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John B. Calhoun Papers

Identifier: MS C 586


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.


  • 1909-1996


196.27 Linear Feet (170 boxes + oversize)

Physical Location

Materials stored onsite. History of Medicine Division. National Library of Medicine

Language of Materials

Collection materials primarily in English

Access Restrictions

No restrictions on access.

Copyright and Re-use Information

Donor's copyrights were transferred to the public domain. Archival collections often contain mixed copyrights; while NLM is the owner of the physical items, permission to examine collection materials is not an authorization to publish. These materials are made available for use in research, teaching, and private study. It is the user's responsibility to research and understand any applicable copyright and re-publication rights not allowed by fair use. NLM does not grant permissions to publish.

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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.

Collection Summary

The bulk of the collection documents research conducted by Dr. Calhoun during his career at NIMH. Users will also find much information in Calhoun's writings 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. Calhoun 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. Calhoun often duplicated documents in these sets within the HFC. Boxes 19, 135, and oversize 2 contain Calhoun's own HFC diagrams and documentation about how his research interrelated and how his papers were organized. These materials provide exceptional insight into Calhoun's own mind and thought processes.

A variety of audiovisual records supports the paper documentation. Audio reels and audiocassettes, video reels and videocassettes, and motion pictures were created from 1957 through 1988. Small sections of the collection hold some biographical information about Dr. Calhoun's life and career, along with a disparate group of NIMH administrative reports and correspondence.

Communication of research results and investigative theories are revealed in a set of reprints of Dr. Calhoun's writings (1941-1986), which are arranged by set numbers, and are followed by drafts and versions of other writings that continue beyond the dates of the reprint set or are not included in it.


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.

Physical Location

Materials stored onsite. History of Medicine Division. National Library of Medicine


Gift, from Edith Calhoun, Acc. 1997-017, 2001-066, 2004-022, and from American Heritage Center, 2008-064.


Processed by
Jim Labosier
Processing Completed
February 2012
Encoded by
Jim Labosier
Finding Aid to the John B. Calhoun Papers, 1909-1996
Unverified Partial Draft
Jim Labosier
February 2012
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid is written in English
Edition statement

Collecting Area Details

Part of the Archives and Modern Manuscripts Collection Collecting Area

8600 Rockville Pike
Bldg 38/1E-21, MSC 3819
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