Groundbreaking researcher Gardner dies at 91
Allen Gardner, whose groundbreaking research with his late wife Beatrix “Trixie” Gardner involving the chimpanzee Washoe made headlines around the world when Washoe became the first non-human to learn American Sign Language in the late 1960s , died on August 20 at his home in Reno. . He was 91 years old.
Gardner was a faculty member in the University’s Psychology Department from 1963 until his retirement in 2010. His wife and wife’s cross-encouragement work with Washoe was done in their research lab located in their Reno home, known as “The Ranch.” Allen and Beatrix, known as “Trixie,” replicated their success between 1972 and 1981 with four additional baby chimps, Moja, Pili, Tatu, and Dar.
Allen and Trixie adopted the 10-month-old Washoe in 1966. In the backyard of their home in Reno, the two psychology teachers began teaching Washoe American Sign Language. In 1967, when Washoe was about 15 months old, they reported the first results to a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New York. The Gardners reported that Washoe had learned signs for many words. The New York Times wrote that “The Gardners reported that the chimpanzee created phrases like ‘water birds’ for a pair of swans and ‘open flower’ for access to a flower garden. “
Their findings have caught the attention of researchers around the world. “It was absolutely groundbreaking work,” said Duane Rumbaugh, a scientist emeritus at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, a nationally recognized research center, in 2007. The new Washoe signing the words “water” and ” bird “was akin to” getting an SOS from space, “Harvard psychologist Roger Brown said in 2007.
The Gardners’ research results sparked a torrent of cognitive research over the next decade. Their fame has helped to strengthen the national prestige of the University.
Heather Hardy, the former dean of the College of Liberal Arts, recalled how widespread knowledge of the Gardners’ work was.
“When I was an undergraduate linguistics student in college, research done with Washoe and the other chimpanzees was included in every introductory linguistics textbook,” Hardy said in an interview with Nevada Today in 2007. Hardy had attended Rice University as an undergraduate student in the 1970s. “The research was interesting and innovative, and it attracted many students to the discipline. People like the idea of being able to communicate with animals, but linguists hope this research will shed light on the nature of human language as well. “
Hardy added, “I was very happy to come to the University as the Dean of a world-class psychology department which includes such a respected researcher. Dr Gardner has made important research contributions in a number of disciplines.
Robert Allen Gardner was born in Brooklyn, New York, on February 21, 1930. His father was a delivery boy for a smuggler. According to Gardner’s obituary, his father and mother would bring baby Allen with them during childbirth. They seemed to be such a sweet young family that people never knew what they were doing. Allen loved being able to claim his criminal role during Prohibition and beamed every time he told the story.
Gardner received his BA from New York University in 1950, then his MA from Columbia University in 1951. He received his doctorate. from Northwestern University in 1954, where he studied learning theory under the direction of renowned psychologist Dr Benton Underwood. His first research position was at the Army Medical Research Laboratory. At a talk on “Love,” given by famous psychologist Harry Harlow, Allen met Trixie, who in 1961 became his wife and research collaborator. The couple moved to the University of Nevada at Reno (UNR) in 1963.
Allen Gardner began his college career studying the principles of learning in rats. However, it was the Gardner’s pioneering cross-chimpanzee studies, beginning with Washoe in 1966, that gave it media prominence.
Allen and Trixie, then both psychology professors at UNR, insisted on rigorous methods even under the seemingly lax conditions of their cross-host lab. The relaxed home-like conditions provided the chimpanzees with an environment that resembled that of human infants. Strict controls during testing ruled out the possibility of directing, ensuring that all signs produced by the chimpanzees came from them. The Gardners continued to publish new analyzes on the years of data they had collected long after the last chimpanzees left Reno in 1981. In 1989 they published the book Teaching sign language to chimpanzees chronicle of cross-promotion research.
By the time the Gardners began their studies, captive chimpanzees typically lived in sterile cages, exposed only to spoken language, which chimpanzees are able to understand, but seem physically unable to produce. A mainstay of captive chimpanzee care today, an enriched environment was crucial to the success of cross-placement studies. The Gardners realized that it would be impossible to draw meaningful comparisons between the development of intelligent and linguistic behavior in chimpanzees and that of human children unless their environments were comparable. The addition of American Sign Language complemented the cross-fostering protocols by providing a two-way communication medium with baby chimpanzees.
Washoe continued to live with the Gardners until about the age of five, and students came to the Gardners’ home to observe Washoe’s interactions and signatures. At one point, the Gardners reported to a reporter that they had compiled over 3,500 pages of handwritten field notes. In April 1974, Washoe was featured in a feature airing on PBS’s science series Nova, titled “The First Signs of Washoe.”
“The idea was that when she was older, we would take her back to college,” Trixie Gardner told the Reno Gazette-Journal in a 1995 interview. “But that never happened.”
“People have the most amazing notions of what an animal can’t do,” Allen Gardner added in an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal in 1990, noting that he and his wife never called Washoe or the later chimpanzees of “subjects” or “pets”. But rather as a “foster family”. Allen told the Ogden, Utah Signpost in 1986 that the key determination of the Washoe research method was sign language, not the attempt to teach Washoe language. “In past chimpanzee breeding experiences, speech was the guideline,” he said.
“The object of our research was to learn how chimpanzees are like humans,” Allen Gardner said in an interview with Nevada Today in 2007. “To measure this accurately, chimps would have to be bred as human children and to do that we had to share a common language. “
Invitations to lecture on the signatory chimpanzees have come in from around the world, including Brazil, South Africa, Italy and France. Early on, Dr Jane Goodall invited them to visit Gombe Stream in Tanzania, giving them their first chance to see chimpanzees in the wild.
Allen co-founded and was a researcher in psychology at the University’s Center for Advanced Studies, and was director from 1990 to 1993. He received the Foundation Professor Award in 1988. In 1992, Allen and Trixie collaborated with the Italian primatologist Dr. Bruno Chiarelli at a NATO-funded conference held in Cortona, Italy, bringing together renowned students and scientists from around the world to discuss the ethological roots of Culture.
In 1995, Trixie Gardner passed away suddenly while on a speaking tour of Italy. Allen and Trixie had collaborated on a textbook that isolated hypotheses from current learning theories, examined the evidence for each, and showed a way forward.
Three years after Trixie’s death, Allen finished and published his book The structure of learning: from sign stimuli to sign language, which serves as an introduction to their notion of feed-forward learning.
Washoe, who learned about 130 signs in American Sign Language, died in Washington in 2007 at the age of 42. For many years, she had lived on the Ellensburg campus of Central Washington University as part of the Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute on campus.
In 2010, Allen retired from the University of Nevada, Reno with a celebratory symposium given by his students. After his retirement from teaching, Allen continued to collaborate and publish with his alumni.
Allen’s younger brother Herb Gardner was well known for his Sunday comics, The Nebbish, and for his game A thousand clowns. Allen’s brother predeceased him. Chimpanzee Tatu, the only surviving participant in the cross-placement studies, now resides at the Fauna Foundation, a chimpanzee sanctuary near Montreal, Quebec.
(Note: This story contains text passages from Allen Gardner’s obituary as well as additional reports and quotes from newspaper articles from the time.)