R. Allen Gardner, 91, Dies; Taught Sign Language to a Chimp Named Washoe

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Washoe was 10 months old when her foster parents began teaching her to talk, and five months later they were already trumpeting her success. Not only had she learned words; she could also string them together, creating expressions like “water birds” when she saw a pair of swans and “open flower” to gain admittance to a garden.

Washoe was a chimpanzee.

She had been born in West Africa, probably orphaned when her mother was killed, sold to a dealer, flown to the United States for use of testing by the Air Force and adopted by R. Allen Gardner and his wife, Beatrix. She was raised as if she were a human child. She craved oatmeal with onions and pumpkin pudding.

“The object of our research was to learn how much chimps are like humans,” Professor Gardner told Nevada Today, a University of Nevada publication, in 2007. “To measure this accurately, chimps would be needed to be raised as human children, and to do that, we needed to share a common language.”

Washoe ultimately learned some 200 words, becoming what researchers said was the first nonhuman to communicate using sign language developed for the deaf.

Professor Gardner, an ethologist who, with his wife, raised the chimpanzee for nearly five years, died on Aug. 20 at his ranch near Reno, Nev. He was 91.

His death was announced by the University of Nevada, Reno, where he had joined the faculty in 1963 and conducted his research until he retired in 2010.

When scientific journals reported in 1967 that Washoe (pronounced WA-sho), named after a county in Nevada, had learned to recognize and use multiple gestures and expressions in sign language, the news electrified the world of psychologists and ethologists who study animal behavior.

The Gardners, who were childless, raised the young ape on their ranch in her early years.

Her ability to form simple phrases — like gesturing “Me, Washoe” when she looked in a mirror — was a linguistic feat that Roger Brown, a Harvard psychologist, told The New York Times was akin to “getting an S.O.S. from outer space.”

“Absolutely frontier-breaking work,” Duane M. Rumbaugh, a scientist emeritus at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, said in retrospect in 2007.

The Gardners’ findings challenged the premise that humans are uniquely equipped to express themselves through language. Their research also expanded educators’ understanding of the ways children learn language, and of how to apply that knowledge to people with learning disabilities.

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