Who Was Little Albert? The Story Continues…

Little Albert and a rat.
Little Albert and a rat. Source: http://hopkins. typepad.com/guest/images/2007/11/03/tanya8.jpg

For generations, psychology students have been asking the question, “Whatever happened to Little Albert?”, the baby who John B Watson and Rosalie Rayner conditioned to fear furry things back in 1919. Five years ago, it seemed that the question had finally been answered when Hall Beck of Appalachian State University in North Carolina and his colleagues published the results of some intensive archive-snooping. They declared that “Albert B.” (as the baby was called in the original report) had actually been Douglas Merritte, a child who died of hydrocephaly just a few years after the experiment. Now, however, two psychologists in Alberta are disputing that claim, and The Chronicle of Higher Education has just published an article on the matter.

Back in 2009, the answer to the question of “Albert’s” identity was “nice to know,” but not the kind of thing that was going to alter the basic historical understanding of Watson, Rayner, and their famous experiment. The issue became much more explosive, however, when, in 2011, Beck and some colleagues with extensive expertise in developmental neurological pathology published a second article in which they argued that the baby in Watson’s “Albert B.” film displayed signs of severe mental disability. They further suggested that Watson may have known about the child’s condition, might even have selected Merritte intentionally to facilitate obtaining the results he wanted, and then hidden the fact in his 1920 writeup of the results. An ethical storm naturally ensued.

Russell Powell and Nancy Digdon of MacEwan University in Alberta were never completely persuaded by Beck at al.’s evidence for Merritte in the first place, and they were even  less convinced that the baby in the film evinced neurological impairment. They returned to Beck’s original sleuthing, following up the case of a wet-nurse at the institution where Albert’s mother had worked; a woman about whom Beck et al. had found little information: Pearl Barger. Intriguingly,  her last name began with “B,” just like the “Albert” of Watson and Rayner’s report. With the assistance of a professional genealogist, Powell and Digdon discovered that Pearl Barger had given birth to a boy, quite possibly on the  very day of Douglas Merritte’s birth, and that she had named her son William Albert. The kicker, though, was that she had called him by his middle name: thus, “Albert B.” She soon married and changed her baby’s name to that of her husband, Martin (which itself had been changed from Martinek), making him difficult to track. In contrast with Douglas Merritte, William Albert Barger/Martin was a robust, healthy boy, just like Watson reported, and he went on to live a long life, dying in 2007 at the age of 87.

The debate continues.

P. S. A full article on the matter by Powell & Digdon is forthcoming in American Psychologist.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.