Pulitzer-winning science journalist Blum (Journalism/Univ. of Wisconsin; Sex on the Brain, 1997, etc.) offers a biography of an innovative, controversial psychologist.
Harry Harlow (1905–81) was a deeply troubled man who struggled his whole life with human relationships; yet, in his primate laboratory at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he worked for 44 years, he discovered how love works. Harlow was one of the psychology pioneers in “attachment theory,” the then-revolutionary idea that a close physical relationship between mother and infant was essential to a child’s development. Social skills and adaptability were learned in large part from this important first human relationship. Harlow experimented with numerous variations of “motherhood,” depriving baby monkeys of mothers altogether, substituting warm and cold “cloth moms,” and examining ways in which young monkeys attempted to compensate for their mothers’ absence. Defying long-held views that coddling babies or being over-responsive to their needs would spoil their chances of survival, Harlow showed that those who received the most love often performed best in later life. In the 1960s, he turned his attention to its antithesis—loneliness and depression, work that held new meaning for him as he grieved the premature death from cancer of his beloved wife Peggy. No sooner did Harlow’s work make him famous, however, than his ideas got him into trouble with the emerging women’s movement. His conviction that mothers had a singular capacity as child-rearers flew in the face of a growing feminist consciousness that sought a larger role for women in society. Harlow, a caustic W.C. Fields type with a fondness for drink, only worsened his situation by boldly asserting that biological differences between men and women were immutable and, when angered, flashing misogynistic sentiments in print and at psychology conferences. Toward the end of his life, even many old friends and colleagues chose to avoid him.
A sympathetic and evenhanded treatment of Harlow’s life and work—and an absorbing look at 19th- and 20th-century notions of child psychology.