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Curt Richter

Institutional affiliation: 1919 - 1989

Curt Richter

As a 25 year old grad student, Curt Richter came to Hopkins to work in the fledgling field of behavioral psychology. He stayed for another fifty-odd years, ensconced in his lab in the Phipps building, grounding Meyer's psychobiological idea in experimental research.

Richter may not be a household name, but he did the pioneering work on a concept that every jet-lagged air traveler has experienced firsthand: the biological clock. Before Richter, behavioral scientists focused on how an organism coped with change in the environment. Richter was able to show that the body has its own rhythms independent of the direct influences of the environment. For example, a lab rat exposed to the daily comings and goings of graduate students maintains a fairly regular 24 hour schedule of activity. But if the lighting and activity are carefully controlled so that the rats receive no cues about the time of day, they still maintain a regular schedule of roughly 24 hours. The concept of a drive to maintain regularity in behavior - that is, of activity motivated to maintain homeostasis - has been enormously fruitful in furthering our understanding of the functions of the brain.

In a way, Richter's work reflected the pragmatic essence of Hopkins psychiatry. Where Meyer turned his focus on the biographical facts of the patients in his care to understand where things went wrong, Richter saw and exploited the opportunity to make the facts of a rat's life in a cage a source of data about what makes an organism tick.

Dean MacKinnon, M.D