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DATE: 1972

LENGTH: 38 min

CATEGORY: Research & Documentation, Sound, Color

PRODUCER/PUBLISHER: National Institute of Mental Health, Time-Life Broadcasting


John B. Calhoun was a research psychologist for 40 years at the National Institute of Mental Health. One of his areas of study was the effects of overcrowding. Dr. Calhoun constructed mouse colony “universes” where rodent residents had plenty of food and water, and were safe from predators. What they didn’t have was space. In this film, Dr. Calhoun explains, and the viewer sees, the effects on the animals of sustained overcrowding. The resulting “behavioral sink” shows the mice engaged in aberrant actions such as hyperaggression, compulsive grooming, failure to reproduce, and infant cannibalism. Mortality rates climbed and the population collapsed….Read The Essay

Supplementary Materials

John B. Calhoun Film 7.1 Transcript

Read the transcript

Stills from John B. Calhoun Film 7.1

Finding Aid to Calhoun Papers

Explore the Finding Aid to the John B. Calhoun Papers at NLM

Research data, audio and video tapes and film, photographs and negatives, charts and graphs, and reprints document Dr. Calhoun’s research activity at NIMH’s Section on Behavioral Systems. Users will also find much information about NIH internal and external politics. Calhoun was often on the cutting-edge of behavioral research during a time of dramatic scientific organizational change at NIH. He arranged the entire corpus of his research documentation within a series entitled the Historical Flow Chart (HFC). In addition to this, Calhoun employed several other organizational schemes, such as numbered Section on Behavioral Systems (SOBS), Unit for Research of Behavioral Systems (URBS), Internal Research Query (IRQ), Research Communications (RC), “Review and Synthesis,” and alphanumeric document sets. Users will find these organizational codes throughout the collection. These materials provide exceptional insight into Calhoun’s own mind and thought processes.

Images from the John B. Calhoun Papers at the National Library of Medicine

John B. Calhoun Papers. 1909-1996. Located in: Archives and Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 586.

Additional Films at the National Library of Medicine

Calhoun’s Work
Behavior of Wild Norway Rats
(Rattus norvegicus): a study conducted by John B. Calhoun from 1947 to 1959 near Towson Maryland

U.S. Government Films

The U.S. Army and the U.S. Public Health Service produced many films in the 1940s and 1950s about the habits of rats, the perils of contamination and disease, how to ratproof homes and buildings, and as necessary, how to poison rats effectively. See links below to two titles from NLM Digital Collections.
Keep ’em Out
Practical Rat Control: Ratproofing

Articles and Essays

The researcher who loved rats and fueled our doomsday fears
By Fredrick Kunkle, Washington PostRetropolis column, June 19, 2017.

Medical Historian Examines NIMH Experiments in Crowding
In 2008, essay author Dr. Edmund Ramsden visited NLM and delivered a History of Medicine lecture titled “Finding Humanity in Rat City: John B. Calhoun’s Experiments at NIMH”.

Population Density and Social Pathology
In this 1970 piece published in the Western Journal of Medicine, Calhoun writes about the destructive social implications of severe overcrowding. “In the celebrated thesis of Thomas Malthus, vice and misery impose the ultimate natural limit on the growth of populations. Students of the subject have given most of their attention to misery, that is, to predation, disease and food supply….But what of vice? Setting aside the moral burden of this word, what are the effects…of population density on social behavior?”

Death Squared: The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population
In a 1973 article published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, Dr. Calhoun describes his experiments and findings. “I shall largely speak of mice, but my thoughts are on man, on healing, on life and its evolution. Threatening life and evolution are the two deaths, death of the spirit and death of the body….”

More Medicine on Screen

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