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Beavers, brains, behaviour: the natural histories of 1950s psychiatry

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In 1956 officers of the Air Research and Development Command in the United States Air Force visited the Institute of Brain Anatomy in Bern to discuss possible collaborations. They rejected proposals to investigate aging, the effects of high altitudes on pain perception, and a comparative study of human and dolphin brains. Within months researchers came to settle on a mutually attractive research project: the investigation of beaver brains and behaviour. This paper argues that the beaver study exemplified certain preoccupations in 1950s anatomy and ethology beyond the American military fascination with bats, dolphins, and other extraordinary mammalian species. It places the project within the Institute’s research programmes in clinical psychiatry and neuropathology, highlighting contemporaneous attempts to trace the ‘natural history of laughter and crying’ in case studies. Bern’s highly particular confluence of beavers, brains, and behaviour showcases the significant enthusiasm about ethology as an auxiliary science in psychiatry, and it illuminates the resonance of naturalist traditions in post-war medicine.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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