097880371X
87 pages