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Dr. Mortimer Mishkin Oral History 2001 A

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Dr. Mortimer Mishkin


This is an interview with Dr. Mortimer Mishkin, chief of the Cognitive Neuroscience Section of the Neuropsychology Laboratory of the NIMH Intramural Research Program held on November 6th, 2001, in Bethesda, Maryland. 

The interviewer is Dr. Ingrid Farreras of the NIH History Office.


Farreras:          I thought I would ask you first to introduce yourself, e.g., where and when you

                        were born and some of your family background.

Mishkin:          My full name is Mortimer Mishkin.  I was born in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, on

                        December 13, 1926.  I have one brother who’s older and one sister who’s younger

                        by about the same number of years, five or six.  I can tell you all about my family,

                        but I am not sure which part is particularly relevant, except that my parents were

                        always strongly supportive. 

                        I went to grammar school and high school in Fitchburg.  I graduated from

                        Fitchburg High School in 1944, but I left a semester before graduation to enter

                        the Navy Officer Training Program, which brought me initially to Middlebury

                        College in Vermont, where I spent one year. 

                        This was a very quick transit time through college because we went three

                        semesters a year, so that’s like one and a half years every year, in order to get

                        through as quickly as possible.  Initially, I joined to become a pilot in the V5

                        program but at the end of 1944 they had enough pilots and instead they needed

                        deck engineers and supply corps officers in the V12 program.  Because of my

                        interest in what I understood at that time to be social sciences, I decided to go into

                        the Supply Corps, because that would give me the opportunity to take some

                        courses in liberal arts and social sciences.  So I was transferred to Dartmouth the

                        second year.

Farreras:          So you didn’t pick Middlebury or Dartmouth.

Mishkin:          No, no.  They were picked for me by Uncle Sam.

Farreras:          Good schools to have picked.

Mishkin:          Yes.  I completed a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Dartmouth, at

                        the Amos Tuck School, because this was what was needed for Supply Corps

                        training.  That was my background.  I had only taken two courses in psychology

                        and this is significant because this is why I finally ended up where I did, in


                        I had one course in mental hygiene.  It was given by a wonderful young scholar

                        named Shammai Feldman.  And the other course was in international relations.  I

                        say psychology, but that’s what it was, international relations.  And it was given

                        by someone who would become a very well-known industrial psychologist who

                        had done a lot of work in personality, Ross Stagner.  I mention them because they

                        turned out to be instrumental in getting me into graduate school in psychology.  It

                        was only with their help that I was able to do it.  No one in their right mind would

                        have accepted someone into graduate school in psychology with my psychology

                        background.  Anyway, I graduated from Dartmouth.

Farreras:          In ‘46?

Mishkin:          Forty-six.  I went immediately to Officer Training School for the Supply Corps at

                        the naval base in Bayonne, New Jersey, which lasted a couple of months, and then

                        I was sent over to Japan as part of the occupation forces.  So I flew to Japan.  I

                        was scared as hell because it was very soon after the war and with all the

                        propaganda that we had heard we were really scared.  But we flew into Tokyo and

                        we were dispersed among the various places that needed us.  I went on a destroyer

                        tender in Yakosuka Harbor.  And my job was to look over the manifests of the

                        ships bringing in oil from the Arabian Sea, which was then emptied into the big

                        tanks that they had in the harbor.  That was my major job as a member of the

                        Supply Corps.  I was also a savings bond officer aboard the ship.  But because I

                        was an officer I also had a jeep and was able to get onto shore often and that

                        was very good because I actually mixed with Japanese in Kamakura, a little place

                        a few miles north of Yakosuka Harbor, where they had a beach house in which

                        there was dancing every weekend.  They played American music and I joined in

                        because I had played the saxophone and clarinet in school and was able to play

                        with the band.  So that was a lot of fun.  But I was the only American, all the rest

                        were Japanese.  And so I met a lot of Japanese and became fast friends with some

                        of them.  That’s how I spent my nine months or so in Japan, in my Navy Supply

                        Corps uniform, dancing and playing music.

                        When I returned from Japan in the spring of ‘47 I spent the summer near my

                        home in a little town called Gardiner, where they had a state mental institution.  I

                        think it was called an insane asylum at the time.  I did that because of my interest

                        in psychology, despite the fact that I didn’t have any background in it.  I was

                        interested in the area of psychology because in high school I had actually steeped

                        myself in Freud.  I found it so fascinating.  So I knew I wanted to go into

                        psychology.  And during that summer I also went up to Dartmouth to visit my

                        professors, Shammai Feldman and Ross Stagner, and they agreed to write letters

                        of recommendation for me.  Despite their letters of recommendation, there were

                        very few places that would accept me because I was sort of ignorant, and yet I

                        applied to all the Ivy League schools.

Farreras:          In what program?

Mishkin:          Psychology.

Farreras:          But which track?  Didn’t they have specialties at the time?

Mishkin:          Oh, I see.  I knew I wanted to go into social psychology because that was the way

                        to save the world.  It was either politics – I was very left-leaning, obviously – or

                        economics, and I chose psychology, thinking that politics and economics were a

                        question of psychology.

Farreras:          So you applied to every Ivy League school.

Mishkin:          And I think I actually did get accepted to one or two places as well as McGill but

                        I understood that McGill had a fine school so I went there.  And I initially went to

                        the chairman, Robert MacLeod, who was a phenomenologist but also a social

                        psychologist well versed in the work of people like Kurt Lewin and the social

                        psychology and the gestaltists of that time.  He later became chairman of the

                        department at Cornell.  So he was chairman and I went to him because he was the

                        one whom I would have to convince to let me study social psychology.  And he

                        said, “What are you doing here?”

Farreras:          After they had accepted you?!

Mishkin:          Yes!  “How come we accepted you?”  I think that by then he had had a peek at the

                        record rather than the letters.  And he said, “What I suggest is that you do a

                        qualifying year, and during that qualifying year, I suggest that you go down the

                        hall and meet with this new instructor we have who has just came up from Orange

                        Park, Florida, so that you can study experimental psychology with him.  When

                        you become a good experimental psychologist, you come back to me.”

Farreras:          Get the basics first.

Mishkin:          Yes.  And so I went down the hall and spoke to this new instructor, who happened

                        to be D[onald] O[lding] Hebb, who had just come from Orange Park, Florida,

                        where he had worked with [Karl] Lashley.  So Hebb was newly there, as was

                        another even younger person who’d just gotten his Ph.D., [Haldor Enger]

                        Rosvold, who was teaching a course in personality.  I became Rosvold’s teaching

                        assistant.  In any event, I did my master’s thesis with Hebb, and my master’s

                        thesis was probably the most well-known thing that I’ve ever done – it was well

                        known then, it’s not well known now.  But it sort of started a lot of people off on

                        tachistoscopic recognition experiments, looking at the difference between left and

                        right visual-field perception.  The whole idea was Hebb’s, not mine; I did it under

                        his direction with a colleague student, Don Forgays, and it was one of my first

publications.  And I was very proud of it because it was included in Hebb’s book

The Organization of Behavior.

Hebb was perhaps my most influential mentor ever, not because I had a lot of direct interaction with him, but because I was a student in his lab, where I learned how to make equipment, including the tachistoscope used in a pilot study for this research.  It was nothing but two slabs of wood, hinged at the bottom and attached at the top by strings so that when the first one fell it would bring the other one after it, but it would open just enough so that something on the second panel could be seen for a fraction of a second.  This was the kind of equipment we had at the time.  We made our own.  Incredible.  Hebb had done a lot of work on animals at Orange Park.  So we made our own mazes, our own rat cages.  It was really quite remarkable.  But apart from the lab work, including the anatomical study of the rat brain, of greatest importance was his book, because he had just been writing all this and it was still in manuscript form.  And we had seminars on it chapter by chapter.  And as unschooled as we were, because after all we were all youngsters in this seminar, I think everyone recognized how influential the book was.  And, of course, it was the most significant work in years in psychology because it showed for the first time how it was possible to think in neural connection terms, how the brain might work and how thoughts might occur.  Incredible.  Until then, what we had to go on was either the black box, as we called it, which was championed by most of the behaviorists, or physiological psychology in which the models were field theory, and that was true of almost every model at the level of higher brain function, starting with [Ivan] Pavlov’s, including the Gestaltists like [Wolfgang] Köhler, and the foremost physiological psychologist of all, Lashley.  They were all field theories.  They paid lip service, in a sense, to neurons.  Hebb was the first to have a theory of how the brain worked that involved connections among neurons.  Incredible.

So among the graduate students in Hebb’s seminar, Herb Lansdell – who later left McGill to join the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness –, Peter Milner, Brenda Milner, Sam Rabinovitch, and Lila Ghent, who later became Lila Ghent-Braine.  There must have been about 12 of us.  I mention them because so many of them really went on to do important things.  And this was just a first group, because he had many afterward and many who also became key figures in neuropsychology.  So I got my Master’s degree in 1949, with Hebb, on the tachistoscopic experiment of left versus right visual field recognition of words. 

                        And it had some physiological implications for brain function but it really wasn’t

                        looking at brain function, it was trying to infer brain functions from perceptual

                        accuracy.  What we had found was that there was better recognition in the right

                        visual field than in the left for English and we got a result that was in the opposite

                        direction in Yiddish, suggesting that there was something about the reading

                        experience of going from one end of the line to the other that was actually training

                        the retina differentially. 

                        And it wasn’t just training the retina, it was training the retina and the hemisphere

                        to which the hemi-retina was projecting, so that with the successive presentation

                        of stimuli in either the left or the right visual field, you could “see better” with

                        your right hemisphere if it was English and with your left hemisphere if it was

                        Yiddish.  That issue became so complicated…it’s unbelievable but there were lots

                        and lots of experiments that were done after that in this field to try to understand

                        what was going on.  I’m not sure all of the factors that go into this have ever been

                        disentangled.  But as I said, I wasn’t actually doing any brain research for that

                        study, and I wanted to do brain research.

At the time, Rosvold, who was this new assistant professor at McGill, had just received his Ph.D. from Stanford, where he had worked with Calvin Stone.  I think Stone had been one of the early editors of the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, which has since changed its name.  When he died, in fact, Hal Rosvold received from his wife his collection of reprints, so that sort of started off our reprint collection.

Farreras:          You showed me, yes.

Mishkin:          All of his files.  There was a time when that was how we collected the literature,

                        really collected it.  And, of course, I still do.  But Hal Rosvold got me to help him

                        do some research at McGill that did involve brain function.  This was my first

                        paper with Hal, in fact, and it looked at the effects of frontal lobotomy in war

                        veterans who had become schizophrenic and were later lobotomized.  At that time

                        that was one of the main “treatments”.  They were living incarcerated at St.

                        Anne’s Hospital in Montréal and because they were war veterans and had been

                        tested at induction, we were able to compare their IQs then with their IQs before. 

                        This had never been possible before.  We were able to show, we thought, that the

                        frontal lobotomy was actually producing cognitive loss, IQ loss, and that,

                        therefore, it had a deleterious effect.  Of course it did, but we couldn’t pick up the

                        deleterious effect with IQ very well, although we had a couple of other measures,

                        such as a form of delayed response or alternation, which was somewhat more

                        revealing of impairment – except we didn’t have really good controls.  The study

                        was published in 1950, I think, and it was important to me because this is what

                        got Hal Rosvold involved in something in which I joined him. 

                        In 1949, after I had finished my Master’s degree, Hal Rosvold was invited to go

                        to Yale to join what became the Yale Lobotomy Project – supported by the

                        Veterans Administration – to look at two issues:  the effect of lobotomy on

                        patients with schizophrenia and to study frontal-lobe function in animals.  And

                        this was done at Yale where the first reported work had been done on apes, by the

                        psychologist [Carlyle] Jacobson working with the physiologist John Fulton.  They

                        had studied Becky and Lucy, two chimpanzees, from whom they had removed the

                        frontal lobes in a study of delayed response.  And this is what led, not just to an

                        understanding of the importance of the frontal lobes for delayed response

                        function, which was the point of the study, but rather, it led to the Nobel Prize

                        being given to Egas Moniz.  He had been searching for what to do with hundreds

                        of psychotic individuals in his hospital in Portugal and when he learned that one

                        of the Jacobson and Fulton’s chimpanzees, who had had temper tantrums when he

                        failed the delayed response test prior to surgery, no longer had temper tantrums,

                        he had this “ah hah” experience.  That is what led ultimately to frontal lobotomy,

                        although I guess it wasn’t frontal lobotomy but rather leukotomy.  So historically,

                        the work which Jacobson and Fulton did was very important but it was deemed so

                        initially for the wrong reason.  It was, however, a critical step in trying to

                        understand frontal lobe function from a cognitive standpoint. 

So Rosvold was invited down to Yale to join a large group of investigators who

were converging on Yale at the time.

Farreras:          Was Donald Marquis there?

Mishkin:          No, he had been there but had already left for Michigan.  I do not think he was

                        associated with the physiology department.  What Yale was most known for,

                        for me, was [Clark L.] Hull and the school of behaviorism that he created there. 

                        Another central figure in psychology was Frank Beach.  He had studied with

                        Lashley and was doing a lot of research on sexual behavior in dogs in the

                        psychology department.  Neal Miller was also at Yale; I was fortunate

                        enough to be able to take a course with each of them (Miller and Beach) when I

                        was there, having joined Rosvold. But let me go back to the story because the

                        Veterans Administration was providing support for two programs now, one based on John Fulton’s physiology    department, and the other based in the psychiatry department headed Fritz Redlich.

Farreras:          So the study of the effects of the lobotomy on the schizophrenic patients was done

in the psychiatry department and the physiology department was in charge of the basic research on the frontal lobe functions in animals?

Mishkin:          Yes.  I think the plan was to study about 12 well-selected patients along with 12

                        control subjects. 

Farreras:          You mean schizophrenics who hadn’t gone through a lobotomy?

Mishkin:          Yes, as far as I can remember. I am not sure about the controls because it may

                        not have been deemed ethical not to provide this kind of relief from their illness. 

                        But it was recognized at the time that there were problems with the treatment so

                        people were no longer going into it blindly.

Farreras:          So it wasn’t to test the efficacy of lobotomy?

Mishkin:          It was in part, yes, as well as to try to understand what it was doing.  But I had

                        very little to do with that part of the research because I really started feeling

                        uncomfortable with it, as I thought it was not possible to study frontal lobe

                        function properly with that kind of surgery where one doesn’t really know what

                        one is doing.  I was a hard-nosed experimental psychologist at the time.  I thought

                        you had to have the control you have with animals.

                        So Rosvold invited me to go with him to Yale and Hebb okayed it.  I was still

                        getting my degree from McGill, but Hebb let me go with Rosvold so that I could

                        study brain function in non-human primates.  And that is what I did for my thesis,

                        I studied monkeys and baboons.  And I was really fortunate because at Yale, also

                        coming from Orange Park, Florida, was Karl Pribram.  Karl Pribram had a

                        different background from everybody else who studied with Lashley.  Karl

                        Pribram was a neurosurgeon.  He had been trained in neurosurgery at Chicago by

                        Paul Bucy and he had studied, in addition, with people that Bucy worked with:

                        [Gerhardt] von Bonin, [Percival] Bailey, [Warren] McCulloch, and Heinrich

                        Klüver.  Klüver and Bucy were the ones who studied the effects of temporal

                        lobectomy in monkeys and Pribram was aware of it, was probably there while

                        some of it was going on.  Because of his knowledge of surgery, anatomy,

                        physiology, strychnine neuronography – the technique that was used at the time

                        by McCullough, von Bonin, and Bailey to work out the connections of the brain

                        in the rhesus monkey and the chimp – and because of his interest in behavior,

                        Karl went to Florida specifically to do his residency in Jacksonville, so he could

                        be close to Orange Park and work with Lashley.  And there he met all of the other

                        really outstanding people in the field at the time and who became even more so

                        later:  Hebb, Roger Sperry, Frank Beach, [Henry] Nissen, and a number of

                        younger people.  I say younger but they were probably the same age as Karl, who

                        had just begun his internship.  Kao-Liang Chow, Josephine Semmes, Ed Evarts,

                        Robert Blum.  Lashley had an amazing group.  An interesting sidelight is that

                        Hebb later asked Lashley to co-author his book with him and Lashley refused

                        because it was contrary to his views on how the brain works.  Hebb believed that

                        Lashley held physiological psychology and cognitive neuroscience back by a

                        quarter of a century because of his concepts of mass action and equipotentiality. 

                        It allowed the black-box psychologists to argue that the brain could be viewed as

                        a bowl of porridge, no part different from any other part.  That, of course, is not

                        what Lashley meant.  Lashley was brilliant and I suspect that, in time, people will

                        go back to Lashley and understand that there’s a constant dynamic interplay

                        among huge ensembles that has connections among neurons as its basis.

                        We will never understand brain function without understanding both points of

                        view, and that will happen in time.  Localization theory is absolutely

                        essential to understand the basics.  But there are other basics in a dynamically

                        active brain that also have to be understood and this concerns the short- and long-

                        distance interactions that are constantly occurring among all the parts of the brain. 

                        And although we need to know the underpinnings and the way the circuitry is

                        arranged, knowing the circuitry is not enough, as there are going to be principles

                        of dynamic interaction that we will still have to understand.  So we will probably

                        come back to Lashley but in a different way.  And in that sense Hebb himself was

                        leaning in that direction.  The reason that Hebb is so central to neuroscience, as

                        distinguished from psychology, is because of his one postulate in his book, that

                        led to the notion of the rules underlying long-term potentiation and long-term

                        depression; that is, how synapses are modified.  That was the postulate.  Synapses

                        are modified as a result of one neuron being successful in depolarizing and firing

                        a second neuron.  The more it does so, the more effective it becomes because of a

                        metabolic change in one or the other.  That is what made him famous among

                        neuroscientists.  But he formulated that postulate in order to understand cell

                        assemblies, which he saw as the basis of perception, and phase sequences, the

                        term he gave to a still higher-order organization, which he postulated underpinned

                        the thought process.  But phase sequences is getting awfully close to field theory,

                        so in the end there’s going to be some kind of marriage. 

                        Where did I get to in my story at Yale?

Farreras:          Karl Pribram has just arrived. 

Mishkin:          Right.  Karl Pribram came up from Orange Park and taught Hal Rosvold, Al

                        Mirsky, and me anatomy and neurosurgery and some principles of behavioral

                        testing in animals that he had garnered from his stay at Orange Park, Florida, with

                        Lashley and others.  And Fulton had put together a great group of people.  I was

                        telling you about the group that was down at Orange Park which I was not a part

                        of but benefited from by interacting with so many of the people who came from

                        there.  But Fulton was also successful in bringing together many, many talented

                        people:  not just Karl Pribram but also Hal Rosvold, Paul MacLean,

                        Robert Livingston, [James] Stevenson (a physiologist from Canada), Pat Wall

                        (a well known pain researcher), BK Anand and [John] Brobeck (two pioneers in

                        the field of hypothalamic feeding and satiety function), José Delgado (who at

                        least was momentarily famous in his work on stimulation of the caudate nucleus;

                        he demonstrated that he could stop a bull in mid-charge, which was a neat trick),

                        Lawrence Krüger (who did a lot of important work in anatomy) and Joseph

                        Berman, who later moved from Yale to New York where, with his student, Ed

                        Taub, he studied the effects of sensory deafferentation on motor function.  That

                        work has a long history.  Maybe we’ll have a chance to talk about it.

Farreras:          Sure.

Mishkin:          So there was a large group of people that got together to work on frontal lobe

                        function.  That was the theme, but of course it didn’t stay focused entirely on

                        frontal lobe function, it was brain function.  I remained there for two years.  I did

                        my thesis under the direction of both Hal Rosvold, with whom I had gone to Yale,

                        and Karl Pribram, who was my really important tutor in that he taught me primate

                        anatomy, neuroanatomy, neurosurgery, and how to work with monkeys,

                        behaviorally.  Although I did frontal lobe work at Yale in collaboration with

                        these people, I got my Ph.D. from McGill for my work at Yale on the temporal

                        lobe, a follow-up of some studies that Pribram had done at Orange Park with

                        Chow and Josephine Semmes.

Farreras:          Josephine Semmes, who then came to NIH?

Mishkin:          Yes, as did Evarts.  He came first and she, his wife, came later and joined our

                        Animal Behavior Section.  He had his own Lab of Neurophysiology although

                        before that he was part of Kety’s Laboratory of Clinical Sciences.  After Yale I

                        went with Pribram to the Institute of Living at Hartford, Connecticut.

Farreras:          Does it not have a different name today, the Hartford Retreat or something?

Mishkin:          It may.

                        It was famous because it was a private institution for wealthy patients with mental

                        disorders who could afford to pay.  And the Institute of Living then decided to set

                        up a research laboratory.  It was called the Burlingame Research Laboratory;

                        Burlingame after the psychiatrist who began the Institute, although I am not

                        certain.  I believe that research laboratory was, in part, a tax haven for the

                        institute.  It’s hard to believe how, otherwise, a private hospital of that kind could

                        have set up a research laboratory that involved basic studies on brain function in


Farreras:          So Pribram was not at Yale for that long, either, then.

Mishkin:          No.  He was there for two years, too.  He might have arrived a few months before

                        I did but not much before.  So I went with Karl to the Institute of Living in

                        Hartford where we set up a primate facility.  And we were joined by a lot of

                        young people.  I was also young but I already had my Ph.D. and there were some

                        Ph.D. students who joined us, some of whom have become very important.  Larry

                        Weiskrantz was one of the students who got his Ph.D. from Harvard for the work

                        he did at Hartford, much like I had gotten mine from McGill for the work I

                        did at Yale.  The thesis that Larry Weistkrantz did with Karl was on

                        amygdalectomy and its effect on avoidance conditioning, which led to the

                        recognition of the amygdala as key in mediating fear reaction in monkeys.  But

                        there were many others who also became well known figures:  George Ettlinger,

                        John Stamm, and William and Martha Wilson.  I stayed there for four years, and it

                        was at that time, in ‘54, that Hal was recruited by David Shakow to join the NIH

                        in the NIMH’s Laboratory of Psychology.

Farreras:          So it was Shakow by then?  Al Mirsky told me his letter was signed by Dick Bell. 

                        Was he Acting Chief before Shakow arrived?

Mishkin:          Yes.  And both Hal and Al came a few months before I did.  So Hal recruited Al

                        and me, his students from Yale essentially.  Al had gotten his Ph.D. with Karl and

                        Hal as well.  So we both joined Hal here in the Laboratory of Psychology, in the

                        Section on Animal Behavior.

Farreras:          Do you know why Shakow chose Hal to head that Section?

Mishkin:          I suspect by writing around and asking who was good, but I’m not sure.  I really

                        have no good idea.  It’s not anything that was ever discussed with me.

Farreras:          And that first year, too, according to the Scientific Directory, the Lab was called

                        the Laboratory of Clinical, Experimental and Developmental Psychology.

Mishkin:          That may have been.

Farreras:          Who came up with that title, and why did they change it to the Lab of Psychology

                        the following year?

Mishkin:          I don’t know.

Farreras:          Alright, I had been curious about that.

Mishkin:          It could have been Bell if he was the Acting Lab Chief.

Farreras:          But someone needed to have appointed him and I am wondering why him in


Mishkin:          I’m not sure of the answer to that either.  I could make some guess that he was

                        thought to be an upcoming star, scientifically rigorous…but I don’t know.

Farreras:          OK.

Mishkin:          There’s one person whom you may not have on your list to talk to but who might

                        be able to tell you a little bit about what went on in one of the sections early on. 

                        Donald Blough.  Don is at Brown, he’s been at Brown ever since he left NIH.

Farreras:          Yes, I’ve written to him already.

Mishkin:          Okay.  He is wonderful.  He’s a really fine experimentalist.  He’s worked with

                        pigeons all his life, as far as I know.

Farreras:          He was in the Perception and Learning Section.

Mishkin:          Right.

Farreras:          But I have that he was only here between 1954-1958, working with Virgil (Ben)

                        Carlson and Jack Calhoun.

Mishkin:          Carlson and Calhoun, right.  I wonder if Carlson is still around.

Farreras:          Al Mirsky mentioned he might be living in Fells Point, in Baltimore.

Mishkin:          Maybe.  So I interacted with the people in the Perception and Learning section

                        more than with the people in the other sections, because they were not

                        experimental, or at least not in the same way.

Farreras:          Plus there was that division between the basic and the clinical sections, too. 

Mishkin:          Right.  So I arrived in ‘55.  And I think Al and Hal in ‘54.

Farreras:          Right.  Hal in August and Al in October of ‘54.

Mishkin:          Okay.  So I came in ‘55.  I don’t remember if it was April or June.  Initially we

                        were over in the Clinical Center, Building 10, and we had some space in the

                        animal facility, which was in Building 13, and that is where we did our initial

                        research, before we were able to move into our laboratory space in Building 9.

Farreras:          When did that happen?

Mishkin:          That must have been the next year, ‘56.

Farreras:          Were the other sections in T6?

Mishkin:          Most of the sections were in the Clinical Center.  There may have been a section

                        in T-6, but I’m not sure.  I think some of the administration was in T-6.  So that’s

                        the beginning of the work at NIMH in 1954-55.

Farreras:          Was there any sort of collaboration between the psychology sections and the other

                        NIMH labs?

Mishkin:          I shouldn’t say that there was none, but I think that, at least at that time, we did

                        not have any ongoing collaborations.

Farreras:          What about relationships between the Psychology Lab and the three that had been

                        established before it:  Neurophysiology, Neurochemistry, and Socio-

                        Environmental Studies?  Were there any?

Mishkin:          No.  We [Animal Behavior Section] did not have very much interaction with the

                        Social-Environmental Studies Lab.  I think Al might have had a little because he

                        was doing social interaction studies in monkeys.  We did have a little interaction

                        early on with people in Neurophysiology, mainly with Ed Evarts.  And I’m not

                        sure how early that actually was.  It may not have been until the late ‘50s, when I

                        started interacting with Ed Evarts to learn about some recording techniques in

                        sleep studies on cats.

Which reminds me that in the neighborhood of the NIH, besides the incredible number of fine people here, were the people over at the Walter Reed Army Medical Institute who had been brought together by Ted Rioch.  He had brought Walle Nauta, a renowned neuroanatomist, who later joined Hans-Lukas Teuber at MIT.  Teuber recruited him into the psychology department, which was something unheard of at the time:  an anatomist in a psychology department?  Robert Galambos was there at Walter Reed and a lot of well known behaviorists were there, Joseph Brady, Murray Sidman, Charles Ferster... 

Also, Ronald Myers, who studied with Roger Sperry.  But the most important of

all was David Hubel, from the point of view of what happened later.  So I had

done some electrophysiological experiments with Ed Evarts.  They never came to fruition but I learned a bit about recording in cats.  And this is what David Hubel was doing at the same time at Walter Reed, looking at the neurophysiology of sleep in cats.

Farreras:          Were Evarts and Hubel working together or were they independent…?

Mishkin:          Independent, but they visited each other.  I remember Ed Evarts and I visiting

                        David Hubel’s lab on a couple of occasions.  One thing I forgot to mention:

                        when I was at Hartford, I didn’t totally give up my research on humans.  Karl

                        arranged for me to spend two days every couple of weeks at NYU-Bellevue

                        Medical Center.  And this is where Teuber was working with [Morris] Bender. 

                        They had both been in the U.S. Army Medical Corps together during the war and

                        after the war they remained together studying brain-injured war veterans.  When I

                        was at Hartford I would commute biweekly to New York by car or train.  I did it

                        for three or four years.  Luke Teuber had a lot of young people with him who later

                        became well known, including Josephine Semmes, who was there because Ed

                        Evarts was doing a residency, probably in neurology at Cornell, I’m not sure. 

                        Lila Ghent-Braine, who had been at McGill with me.  Sid Weinstein.  Stan

                        Battersby.  There are a couple of monographs on visual and somatosensory

                        defects co-authored by Teuber and several of these people.  Luke not only had the

                        group at NYU, but he later moved to MIT and brought in a number of excellent

                        people to help train the next generation of neuropsychologists.  This was pivotal

                        to turning neuropsychology into behavioral and cognitive neuroscience.  He was

                        also a walking encyclopedia…he had an encyclopedic mind.  There was nothing

                        he did not know; and it was not superficial.  He was not a great experimentalist,

                        he was not a great theoretician like Hebb, but he was a fantastic teacher. 

Farreras:          What were you working on there?

Mishkin:          I was looking at the effects of frontal lobe lesions caused by penetrating brain

                        wounds in war veterans on some rather strange phenomenon having to do with

                        vision, posture, and equilibrium.  The subject sat in this tilting chair and we

                        looked at the effects of tilt on perception of the vertical in the light and in the

                        dark.  The chair was a mammoth piece of furniture. 

Farreras:          Your comment about turning neuropsychology into neuroscience made me think

                        of your Section in the Psychology Lab.  Why was it called Animal Behavior and

                        not Neuropsychology from the start?

Mishkin:          I’m sure there was a reason; it couldn’t have been random selection.  And it

                        couldn’t have been because no one else was working on animals.  We just

                        mentioned Don Blough, Jack Calhoun…  Blough did experiments on pigeons and

                        Calhoun was looking at rats or mice.  Those three sections – Aging, Perception

                        and Learning, and Animal Behavior – were sort of in a cabal because we always

                        felt as though we weren’t being treated properly by the clinical psychologists. 

                        God knows why.  We were trying to protect our turf and so we would mutter a lot

                        to each other.

Farreras:          Didn’t the Aging Section already exist prior to the Lab being formed?

Mishkin:          That may well be.  I think Nathan Shock may have started it.

Farreras:          I thought James Birren headed the Aging Section…?

Mishkin:          Yes, I think Birren was Shock’s student or associate.  You might want to check if

                        that’s correct.

Farreras:          I will.  Do you know why it was taken in by the Psychology Lab?

Mishkin:          I suppose it was necessary to find a home for groups like that.  I don’t know if

                        there were any others already in existence. 

Farreras:          I hear Kety really pushed for it but what was the rationale for establishing this

                        Psychology Lab in the first place?  It was post-World War II and there were a lot

                        of veterans returning…but the emphasis in the intramural program here wasn’t so

                        much on mental health treatment…

Mishkin:          It was in the clinical area.  I shouldn’t say that in a blanket way but Dave

                        Shakow’s interest was in treatment.  He was a true clinician.  But he was also

                        interested in making it as experimental as possible and therefore he did

                        experiments, including having interviews videotaped.

Farreras:          Yes, he taped an entire psychoanalysis.

Mishkin:          Yes, and examined it to see what was going on.

Farreras:          Yes, a very complicated and expensive process only to have it thrown away later.

Mishkin:          I don’t know.

Farreras:          Now that you’ve pointed it out, was the division between basic and clinical there

                        from the start of the Lab?

Mishkin:          What do you mean by “division”?

Farreras:          There was an organizational division where Basic Research consisted of

                        laboratories like Neurochemistry, that only had basic sections, and Clinical

                        Investigations consisted of branches like the Adult Psychiatry Branch that only

                        had clinical sections.  The Psychology Lab had sections in both:  Aging, Animal

                        Behavior, and Perception and Learning belonging to the Basic Research Division

                        and Personality, Child Development and the Section of the Chief belonging to the

                        Clinical Division.

Mishkin:          Yes.

Farreras:          Could you tell me a little bit about whether there were boundaries that clearly

                        demarcated them back then?

Mishkin:          It’s necessary to understand that, at this time, when we were just starting out,

                        there were questions about whether, because we were a federal institution,

                        Congress was going to dictate what we did.  That was the main issue for us.  Were

                        we going to be told, as scientists, what to do?  And because the National Institutes

                        of Health were organized around diseases – because this is how the public

                        provides its support based upon its knowledge of disease entities – we needed to

                        mount all this research effort to fight disease.

                         Scientists needed to make clear that direct attacks were rarely successful, and that ultimate success

                        would depend on conducting a lot of basic research.

Farreras:          So the basic scientists would not be made to feel as if they had to conduct

                        clinically-relevant research…?

Mishkin:          That was probably at the root of the concern and of any tension that there may

                        have been – and there was some – between clinical and basic.  The clinical people

                        probably felt secure; they were doing, essentially, the nation’s work, or at least

                        that was, I am sure, what many of them felt.  And we, the basic scientists, had a

                        somewhat different view of things:  that there was no way to do the nation’s work

                        at this stage of our knowledge – at least in our institute.  We had to understand

                        brain and behavior first.  There was no way we were going to understand these

                        things based on direct clinical interventions into mental disorders.  And I think

                        that we were proved right.

Farreras:          Would you say that the scientists in the basic sections were allowed to pursue

their own research interests?

Mishkin:          Yes, absolutely.

Farreras:          So they weren’t told, “there’s a pressing need to know more about X so this is

                        what you need to research right now.”

Mishkin:          There was no time that I can recall when any scientist I am familiar with was told

                        what to do.  These were all investigator-initiated research projects.  It was


Farreras:          Was there any research that was done because there was money appropriated for


Mishkin:          Yes, that could happen. 

Farreras:          Can you think of any examples?  Al Mirsky had mentioned to me that Bob Felix

                        was given something like $6 million to do work on mental retardation and they

                        had to brainstorm experiments they could do to spend that money.

Mishkin:          Yes, that could happen.  That’s a bribe, though; it’s not the same as dictating.

Farreras:          In the sense that at least there’s funding to do certain research?

Mishkin:          But no matter how much money is put into a particular project, it is taking it away

                        from other pockets because there’s only so much money.  So, it really is not a

                        good idea from a scientific point of view.  And yet you can’t say that too

                        strongly because sometimes the research that gets started for the wrong reason

                        comes out with significant answers that would not have been found otherwise. 

                        That’s science.  One likes to think that the research monies should all go to people

                        who have good ideas, the goodness of them being judged in the only way that we

                        know how, by peer review.  It’s not good.  It’s just that there’s no better way that

                        we know of.  But peer review is awful.  It is awful.

Farreras:          At the hiring level, would you say it was scientific excellence or the promise of

                        social relevance that was being used as the criterion to hire people who became

                        part of the Psychology Lab?

Mishkin:          There was always a little bit of both.  It’s hard to say.  Within a particular lab, one

                        might say, as we usually did, that we weren’t looking for any particular kind of

                        scientist, we were looking for the best person available.  But the labs that got set

                        up were set up presumably because of the felt need to do research in that area, so

                        it had to be both.  There’s no way to say that it could be one or the other. 

                        Sometimes one is more important, sometimes it’s the other, but in the end there is

                        always a compromise between both needs:  for something relevant in the sense of

                        some felt need to have a theme pursued and for the best person, independent of

                        relevance.  It’s only a question of how narrowly or broadly one determines the

                        category in which the best persons fall.  If it’s very narrow, that means that there

                        is a big effect of the felt need for research in a particular area.  And if it’s very

                        broad, then, one assumes that scientific excellence is paramount.  The change that

                        has taken place over the last decade at NIH is a measure of how important the felt

                        need to pursue a theme can be, because molecular biology blossomed in this

                        period, and the need was to bring in people who were good at it.  It couldn’t be

                        just anybody.  It had to be people who made use of molecular biology.  And this

                        has, of course, happened all over the country and all over the world, but it’s just

                        one example of the way in which felt need can be critical in the selection of


Farreras:          Would the funding that was available in the Psychology Lab go toward hiring

                        new people who were considered good for the Lab, or would it go to established

                        scientists already in the Lab who had ongoing research programs?

Mishkin:          In the early development of the Laboratory of Psychology and the parts of it that I

                        know, people were brought in in the mid ‘50s so that we filled up all potential

                        slots.  That, of course, created a problem because everybody who was brought in

                        was not necessarily great.  Some left who were really good.  Others who were not

                        so good stayed, and it caused a problem in the later years because there was no

                        place to bring in new people.

Farreras:          Who was in charge of the hiring?  Was it always Shakow or was it someone

                        above Shakow?

Mishkin:          The hiring within sections?  No, not Shakow, the Section Chiefs.  Dave Shakow

                        never interfered.  As far as I remember the Section Chiefs determined who would

                        be in their sections.  Shakow may have had to okay it but I bet that he felt that he

                        would have to depend upon the judgment of the Section Chief.  Why else have a

                        Section Chief?

There’s one interesting story about Shakow I want to tell you before closing.  One

thing that Shakow did, which was really great for the Lab, was hold a wonderful

picnic supper at his home in Bethesda every year to which he invited all of the Lab scientists.  He and his wife, Sophie, were wonderful hosts.  And I only mention that as an introduction to what I wanted to say next, which is that in the late ‘50s, in ‘58, we were visited for the first time by Jerzy Konorski from the Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology in Warsaw.  He knew about our work but we, or at least I, had never heard of him.

Farreras:          You mean your work within the Animal Behavior Section.

Mishkin:          Yes.  He was doing frontal lobe studies in dogs and he knew all about the Western

                        literature but we didn’t know anything about the Eastern European literature.  So

                        it was tremendously exciting to know that there were people there doing this kind

                        of research.  I sort of gravitated to Konorski and he invited me to come to Poland,

                        which I did in early 1959 for three or four months.  And since that time I’ve had

                        very close interactions with the people from the Nencki Institute.

But the story is that Dave Shakow and Sophie, before I left, had my wife and me,

Hal and Mary Rosvold, Bob Livingston – who at that time was the Scientific Director of NIMH – and maybe a couple of other people to his home for dinner to wish me a good trip.  That was the main purpose of the dinner.  Dave Shakow was about the same size as Jerzy Konorski, which is short, and I was leaving in the dead of winter for Poland.  And I don’t know how it came up in conversation at the dinner table, but I didn’t have a winter coat.  So Dave Shakow gave me his winter coat.

Farreras:          To take to Poland with you?!

Mishkin:          Yes!  And I took it, and it was wonderful.  I couldn’t have survived the winter

                        without it.  This was just a couple of nights before I left and there was no time to

                        get a tailor.  I had my arms sticking way out and my legs sticking out…  But still,

                        it was very helpful! 

                        I’ll tell you a little bit more later.


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