Allen Gardner, whose groundbreaking research along with his late wife Beatrix “Trixie” Gardner involving the chimpanzee Washoe made worldwide headlines when Washoe became the first nonhuman to learn American Sign Language in the late 1960s, passed away on Aug. 20 at his home in Reno. He was 91.
Gardner was a faculty member at the University in the Department of Psychology from 1963 until his retirement in 2010. He and his wife’s cross-fostering work with Washoe was done at their research laboratory located in their home in Reno, which came to be known as “The Ranch.” Allen and Beatrix, known as “Trixie,” replicated their success between 1972 and 1981 with four additional infant chimpanzees, Moja, Pili, Tatu, and Dar.
Allen and Trixie adopted 10-month-old Washoe in 1966. In the backyard of their home in Reno, the two psychology professors began teaching Washoe American Sign Language. In 1967, when Washoe was about 15 months old, they reported early results to a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New York. The Gardners reported Washoe had learned signs for numerous words. The New York Times wrote that, “The Gardners reported that the chimpanzee created expressions like “water birds” for a pair of swans and “open flower” to gain admittance to a flower garden.”
Their findings caught the attention of researchers throughout the world. “It was absolutely frontier-breaking work,” said Duane Rumbaugh, scientist emeritus at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, a nationally recognized research center, in 2007. The news of Washoe signing the words “water” and “bird” was akin to “getting an SOS from outer space,” Harvard psychologist Roger Brown said in 2007.
The Gardners’ research findings set off a torrent of cognitive research over the next decade. Their renown helped boost the University’s national prestige.
Heather Hardy, the former dean of the College of Liberal Arts, remembered how prevalent knowledge of the Gardners’ work was.
“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,” Hardy said in a 2007 Nevada Today interview. Hardy had attended Rice University as an undergraduate in the 1970s. “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 hope that this research would shed light on the nature of human language as well.”
Hardy added, “I was very pleased to come to the University as dean of a world-class class psychology department that includes such a respected researcher. Dr. Gardner has made significant contributions to research 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 bootlegger. According to Gardner’s obituary, his father and mother would bring baby Allen with them on deliveries. They appeared to be such a nice young family that people never suspected what they were doing. Allen loved being able to claim his criminal role during prohibition, and beamed whenever he told the story.
Gardner earned his B.A. from New York University in 1950, then his M.A. from Columbia University in 1951. He earned his Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 1954 where he studied learning theory under the notable psychologist Dr. Benton Underwood. His first research position was at the Army Medical Research Laboratory. At a lecture on “Love,” given by noted psychologist Harry Harlow, Allen met Trixie who, in 1961, became his wife and subsequent research collaborator. The couple moved to the University of Nevada in Reno (UNR) in 1963.
Allen Gardner began his university career studying principles of learning in rats. However, it was the Gardners’ pioneering studies with cross-fostered chimpanzees, beginning with Washoe in 1966, that gave him media prominence.
Allen and Trixie, then both professors of psychology at UNR, insisted on rigorous methods even in the apparent lax conditions of their cross-fostering laboratory. The relaxed home-like conditions provided the chimpanzees an environment that resembled that of human infants. Rigorous controls during testing eliminated the possibility of leading, ensuring that any signs the chimpanzees produced originated with them. The Gardners continued publishing new analyses 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 chronicling the cross-fostering research.
At the time the Gardners began their studies, captive chimpanzees typically lived in barren cages, exposed to only spoken language, which chimpanzees are able to understand, but appear physically unable to produce. A mainstay of captive chimpanzee care today, an enriched environment was crucial to the success of the cross-fostering studies. The Gardners realized that it would be impossible to draw valid 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 completed the cross-fostering protocols by providing a two-way means of communication with the infant chimpanzees.
Washoe continued to live with the Gardners until she was about five years old, and students would come to the Gardners’ home to observe Washoe’s interactions and signing. At one point, the Gardners related to a reporter that they had compiled more than 3,500 pages of handwritten field notes. In April 1974 Washoe was the subject of a feature shown on the PBS science series, Nova, entitled, “The First Signs of Washoe.”
“The idea was that when she got older, we’d move her back to the university,” Trixie Gardner told the Reno Gazette-Journal in a 1995 interview. “But it never happened.”
“People have the most amazing notions of what an animal can’t do,” Allen Gardner added in 1990 interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal, noting that he and his wife never referred to Washoe or subsequent chimpanzees as “subjects” or “pets” but rather as “foster family.” Allen told the Ogden, Utah Signpost in 1986 that the key determination in research method for Washoe was in sign language, and not in trying to teach Washoe speech. “In the past experiments in raising chimps, speech was the drawing line,” he said.
“The object of our research was to learn how much chimps are like humans,” Allen Gardner said in a 2007 Nevada Today interview. “To measure this accurately, chimps would be needed to be raised as human children and to do that, we needed to share a common language.”
Invitations to lecture about the signing chimpanzees arrived 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 opportunity to see chimpanzees in the wild.
Allen co-founded and was a psychology fellow of the Center for Advanced Studies at the University, and served as director from 1990-1993. He received the Foundation Professor Award in 1988. In 1992, Allen and Trixie collaborated with Italian primatologist Dr. Bruno Chiarelli on a NATO-funded conference held in Cortona, Italy, bringing together students and notable scientists from around the world to discuss the Ethological Roots of Culture.
In 1995, Trixie Gardner died suddenly while they were on a lecture tour in Italy. Allen and Trixie had been collaborating on a textbook that isolated assumptions of current learning theories, reviewed evidence for each, and showed a path for moving forward.
Three years after Trixie’s death, Allen completed and published their book The Structure of Learning: From Sign Stimuli to Sign Language, which serves as an introduction to their feed-forward notion of 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 Central Washington University’s Ellensburg campus as part of the Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute on the 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 collaborating and publishing with his former students.
Allen’s younger brother, Herb Gardner, was well-known for his syndicated Sunday comic strip, The Nebbishes, and for his play A Thousand Clowns. Allen’s brother preceded him in death. Chimpanzee Tatu, the sole surviving participant of the cross-fostering studies, now resides at Fauna Foundation, a chimpanzee sanctuary near Montreal, Quebec.
(Note: This story contains verbatim passages from Allen Gardner’s obituary as well as additional reporting and quotes from news articles of the time.)