Harry Harlow

Harry Harlow bigraphy, stories - Psychologists

Harry Harlow : biography

October 31, 1905 – December 6, 1981

Harry Frederick Harlow (October 31, 1905 – December 6, 1981) was an American psychologist best known for his maternal-separation, dependency needs, and social isolation experiments on rhesus monkeys, which demonstrated the importance of care-giving and companionship in social and cognitive development. He conducted most of his research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow worked for a time with him.

Harlow’s experiments were controversial; they included rearing infant macaques in isolation chambers for up to 24 months, from which they emerged severely disturbed.Harlow HF, Dodsworth RO, Harlow MK. Some researchers cite the experiments as a factor in the rise of the animal liberation movement in the United States.


Many of his experiments would be considered unethical today, and their nature and Harlow’s descriptions of them heightened awareness of the treatment of laboratory animals and thus contributed to today’s ethics regulations. Gene Sackett of the University of Washington in Seattle, who was one of Harlow’s doctoral students, has stated that he believes the animal liberation movement in the U.S. was born as a result of Harlow’s experiments.Blum, Deborah. Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection. Perseus Publishing, 2002, p. 225.

Willam Mason, another of Harlow’s students who continued deprivation experiments after leaving Wisconsin,Capitanio, J.P. & Mason, W.A. , California Regional Primate Research Center, University of California, Davis. 1: J Comp Psychol. 2000 Jun;114(2):115-25. has said that Harlow "kept this going to the point where it was clear to many people that the work was really violating ordinary sensibilities, that anybody with respect for life or people would find this offensive. It’s as if he sat down and said, ‘I’m only going to be around another ten years. What I’d like to do, then, is leave a great big mess behind.’ If that was his aim, he did a perfect job."Blum, Deborah. The Monkey Wars. Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 96.


Born Harry Israel on October 31, 1905 to Mabel Rock and Alonzo Harlow Israel, Harlow grew up in Fairfield, Iowa, the second youngest of four brothers. After a year at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, Harlow obtained admission to Stanford University on a special aptitude test. After a semester as an English major with nearly disastrous grades, he declared himself as a psychology major.

Harlow studied largely under Lewis Terman, the developer of the Stanford-Binet IQ Test, who helped shape Harlow’s future. After receiving a Ph.D. in 1930, Harlow changed his name from Israel to Harlow. The change was made at Terman’s behest for fear of the negative consequences of having a seemingly Jewish last name – although the family was not Jewish.McKinney, William T. (2003). Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection. American Journal of Psychiatry, 160, 2254-2255.

Directly after completing his doctoral dissertation, Harlow accepted a professorship at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Harlow was unsuccessful in persuading the Department of Psychology to provide him with adequate laboratory space. As a result, Harlow acquired a vacant building down the street from the University, and he and his graduate students renovated the building into what became the Primate Laboratory, one of the first of its kind in the world. Under Harlow’s direction, it became a place of cutting-edge research at which some 40 students earned their Ph.D.s.

Harlow received numerous awards and honors, including the Howard Crosby Warren Medal (1956), the National Medal of Science (1967), and the Gold Medal from the American Psychological Foundation (1973). He served as head of the Human Resources Research branch of the Department of the Army from 1950–1952, head of the Division of Anthropology and Psychology of the National Research Council from 1952–1955, consultant to the Army Scientific Advisory Panel, and president of the American Psychological Association from 1958-1959.