Funding ended for experiments by Harlow aide Stephen J. Suomi
POOLESVILLE, Maryland––The National Institutes of Health have pulled the plug on another of the last active legacies of the infamous vivisector Harry Harlow, halting funding for psychological experiments on baby monkeys conducted since circa 1983 by Stephen J. Suomi at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Maryland.
Followed Wisconsin experimental re-design
The Suomi experiments were defunded three months after the NIH confirmed that maternal deprivation experiments with baby monkeys would not proceed at the University of Wisconsin, where Harlow conducted comparable experiments from 1930 to 1970.
The University of Wisconsin itself had announced in March 2015, after a multi-year campaign led by former Alliance for Animals executive director Rick Bogle, that the planned experiments, to have been done by senior faculty member Ned Kalin, had been redesigned to eliminate the maternal deprivation component.
$10 million in funding
Suomi’s experiments at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development had reportedly received more than $10 million in NIH funding since 2008. But National Institute of Child Health and Human Development scientific director Constantine Stratakis told BuzzFeed reported Azeen Ghorayshi that the Suomi experiments were ended because of the “increasing costs of facilities.”
“This decision was based on internal programmatic priorities and the desire to optimize research efficiency,” an unnamed NICHHD spokesperson earlier told Amy Kraft of CBS News.
Researcher to retire
Suomi, 70, chief of the NICHHD Laboratory of Comparative Ethology is to retire from active involvement in animal research.
“Suomi will continue his research analyzing behavioral data and conducting experiments on previously stored tissue samples, but will no longer work with live monkeys,” wrote Ghorayshi.
Suomi, 70, earned his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison after three years as a research assistant to Harlow.
Dismantled Harlow lab
When Harlow semi-retired to spend the last 10 years of his life at a part-time post at the University of Arizona, Suomi and fellow graduate student researcher Gene Sackett dismantled the lab where they had helped Harlow.
Sackett later attributed the rise of the animal rights movement in part to public outrage over Harlow’s experiments.
The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development did not acknowledge the influence of PETA in terminating Suomi’s funding. Summarized Ghorayshi, “PETA last fall obtained access to over 550 hours of video footage and 100 photos through Freedom of Information Act requests. The records included some images of baby monkeys in intense states of distress. In response to a congressional request, the National Institutes of Health conducted a bioethical review of the experiments.”
Told to stop invasive procedures
National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins in February 2015 asked Suomi to stop all use of invasive procedures, including spinal taps, blood draws, and neonatal brain recordings.
“Over the next three years,” Ghorayshi said, “approximately 100 animals per year will be transferred from Suomi’s lab to other facilities across the country.”
Word that Suomi’s monkey experiments had been defunded came first from U.S. Congressional Representive Brendan Boyle (D-Philadelphia), who with Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) had led Congressional opposition to the research.
“Many constituents wrote me about NIH’s tests on baby monkeys, and I’m glad I was able to help end them,” Boyle tweeted.
Summarized a PETA web page criticizing the Suomi studies, “Harry Harlow’s psychological experiments on monkeys were infamous for their cruelty. Harlow tore newborns away from their mothers, gave some infants “surrogate mothers” made of wire and wood, and kept other traumatized babies in isolation in tiny metal boxes, sometimes for up to a year. Realizing that such horrific conditions resulted in long-term, debilitating psychological trauma for the infants, Harlow began expanding his project. He and his then-student Suomi created the ‘pit of despair,’ a dark metal box designed to isolate the monkeys from everything in the outside world. Within days, the monkeys kept inside the pit were driven insane, incessantly rocking and clutching at themselves, tearing and biting their own skin and ripping out their hair. When finally removed from isolation, they were too traumatized to interact with other monkeys, and some were so shocked and depressed that they starved themselves to death. To see what would happen when tormented monkeys became mothers themselves, Suomi and Harlow created what they called a ‘rape rack’ in order to restrain and impregnate female monkeys, then they would later watch and photograph the mentally ill mothers physically abusing and killing their own babies.”
Suomi admitted to Deborah Blum, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Monkey Wars (1992) and Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection (2002) that the experiments gave him nightmares.
But that didn’t stop Suomi from spending most of his own career doing similar work, albeit with much less flamboyance than Harlow.
Even before there was an animal rights movement calling itself by that name, Harlow’s monkey experiments were so controversial that a 1970 failed bombing attempt at the University of Wisconsin Primate Research Center was at first believed to have been directed at Harlow.
Years later the bombing was found to have been a failed attempt by four anti-Vietnam War protesters to bomb the Army Mathematics Research Center across the street.
The four succeeded on second try, killing post-doctorate math student Robert Fassnacht, who also opposed the war, and severely injuring three other students who had no involvement with the war.