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John B. Calhoun Papers 1909-1996
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Biography

Biographical Note

John B. Calhoun was born in Elkton, Tennessee in 1917. He earned his B.A. at the University of Virginia in 1939 and went to Northwestern University to pursue his doctorate in zoology, a subject which had fascinated him since childhood. While studying at Northwestern, Calhoun decided that he would spend his professional life "developing an animal model of population ... one which examines aging, behavior and survival in the context of complexities of the physical and environment." He believed this focus would provide insights that could be applicable to human populations.

Upon graduating from Northwestern in 1943, he spent the next three years teaching. While teaching biology at Emory University and zoology at Ohio State University, Calhoun conducted his own research on evolution. In 1946 he joined the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health as a participant in the Rodent Ecology Project, studying the ecology and sociology of Norway rats. During this three-year period at Hopkins, Calhoun also initiated the North American Census of Small Mammals.

In 1951, after spending two years investigating the influence of heredity on social organization of mice in designed habitats at Jackson Memorial Laboratory at Bar Harbor, Maine, he studied with Dr. David M. Rioch at Walter Reed Army Medical Center Division of Neuropsychiatry at the Army graduate school, and wrote on the concept of a home range theory. In 1954 he left Walter Reed to join the Section on Perception in the Laboratory of Psychology at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Dr. Calhoun spent the rest of his career at NIMH. Among his notable early activities was the creation of the Rockville-Casey Farm facility (1958-1962) for the experimental study of population dynamics and social behavior. At the Casey barn, he observed what he termed the "behavioral sink." This referred to aberrant behaviors such as hyperaggression, failure to breed normally, infant cannibalism, increased mortality, and aberrant sexual patterns in overcrowded population density situations. His general conclusion was that "space itself is a necessity."

After a spending a year as a fellow at Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, Calhoun shifted the focus of his research to the past and future of human evolution. With this in mind he formed the Unit for Research on Behavioral Systems (URBS) at NIMH's Laboratory of Brain Evolution and Behavior (LBEB) in 1963 and served as its first director. There he designed environments to study identity formation, population growth, social withdrawal, and value formation and change.

Dr. Leonard Duhl joined Calhoun in forming the "Space Cadets" in 1965. This group was concerned with the social uses of space and conducted discussions over a two year period. In 1968-69 Calhoun studied overpopulation and extinction. He observed the effects on a mouse community that was allowed to overpopulate. He concluded that an ultimate pathology resulted from overcrowding which caused a complete end to reproduction, leaving the entire population to become extinct. Calhoun coined the term "universal autism" to describe the members of this group's terminal generation who were autistic-like and incapable of social behavior essential for species survival.

Dr. Calhoun organized a new research program in 1974-75, based on his earlier study, to clarify the origin of the ultimate pathology and to "counteract effects of crowding through inducing acquisition of culture by rats, and develop an operational model that simulates the way concepts are associated in the human brain." By 1984 these topics were augmented with research on the "influence of cooperative behavior on reducing the impact of crowding in rats, vocal communication in rats, and MAM induced microencephaly and its influence upon social behavior of rats in complex environments."

Though he retired from NIMH in 1984, Dr. Calhoun continued to analyze his research and write on his conclusions until his death on September 7, 1995.