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B.F. Skinner, Behavioral Scientist Who Invented 'Skinner Box,' Remembered By His Daughter

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BF SKINNER
B.F. Skinner's younger daughter, Deborah, in the 'baby tender' he and his wife invented. | BF Skinner Foundation

This week marks the birthday of B.F. Skinner. The celebrated and sometimes controversial American behavioral scientist, who was born in Susquehanna, Penn. on March 20, 1904 and spent much of his career as a psychology professor at Harvard University, would have turned 109.

Skinner, who died in 1990, is best remembered for his radical ideas about animal and human behavior. A story on the PBS website described him in this way:

Skinner expressed no interest in understanding the human psyche... He sought only to determine how behavior is caused by external forces. He believed everything we do and are is shaped by our experience of punishment and reward. He believed that the 'mind' (as opposed to the brain) and other such subjective phenomena were simply matters of language; they didn't really exist.

But Skinner wasn't interested only in theorizing about behavior. He invented a cage-like laboratory apparatus that allowed researchers to observe and control the behavior of laboratory mice. After the success of what came to be known as the "Skinner box," Skinner and his wife developed a climate-controlled, glass-lined enclosure that he considered far superior to the standard baby crib. Skinner called the device a "baby tender," and he and his wife used the device with their daughter Deborah, who was born in 1944.

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He wrote about how he and his wife came up with the baby tender in the October, 1945 issue of Ladies Home Journal:

We began by going over the disheartening schedule of the young mother, step by step. We asked only one question: Is this practice important for the physical and psychological health of the baby? When it was not, we marked it for elimination. Then the "gadgeteering" began.
The result was an inexpensive apparatus in which our baby daughter has now been living for eleven months. Her remarkable good health and happiness and my wife's welcome leisure have exceeded our most optimistic predictions, and we are convinced that a new deal for both mother and baby is at hand.

The article featured a photo of Deborah in the enclosure, and some people who saw it mistakenly believed that she was being raised in a Skinner box, according to Snopes.com. Then came rumors that Deborah's time in the tender had caused her to suffer emotional problems -- and eventually to commit suicide.

Neither rumor is true, according to Skinner's elder daughter. Dr. Julie Vargas, who now serves as president of the B.F. Skinner Foundation in Cambridge, Mass., told The Huffington Post in a telephone interview that Deborah is alive and well and living in London. The only obvious effect of spending time in the tender, Dr. Vargas said, was that Deborah had had no colds during the months when she was using it.

Dr. Vargas speaks with pride about her father's scientific legacy, telling The Huffington Post that "he devised a completely new science" -- one that spotlighted the importance of immediate consequences in determining an individual's behavior.

How does she remember her dad?

"He spent an enormous amount of time with us," she said, adding that he had taught her how to use hand tools and to throw overhand. "He was a wonderful father."

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