Dr. Curt Richter: Esteemed and complete American Psychobiologist

Curt Richter

Early Life of Curt Richter

Curt Richter was born in 1894, in Denver, Colorado. His parents had arrived several years earlier as immigrants from Germany. He did his undergraduate work at Harvard, with an interest in engineering, and did his doctoral work in the laboratory of John Watson at Johns Hopkins University. Watsonian the orizing, however, seemed to have little or no impact on him: As a graduate student, Richter for the most part worked alone, as he did most of his life, and was self educated.

Richter’s earliest recollections were of times spent in his father’s iron and steel factory, where he learned to do things with his hands. In his youth he learned to use all kinds of tools and particularly to work with iron, experiencing the joy of being able to hammer glowing iron into various shapes. He also learned to operate machinery and spent many hours taking locks and clocks apart and putting them together again.

At the age of 8 he ran his first experiment to find out whether the strength of a magnet could be increased. By gradually enlarging its load over a period of several months. He did this by adding a nail a day to a bag suspended from an armature on a small toy magnet having first determined how many nails the magnet could support at the start. During six summers he worked on a farm.

Curt Richter
Curt Richter

Professional Life of Curt Richter

After graduation from high school in Denver in 1912 Curt Richter went to Dresden, Germany, to study engineering at the Technische Hochschule. This lovely city opened an entire new world to him with its fine opera and theaters, its many other cultural opportunities, and exciting student life. 

For the first time he developed an interest in reading and went through much of English, German, and particularly Russian literature. At the same time he became much impressed with the thoroughness of German science. World War I brought this stimulating 3-year epoch to a close. He had passed his Vorprüfungan examination given at the end of 21/2 years but he decided to give up engineering and return home.

Curt Richter entered Harvard as a junior in 1915 and began a bewildering search for a new career. He thought of entering the diplomatic service but relinquished the idea fairly quickly; he then switched to economics but also gave that up at the strong urging of F. W. Tausig, head of the department. From a course entitled the “Philosophy of Nature” given by E. B. Holt, he first learned about Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis and proceeded to read practically everything that had been written about psychoanalysis up to that time-by Freud, C. G. Jung, S. Ferenzi, O. Rank, and A. A. Brill. This stirred up a new interest.


Entry in the experimental study of animal and human behavior

An experimental course on animal behavior by Robert M. Yerkes, many talks with biochemist Lawrence J. Henderson, and a book on animal behavior by John B. Watson showed Richter a way in which he could combine what was emerging as his greatest interest the experimental study of animal and human behavior with an opportunity to work with his hands.  

After 2 years in the Army Curt Richter started graduate work with Watson at the Johns Hopkins University.  At the invitation of Adolf Meyer, head of the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Watson had just moved his laboratory from university campus at Homewood to the Phipps Clinic. Watson told Richter that the only thing required by Hopkins for the Ph.D. Was a good piece of research the number of courses taken was not important.

Experiment of Curt Richter

Reaction of rats to foods and poisons

Curt Richter work on the biological clocks has proven fundamental in the analysis of behavior. The body is replete with endogenous clocks. Experiments with rats in which he removed various endocrine glands and then demonstrated behavioral responses to correct the physiological imbalances are classic. For example, he found that after loss of the parathroid gland, calcium is chronically lost; however, if given access to calcium, the rat can maintain its calcium requirements. 

He found similar effects in vitamin deprived rats. Behavioral responses to maintain the internal milieu took their most dramatic form in the self selection experiments, in which he demonstrated that rats could maintain the constancy of various energy, mineral, and vitamin requirements when offered a choice of them in a purified form. The demonstration of behavioral homeostatic regulation is one of the hallmarks of the Richter legacy.

Watson introduced him to the Norway rat, destined later to become Richter’s favorite experimental animal. In observing rats Richter became impressed with the great amount of activity that seemed to occur without any external stimuli and decided to study this gross spontaneous bodily activity in an effort to find out what lay behind it.

 By means of a simple cage and recording d vice that he constructed, Richter found almost at once that the activity is not irregular, but occurs in cycles of 1½ to 2 hours. This discovery was the start of an enduring interest in periodic phenomena in animals and also in humans both in normal subjects and in psychiatric patients. Some results of these studies were summarized in Biological Clocks in Medicine and Psychiatry .

Up to this point in his graduate training Richter had not had any firsthand experience in biology. He had not even pithed a frog. To satisfy a suddenly aroused interest in anatomy and physiology, he dissected a body in the anatomy laboratory on his own and likewise worked his way through many experiments in the physiology laboratory.

After Curt Richter graduated, Meyer put him in charge of Watson’s laboratory with an appointment as psycho biologist, gave him complete freedom in his research, and influenced his development in countless other ways. Since Richter was not burdened with any great desire for book learning, most of his knowledge from that time on came from results of firsthand experiments. His investigations ranged widely through the fields of behavior, physiology, neurology, and nutrition.

Study of spontaneous running activity of rats in revolving drums became a main and lasting interest, not only because of the cyclic nature of such activity but also because it turned out to be one of the best tools for the study of interrelationships between various internal needs and behavior. Richter used it in the study of endocrine glands, nutritive needs, and functioning of the central nervous system. He became impressed very early with the rat’s ability to take care of its internal needs.

Richter found, for instance, that adrenalectomized rats (which lose their physiological regulators of salt metabolism and so die within 10-15 days) will, when given access to salt solution, drink enough to maintain their normal salt balance and so keep themselves alive. He showed that rats will make beneficial selections not only from electrolytes but also from fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and also some vitamins. He also demonstrated the ability of rats to avoid many kinds of poisons. He showed that the rat maintains homeostasis by behavioral as well as physiological regulators.

Because of this knowledge of the reaction of rats to foods and poisons, Curt Richter was appointed by the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II to work out a program for quick citywide extermination of rats in case of ratborne germ warfare. Thousands of wild rats were trapped and brought into the laboratory for study. In this way Richter made the acquaintance of wild Norway rats. Comparison of behavior, functions of the endocrine glands and central nervous system, and gross anatomy revealed great differences between ordinary laboratory rats and their wild ancestors.


Curt Richter received his B.S. at Harvard University in 1917 and his Ph.D. At the Johns Hopkins University in 1921. From 1922 he was director of the psychobiological laboratory of the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic; later he became professor emeritus of psychobiology. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and an honorary member of Phi Beta Kappa (Harvard), the Harvey Society, and the Baltimore Medical Society. He received the Warren Medal of the Society of Experimental Psychologists, the scientific award of the American Psychological Association, and the Hamilton Award of the American Psychopathological Society.


Curt Richter became aware of the wonderful opportunity offered for the study of effects produced by domestication on this animal, specimens of both the domesticated forms and their wild ancestors being available in large numbers. This resulted in the discovery of a rat poison-ANTU, a thiourea compound-and also in an extensive study of the physiology of the thioureas in general. Comparison between effect of domestication of the rat and human civilization were discussed in the paper “Rats, Man and the Welfare State.” Studies of wild rats led also to chance observations on the phenomenon of “sudden death” in animals and humans.


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