Thursday, November 01, 2007


There is an obituary in today's New York Times that is quite different from "normal". The obituary marks the passing of a chimpanzee, named Washoe.
The Times obit is entitled "Washoe, a Chimp of Many Words, Dies at 42"
It begins " She spent her early years playing in the backyard of a small house in Reno, Nev., learning American Sign Language from the scientists who adopted her, and by age 5 she had mastered enough signs to capture the world's attention and set off a debate over nonhuman primates' ability to learn human language that continues to this day."
I remember Washoe well. It was around 1970 that I read my first article about her. She had been taught to take in water by using a coffee cup. She also had a small doll that she played with and "mothered". One morning she had placed the little doll in the cup and signed to her "parents" the immortal words ......."Baby in my drink!" Every few years I would run across another article about Washoe as she continued to amaze scientists around the world with her sign-language vocabulary.
Later in life I met a gentleman, now a good friend, that was well familiar with sign language. While with the Labor Department in the Carter administration he employed an attorney who was "deaf and dumb" as we called it in those days. My friend had to learn American Sign Language to be able to communicate with the attorney. The young man eventually got to represent the Labor Department in an action in a court in Atlanta, and became the first lawyer to argue and win a case using only American Sign Language as his method of communication.
One year I took a Civil War Battlefield trip with my friend and got to meet one of his daughters who lived in Winchester, Virginia. Her children were being taught three languages from toddler period on ...... English, Spanish, and American Sign Language. By the time I met them, they were in the general Kindergarten age group, and were fluent in all three languages.
ASL is apparently easy to learn, especially if you are working with an eager, developing mind. What a brilliant experiment for these scientists to do with Washoe. What a totally exciting event that must have been when those first moments of communication occured with another member of our "family tree" !! And how fulfilling it must have been to continue to communicate with her as she passed from "kindergartner" into adult life, and to know at least part of what she was thinking.
Goodbye Washoe......We humans, who most evolutionary scientists now label as "The Third Chimpanzee", mourn your passing.
Read the full NY Times article at

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