Dr. W. Grey Walter

Dr. W Grey Walter's portrait as it appears in the foyer at the BNI

There are various bio's out there on Grey Walter already, but I thought I'd try a  different approach.  One of the better references on Grey Walter and his tortoises is, interestingly enough, the book titled "Discussions on Child Development" in one volume 1971. Most researchers on Grey Walter and his tortoises usually only reference the Swindon archive extract which contains only the text of one section. I encourage you to buy this book and read all the Grey Walter notes.  The book is a collection of Proceeding on meetings on Psychological Development of the Child 1953, 1956, 1958, 1960.  All the speakers introduce themselves, so let me let Grey Walter introduce himself  (p21, Book 1):

" Well, sir, I may add to your confession of cosmopolitanism that I have an American mother and an English father, and that I share a birthplace with Norbert Wiener, T. S. Eliot, and Harry Truman. I was born in Missouri. For that reason my life has been one long illustration of the need to 'show me'.

I am an experimental scientific worker. I started my training in the University of Cambridge as a fairly pure neurophysiologist in the school of Adrian and Matthews, and I spent five years there, studying the detailed neurophysiology of the peripheral nervous system. I then had the honour of being delegated by my professor, Sir Joseph Barcroft, to work with a Rockefeller Fellow—one of the first and few who came from Leningrad–on conditioned reflexes. I was given the task of acting as his assistant and becoming familiar with the classical techniques of the Pavlovian School. I spent two years at that work, having a good background already of neuro­physiology. I was enabled first of all to introduce a number of modernizations into the Pavlovian technique, to assure myself of the essential accuracy of the Pavlovian hypotheses, and to become much impressed with the manner in which the Pavlovian workers at that time were able to distinguish factors related to personality in their experimental creatures, both animal and man. Since that time, as you know, that particular aspect of Pavlovian work has been rejected and denied by the Soviet authorities, and very few people, I think, understand how important the typology of Pavlov was, in the early days, to the development and scope of the Pavlovian theories.

After we had realized that to extend the work in Cambridge would cost far more money than was available, I had t he good fortune to be appointed as a Rockefeller Fellow at the Maudsley Hospital in London, where my approach to the human problem was directed and inspired by Professor Golla, who was then setting up a new laboratory for the multi-disciplinary study of the human organism; I had the role there of physiologist. There I was introduced to the study of the electrical activity of the brain, which as a physiologist I had previously considered to be inaccurate and unlikely to lead to any information, the brain being, of course, at that time a most objectionable subject of study. I had the opportunity to visit many European centres of brain physiology preparatory to setting up our own laboratory. I met Berger and Foerster and various other workers in the field of brain physiology. Our laboratory was set up mainly for the application of electroencephalography to psychiatric problems, but we were very soon more heavily involved with neurology, and I devoted a number of years to the study of organic lesions of the nervous system. It was rather a tough apprenticeship for a physiologist, having to relearn neuroanatomy and apply it to what was then an extremely inaccurate and troublesome method of study.

At the end of my period at the Maudsley, just before the War, I moved with Golla to Bristol, where I am now, and once again had to redirect my ideas towards the more generalized physiology of the human nervous system. Our plans were interrupted by the War. During the War we devoted our attention mainly to the problem of head injuries and epilepsy in Service personnel, but at the same time occurred the opportunity to deal with more normal physiology in matters quite relevant to the meeting here, that is the problem of children evacuated from the cities. Hundreds of ill-behaved and, in fact, horrible creatures descended upon us from the slums of big cities, presenting one of the most serious problems which my country has had to face: the disposal of these young creatures in schools, billets, and so forth. We found that the application of physiological techniques to the separation, selection, and classifica­tion of these children was astonishingly valuable. From that time dates my interest in the relevance of the physiology of the nervous system to the study of how children grow up, how the influences of environment and heredity, nurture and nature, combine to make the child as it is.

These interests have been paramount in my scientific thinking, combined obviously with the early influence of the Pavlovian School, and I have attempted particularly to quantify methods of study, to develop men and machines able to make objective and concrete appreciation of the problems which we encounter in this sort of work. This approach seems to me to have been neglected in the past, and ignorance here is liable to produce considerable misunderstanding if projected further. "

More to come next blog entry here…  

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