“Laboratory Babies” in the APA Monitor

The May 2011 Time Capsule section of the APA Monitor on Psychology features a piece by Ann Johnson on the development of the Minnesota Institute of Child Welfare, now the Institute of Child Development. Johnson’s focus is on the Institute’s aborted plan to open an infant laboratory where babies would live and be studied around the clock. The article recounts that,

In late 1925, Minnesota psychologist Florence Goodenough, PhD, wrote excitedly to her mentor at Stanford University, Lewis Terman, PhD, about plans to open the new Minnesota Institute of Child Welfare. As the institute’s chief research scientist, Goodenough would oversee several research projects on children and supervise graduate students. She was particularly enthusiastic about the institute’s plan for securing some very young research participants: “There will be organized an infants’ home where from six to 10 infants will be kept from birth up to the age of two or three years for observation and study. Plans for this are under way, but as yet we have no babies.”

Although plans for a Minnesota Institute of Child Welfare infant laboratory were never realized, placing babies in university-based laboratory settings was not as outlandish an idea as it might seem. At the time that plans were underway to establish a psychological infant laboratory “laboratory babies” were already in place elsewhere on the campus:

In 1914, the Minnesota Home Economics Department opened the first of two “home management houses,” sometimes called home laboratories. These were model homes in which junior- and senior-level home economics majors lived and gained hands-on practice — as well as course credit — for managing domestic tasks. In 1919, a new feature was added: a baby for each house. Working with local child welfare agencies, the home economics administrators arranged for these model homes to qualify as foster-type homes for local orphan babies or other infants separated from their families. These “laboratory babies” became the subject of a 1920 article in Ladies Home Journal titled “The Baby with Forty Mothers.” The subtitle: “A University Course in Home Making with Real, Live Infants for Textbooks.”

These “laboratory babies” or “practice babies” were not unique to the University of Minnesota. From the 1910s through to the 1960s practice babies were used in “practice apartments,” meant to train women in the practices of scientific mothering, in home economics programs across the United States. Details of the use of practice babies in the Cornell University program (left) have been recently fictionalized in the book The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald. The book draws on material available in an online exhibit of the history of the Cornell home economics program. Further details on practice babies can be found in the New York Times review of Grunwald’s book, as well as in this blog post and in this NPR piece (audio available online).

The full Babes in Arms article can be read online here.

Thanks to Elissa Rodkey and the Society for the History of Psychology‘s facebook page for pointing AHP to the sources on Grunwald and the history of practice babies.

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About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a doctoral student in the History and Theory of Psychology program at York University. Her dissertation explores the early history of questionnaires in American psychology.

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