Popular Science

These 1950s experiments showed us the trauma of parent-child separation. Now experts say they're too unethical to repeat—even on monkeys.

A childhood without affection can be devastating, even if basic needs are met.
mom child holding hands

Laboratory research on the parent-infant bond among monkeys began in earnest in the 1950s.

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John Gluck’s excitement about studying parent-child separation quickly soured. He’d been thrilled to arrive at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in the late 1960s, his spot in the lab of renowned behavioral psychologist Harry Harlow secure. Harlow had cemented his legacy more than a decade earlier when his experiments showed the devastating effects of broken parent-child bonds in rhesus monkeys. As a graduate student researcher, Gluck would use Harlow’s monkey colony to study the impact of such disruption on intellectual ability.

Gluck found academic success, and stayed in touch with Harlow long after graduation. His mentor even sent Gluck monkeys to use in his own laboratory. But in the three years Gluck spent with Harlow—and the subsequent three decades he spent as a leading animal researcher in his own right—his concern for the well-being of his former test subjects overshadowed his enthusiasm for animal research.

Separating parent and child, he’d decided, produced effects too cruel to inflict on monkeys.

Since the 1990s, Gluck’s focus has been about the ramifications of conducting research on primates. Along the way, he has argued that continued lab experiments testing the effects of separation on monkeys are unethical. Many of his peers, from biology to psychology, agree. And while the rationale for discontinuing such testing has many factors, one reason stands out. The fundamental questions we had about parent-child separation, Gluck says, were answered long ago.

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