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Experimenting with Babies: The Myrtle McGraw Collection

By Ben Parnin, Archivist Assistant

When you think of scientists conducting experiments you might visualize them running around in lab coats with beakers and test tubes. Babies are probably the last thing you associate with science experiments. I had not considered the possibility of babies being test subjects until I was introduced to the Myrtle McGraw collection at Indiana University Moving Image Archive. Before you imagine some cruel mad scientist’s, experiment let me give you some background to this collection and explain the person responsible for the creations of these films.

Dr. Myrtle Byram McGraw (1899-1988) was a prominent scholar and researcher of early child development. Born in Birmingham Alabama, McGraw attended Ohio Wesleyan University before obtaining her doctorate from Columbia University. After completing her Ph.D. in 1930, McGraw was offered a job as the associate director of the Normal Child Development Study and would continue in that role for the next 12 years. The study was a joint venture between Babies Hospital in New York City and Columbia University which secured long term funding from the Rockefeller foundation’s General Education Board. The study took place during what is known as the “era of the child,” a period when children studies surged across academic disciplines. Some of the major figures in the field at this time were John Dewey, John B. Watson, Arnold Gesell, and Lois Barclay Murphy to name a few.

Largely left to her own devices by her superiors, Mcgraw led several of her own research studies on child development. As McGraw began her research she decided to investigate a current debate amongst child development academics about whether children develop through learning or natural maturation. The debate was about whether a child learns skills or if they are born with skills that are naturally developed as they grow. This debate led her to one of her most prominent research experiments.

In order to test the debate McGraw subjected infant twin Johnny and Jimmy Woods to intense training to see if learning took place during infancy and at what age. As the control, Jimmy received normal infant care from research staff. Johnny on the other hand was subjected to intense training to see if he could develop particular skills. These tests included swimming, climbing, and roller skating. The result of the experiment was that babies can learn and develop skills at an early age because Johnny acquired these skills through instruction while his brother who did not receive training did not. McGraw’s research had an impact on the scientific community as it confronted the theories of prominent child development researcher, Dr. Arnold Gessell, who favored maturation over learning. Her research also altered academics’ perceptions of infants’ capabilities, as many child development experts had previously deemed tasks such as swimming and roller skating impossible for babies to perform.

During the course of her research McGraw filmed many of her experiments. These films were used to document her research and were later shared with other academic institutions. The films were also shown during her presentation at the 1958 International Jubilee Congress of Sports Medicine in Moscow.

The McGraw Collection contains around 100 film reels and a significant portion of these includes her filmed experiments. Her tests were designed to examine different locomotion skills in infants. One of her films even shows scientists studying babies’ memory by testing if babies could remember to come to an adult when given a sign. In addition, they also administer memory tests to see if a baby could locate certain objects.

When viewing these films, it may be shocking to observe the ethically questionable treatment of infants and children in her experiments. In several of the films you can see the babies’ distress as they hang from pull up bars or are struggling to swim. In addition to such ethically suspect testing procedures most of the babies were filmed nude during the McGraw’s experiment. These details have to be taken into consideration when we are assessing access restrictions and performing ethical archival practices. While writing this post I found that some of McGraw’s experiments footage had been uploaded to YouTube and the Internet Archive. Comments on these videos range from amazement of what infants are capable of to shock or disgust at the experiments taking place. One comment from the Internet Archive website calls the footage “creepy” and a “lawsuit waiting to happen”. While these comments convey valid concerns, they do not represent the fullest picture of McGraw’s research and her relationship to the children in her study.

Those with the most valid reason to be upset at the experiment were of course Johnny and Jimmy Woods and their family. Johnny and Jimmy were constantly subjected to McGraw’s experiments during their infancy and became the famous key test subjects in her most notable research. Her book, Growth, a study of Johnny and Jimmy and the film of the same title gained wide recognition from the scientific community as well as popular media in part due to the success of her training a baby to swim and roller skate. In particular the media focused on the differences between Johnny and Jimmy. The media misinterpreted and exaggerated McGraw’s research. It also represented Johnny as the superior athletic brother since he received most of the specialized training during the experiment while his brother Jimmy was portrayed as lethargic and temper tantrum prone due to the fact that he was the control. Each year news reporters would visit the Woods family to report on the twins’ growth and development. In a 1956 news article the twins were asked their thoughts on the experiment. Their main complaint was the media sensationalism of the experiment and how people continued to associate the experiment with their personalities and abilities growing up and as adults. Instances of this news sensationalism included a portrayal of adult Jimmy Woods as an “idiot” at his ice cream factory job. It is clear from reading these news articles and interviews that the experiment continued to follow them throughout their lives.

Despite the adverse effects of the experiment the Woods family maintained a mostly positive relationship with McGraw. A reoccurring question I thought about while watching these films was why parents would have allowed their children to be put through such rigorous testing. In the case of Johnny and Jimmy’s mother it was partially due to the conditions of the Great Depression. When asked in an interview about the experiments, Jimmy states that McGraw’s experiment offered their mother who was then a mother of eight free child care for them during the Depression. In other interviews, Ms. Florence Woods explains how she appreciated McGraw’s instruction on the child development process as it helped her realize how to take better care of her children. Reflecting on the experiments 20 years later, Jimmy insists that he still had nothing but respect for McGraw. The twins’ lasting relationship with McGraw can be observed when years later as adults they revisit the experiment and recreate some of the tests they completed as babies for McGraw’s film, Growth-A Study of Johnny & Jimmy.

While certainly not meeting the ethical standards of today’s Institutional Review Board, McGraw’s research and experiments were instrumental in the field of child development and enhanced the debate within the scientific community about child development through learning or natural maturation. As a woman researcher during the 1930s, McGraw was often confronted with doubts about the validity of her scientific work. Despite these doubts, McGraw successfully made an important contribution to our understanding of child development through her research and through her subsequent years of teaching at Briarcliff College. These films offer a glimpse into McGraw’s life as well as the nature of her work. While shocking in some aspects and amusing in others these films display their value as a key component of child development research.

References

“‘Conditioned’ Child Proves Superiority: Relation of Muscular Growth to Brain Development Shown at Clinic Here.” New York Times, Jan 16, 1935.

“Clinic Twins, 3 Thursday, Hope to Cut 2 Cakes: Johnny, Trained, shows it, but Jimmie Out- Sings and Out-Talks Brother.” New York Herald Tribune, Apr 15, 1935.

Dobrish, Cecelia M. “Babies Make the Best Teachers.” Parents’ Magazine & Better Family Living, Sept, 1972.

Dalton, Thomas Carlyle., and Victor W Bergenn. Beyond Heredity and Environment: Myrtle Mcgraw and the Maturation Controversy. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995.

“Ex-Clinical Twins Try Skating; They Fall, and so does a Theory” New York Herald Tribune, Oct 19, 1935.

O’Connell, Agnes N., and Nancy Felipe Russo. Models of Achievement: Reflections of Eminent Women In Psychology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

“Scientific Twins Blase at Circus as they Celebrate 3d Birthday” New York Times, Apr 19, 1935. Senn, Milton J. E. “Insights on the Child Development Movement in the United States.” Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 40, no. 3/4 (1975): 1–107.

Ubell, Earl. “Twins in 1932 Test ‘just Ordinary’.” New York Herald Tribune, Sep 13, 1956.