In 1966, University researchers Allen and Beatrix Gardner began a revolutionary experiment to raise chimpanzees as human children and teach them to communicate using American Sign Language. Washoe, the first of five chimpanzees to acquire language, died Oct. 30, at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute in Ellensburg, Wash., where she has lived for more than 20 years. Washoe is believed to have been 42.
The Gardners' work with Washoe earned international acclaim, and helped elevate the University's research profile during that time.
"The object of our research was to learn how much chimps are like humans," said Allen Gardner, professor of psychology. "To measure this accurately, chimps would need to be raised as human children and to do that, we needed to share a common language."
The Gardners raised Washoe and four other chimpanzees - Moja, Pili, Tatu, and Dar - in their rural Reno home. Chimpanzees were the preferred choice for the research because chimps and human children share long childhoods. Chimps are not weaned until age 4 or 5 and will have their first child around 15.
The Gardners taught the chimps to use American Sign Language (ASL) because chimps and humans have similar hand dexterity.
"The human voice box is unique, so attempting to teach primates to use speech wouldn't work. In addition, humans are the noisiest animals - you only need to go to a restaurant to know that," Gardner said. "Chimps are very silent unless disturbed. Using sign language respected their natural silence while allowing them to have conversations with us."
All of the chimps learned to use sign language, and it is the replication of their research that attracted international attention in disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, biology and linguistics.
"When I was an undergraduate linguistics major in college, the research performed with Washoe and the other chimps was included in every introductory linguistics textbook," said Heather Hardy, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, recalling her time as an undergraduate at Rice University. "The research was interesting and innovative and it attracted many students to the discipline. The notion of being able to communicate with animals appeals to people, but linguists hoped that this research would shed light on the nature of human language as well."
The Department of Psychology is administered by the College of Liberal Arts. "I was very pleased to come to the University as dean of a world-class psychology department that includes such a respected researcher. Dr. Gardner has made significant contributions to research in a number of disciplines," Hardy said.
Washoe is reported to have died from complications related to influenza.
"Chimpanzees are very susceptible to all childhood diseases and human diseases are very dangerous to chimps," Gardner said. "When we raised our chimps, they were treated by Immanual Berger, a very distinguished pediatrician. As it turns out, my students and the chimps were treated by the same doctor."
The international implications of the Gardners' research drew international interest to the University and helped raise the national visibility and scholarly reputation of the department of psychology.
According to the James Hulse, author of "The University of Nevada: A Centennial History", the Gardners' research "led to the production of a film and to numerous colloquia at other universities and abroad, and their first chimpanzee, whom they named 'Washoe,' became internationally famous."
Beatrix Gardner died during a lecture tour in 1995.