Ethologist Robert Allen Gardner, who gained fame in the late 1960s for his work with a chimpanzee named Washoe, died on August 20 at the Reno ranch where much of his research was conducted. He and his wife were best known for teaching sign language to chimpanzees. He was 91.
Gardner was born February 21, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York. An obituary from the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) states that his parents worked for a bootlegger during prohibition. As a baby, his mom and dad would bring him on deliveries, as a nice, young family out together was not likely to arouse suspicion. According to the obit, Gardner delighted in telling the story of his early life of crime to friends.
In 1950, Gardner graduated with a degree in linguistics from New York University, followed by his doctorate in psychology from Northwestern University in 1954. He then spent time in the US Army and taught at Wellesley College. Gardner married zoologist Beatrix “Trixie” Tugendhut in 1961 and took a position at UNR in 1963. In 1984, Gardner cofounded UNR’s Center for Advanced Studies and served as its director from 1990 to 1993. He retired as professor emeritus in 2010.
Though they had no children of their own, the Gardners were foster parents to young chimpanzees. Their efforts to teach the chimps American Sign Language would garner the couple international fame and change the conversation on nonhuman primate communication.
In 1966, the Gardners took in Washoe, who was approximately 10 months old at the time and came to the United States by way of the US Air Force. According to his obituary in the Reno Gazette Journal, Allen and Trixie presented their findings at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) the following year. The Gardners kept Washoe for nearly five years and claimed to have taught her more than 130 signs. Over the years, they taught four other chimpanzees to sign as well.
See “Linguistic chimp dies”
An archived version of his UNR faculty page states that Gardner’s work centered on the “effects of raising young chimpanzees as human children,” particularly as it applied to intelligence, social development, and language. His research was predicated on the notion that chimps wouldn’t learn in sterile, laboratory settings; it was only in familial settings that the animals could learn true communication.
The Gardners’ claims that the chimps in their care learned language have garnered a fair amount of criticism over the years. Detractors argue that the nonhuman primates were simply conditioned to signal for food rewards. “There was no spontaneity, no real use of grammar,” Columbia University cognitive psychologist Herbert Terrace told The New York Times in 2007 after Washoe’s death. Other researchers say the team’s apes did learn to communicate; Duane Rumbaugh, a scientist emeritus at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, called the Gardners’ chimp research “Absolutely frontier-breaking work” in 2007, the Times reports.
Gardner was preceded in death by Trixie in 1995, his younger brother, and Washoe.