Rockefeller Archive Center

Rockefeller Archive Center Research Reports are created by recipients of research travel stipends and by many others who have conducted research at the RAC. The reports demonstrate the breadth of the RAC's archival holdings, particularly in the study of philanthropy and its effects. Read more about the history of philanthropy at Also, see the RAC Bibliography of Scholarship, a comprehensive online database of publications citing RAC archival collections.
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“If Human Ears Were Tuned to Bat Frequencies": Inaudible Sound and the Sciences of Bat Echolocation

October 27, 2022

This report provides draft excerpts from my PhD dissertation titled "The Inaudible Sounds of Science and Medicine: Animals and Media from the Galton Whistle to Bat Echolocation," a chapter of which explores the laboratory work of Donald R. Griffin – and especially the emergence of the concept of bat echolocation – as it contributed to a sonic history of "ultrasound" and other typologies of liminal sound vibrations. Such "inaudible sounds" repeatedly defied amplification (efforts to make them louder); their frequencies were too high or too low to vibrate the human eardrum. But humans have long suspected that insects, bats, dogs, and other animals could hear them and communicate through them. The following research on bat echolocation in the Griffin laboratory is one aspect of a much more comprehensive historical project, which platforms nonhuman listeners in 19th- and 20th-century experimental contexts as they repeatedly pushed the limitations of human hearing. Broadly speaking, the dissertation suggests that animal figures are useful vectors for exploring an expanded history of sounds, including high-pitched frequencies, in science and medicine. My objective is to better understand how scientists designed media and choreographed animal listeners in order to make meaning from the sounds they could not hear on their own. I am most invested in understanding how humans exploited, collaborated with, and coexisted with animals to make sense of the insensible – or, to understand the unheard bestial worlds of communication.  In this report, I draw on material from the Donald R. Griffin Papers, held at the Rockefeller Archive Center, which includes a vast array of Griffin's laboratory notebooks, correspondences, sound films, newspaper clippings, and publications. The analysis spans the years between Donald Griffin's first experiment on bat navigation in the dark (1938) – conducted during his early graduate training years – and his postwar research on the physical principles of bat pulses into the 1960s.  More specifically, I characterize the ways in which various forms of media were deployed in experimental settings to study bats and the inaudible sounds emitted by them for orienting their bodies in flight. Scientists and collaborators of the Griffin lab relied on an array of mixed media, from the sound transposing devices of Harvard physicist George W. Pierce, to mechanical-visual apparatuses such as cathode-ray oscillograms and sound spectrographs, through to hand-written laboratory notes and printed correspondences and – ultimately – the bats themselves, to answer their questions. Furthermore, I explore the epistemic techniques of listening for sound and silence in the Griffin laboratory, in which the ears and eyes of scientists interfaced with special acoustic media to produce certain knowledges about bats and their patterns of flight. This project also engages with the highly militarized scientific contexts that constituted Griffin's work on bat echolocation.

Biology and Medical Research; Donald R. Griffin Papers; Rockefeller University; Technology; World War II

Donald Redfield Griffin, American Zoologist: Report on Archival Research

January 14, 2022

Donald Redfield Griffin (1915-2003) was an American zoologist best known for his discovery of echolocation and for his later work on animal consciousness. He was a central figure in behavioral biology and sensory physiology in the United States, and he made important contributions to the disciplinary and intellectual development of animal behavior research in the second half of the twentieth century. During his early career, he focused on the sensory physiology of animal navigation. Along with fellow Harvard graduate student Robert Galambos (1914-2010), in the late 1930s, Griffin discovered the ultrasonic method of orientation in bats; in 1944, he coined the term "echolocation" to describe this phenomenon as a general method of perception. In addition to his discovery of echolocation, Griffin also made several contributions to understanding the physiological basis of bird migration and navigation, and he popularized in the United States zoologist Karl von Frisch's (1886-1982) dance language theory of the honeybee. In 1976, Griffin surprised the scientific world by raising the question of animal consciousness, a taboo in professional science for most of the twentieth century. Beginning with his provocative book, The Question of Animal Awareness (1976), Griffin devoted the second phase of his career to making animal consciousness a scientifically respectable topic once again. Here again, he made significant contributions to the study of animal behavior by establishing a new field of science, cognitive ethology, which is centered on the evolutionary and comparative analysis of consciousness and cognition in animal behavior.

Biology and Medical Research; Detlev W. Bronk Papers; Donald R. Griffin Papers; Rockefeller University

Health-Related Prison Conditions in the Progressive and Civil Rights Eras: Lessons from the Rockefeller Archive Center

September 23, 2020

During my 2019 visit to the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), I viewed papers from more than a dozen collections, which provided perspective on how health, incarceration, politics, and policy intermingled in the twentieth century. In this report, I offer an overview of my book project, Minimal Standards of Adequacy: A History of Health Care in Modern U.S. Prisons, and analyze how portions of it will be informed by two sets of documents from the RAC. I focus first on records contained in the Bureau of Social Hygiene records, which shed light on the perspectives of Progressive Era penologists who helped to shape ideals and practices related to prison health in specific institutions, as well as in state and federal correctional systems. Next, I discuss findings from the papers of Winthrop Rockefeller, who served as governor of Arkansas from 1966 to 1970, when federal courts deemed conditions within the state's prison system unconstitutional. While I continue to undertake research for the book, this report serves as a snapshot of my current reading of select sources from two different moments in the history of US prisons. It suggests the extent to which, throughout the twentieth century, carceral institutions posed tremendous health threats to the increasing numbers of people inside them, even as radical advocates urged drastic change, and as reformers, corrections professionals, and political representatives called for more rules, regulations, and bureaucracy.

Bureau of Social Hygiene; Crime and Criminal Justice; Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial; Medicine and Healthcare; Rockefeller Family; Rockefeller University; Winthrop Rockefeller Papers

The History of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, 1966-1989

June 18, 2019

January 1, 2019 marked the 40th anniversary of normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and China. Scholars and policymakers are deeply divided over the virtue of U.S. engagement with China in the past 40 years, with some criticizing it as failure and others defending it as success. Both camps would probably agree, however, that the complexity of U.S.-Chinese relations rules out a simple answer. The dense, thick web of economic, cultural, and educational ties, most of which did not exist in the 1950s and 1960s due to Cold War tension, constitute the contemporary Sino-American relationship.

Detente; Detlev W. Bronk Papers; International Relations; National Committee on United States-China Relations; Rockefeller University

Shadow Diplomats: American Humanitarianism in the Era of the World Wars, 1900-1948

October 25, 2018

This project examines the development of American humanitarianism in the era of the world wars. It explores how, in the absence of state power, private citizens often filled the void. Their activities expand the common definition of diplomacy by noting myriad ways private organizations and individuals, including the Rockefeller Foundation and its partners, attempted to influence the direction of American foreign relations. The primary argument here is to demonstrate that American citizens, who grew frustrated at the lack of government involvement in world affairs during the first-half of the twentieth century, sought to insert themselves into positions of power and influence. This project shows that, in the absence of the state, many American individuals and NGOs formed partnerships and coordinated their humanitarian activities on a global scale. In specific ways, they undertook the roles and strategies of foreign policy professionals: stationing professionals in foreign offices, raising and appropriating large sums of money, providing food and medicine, coordinating the mass migration of refugees, and negotiating with foreign governments. By doing so, they acted as "shadow diplomats" – working as a shadow government in opposition to the recognized state authority, but also working in the shadows, away from most public attention and scrutiny, because they reasoned that quiet actions would produce the desired results.

Alfred E. Cohn Papers; Humanitarian and Disaster Relief; Institute of International Education; Office of the Messrs. Rockefeller RG 2; Refugee Scholars; Rockefeller Family; Rockefeller University

Radio Research and Refugee Scholars: American Philanthropies Respond to the European Crisis before the War, 1933-39

July 19, 2018

University presidents and foundation administrators in the United States viewed the global refugee crisis precipitated by Hitler's rise to power in Germany in 1933 as a serious humanitarian disaster in need of immediate attention.  It was also, in their view, a historic opportunity to salvage the great minds of Central Europe.  For the officers of the Rockefeller Foundation, the crisis coincided with an increasing interest in sponsoring studies on radio and mass communications, public opinion, and the vulnerabilities of Western democracies to fascism.  Many European social scientists, with their background in empirical research, were ideally suited to study these problems.  The sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld, for example, chose to remain in the U.S. as a Rockefeller fellow when fascism took hold in his native Austria in 1934, and he went on to become the head of a major research institute at Columbia University.This paper considers the efforts of American citizens, academic elites, and foundation officers to aid refugee scholars and researchers by placing them at American institutions and supporting their work through grants and other forms of aid.  Officers in the Humanities and Social Sciences divisions of the Rockefeller Foundation, working in concert with the leaders of organizations like the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, were instrumental in supporting these émigrés and their work in the United States.  The Emergency Committee, with the financial assistance of the Rockefeller Foundation, assisted more than six-hundred refugee scholars with securing university appointments and grants over its twelve years of existence.

Academic Research and Education; Alfred E. Cohn Papers; Education; General Education Board; Institute of International Education; Mass Communications; Radio; Refugee Scholars; Rockefeller Foundation; Rockefeller University; Social Sciences

Sweet Blood: An Environmental History of Diabetes and Chronic Disease in America

October 6, 2017

Every day, millions of Americans prick their fingertips, feed blood into a glucose meter, and adjust their diet in a ritual to stay healthy. This is the diabetic way of life, what many older diabetics call having the "sweet blood." And it has become an American way of life, affecting about one in ten people with rates among minorities and the poor in double-digit percentages. The complications are serious and deadly—neuropathy, blindness, cardiovascular disease, and renal failure—with total costs around $245 billion for 2014 alone. Dr. Frank Vinicor, former American Diabetes Association president, has called diabetes "the Rodney Dangerfield of diseases": expensive to treat, hard to manage, and easy to ridicule.

Biology and Medical Research; Commonwealth Fund; Medicine and Healthcare; Office of the Messrs. Rockefeller RG 2; Rene J. Dubos Papers; Rockefeller Brothers Fund; Rockefeller Family; Rockefeller Foundation; Rockefeller University; The Medical Letter

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