I was explaining Pavlov’s work on classical conditioning to my daughter the other day and I had to do a quick search to recall Pavlov’s first name. (It was not Teddy, which was my first guess).

While doing this research I learned that a psychology professor named Edwin Twitmyer actually posted similar research a year before Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (Really, his initials were I.P. And he was a big nerd. I’ll bet he got teased a lot.)

While Pavlov used a metronome and focused on making dogs drool what I.P. pretentiously called “psychic secretion” (Which in turn inspired the creation of several X-Men during the 90’s probably) Professor Twitmyer grabbed a bell and set out to prove that humans are little more than a big bag of stimulus/response.

Eddie left his dogs at home and asked for several volunteers. Once they were all situated he would ring a bell and crack them in the knee with a hammer. Or mallet or whatever they call that reflex whacker thing. Much like I.P. slowly removed the dog food from the process, Twitmyer slowly removed the whacker thing and discovered the bell alone was enough to elicit the reflex from his human subjects. The effect was so powerful, in fact, that they couldn’t even stop the reflex if they tried.

So why is it Professor Edwin Twitmyer and his paper, “Knee Jerks Without Stimulation of the Patellar Tendon” (no doubt a riveting read), have been all but forgotten while everyone talks about I.P. all over the place?

It was too soon to be a Russia/U.S. cold war thing.

It wasn’t a matter of documentation. Even if I.P. painfully took meticulous notes, it’s not like Twitmyer didn’t. And he had half a dozen lab specimens that could testify to the effect.

Was it a matter of dignity? It’s a little embarrassing to think we humans are so easily manipulated by bells and whacker things. Maybe they were trying to spare us the embarrassment.

My guess is it came down to his name. The world’s phycologists simply couldn’t have Edwin running around saying he figured out classical conditioning so they worked with I.P. discretely to steal the credit rightly owed to Twitmyer and the half dozen twits that participated in his experiment.

The phrase “Pavlovian response” sounds sophisticated and can be said with an air of dignity while holding a cocktail. “Twitmyerian response,” on the other hand, doesn’t quite roll off the tongue so you’d have to shorten it. Then you’ve got Twit’s response. It sounds like a joke rooted in base humor not the rarified air of academia. (You’d also have to call that knee whacker thing he invented for whacking knees a Twit Stick and that wasn’t going to happen if John Madison Taylor, Joseph Babinski and Ernst Trömner had anything to say about it.)

I think that’s the most likely reason Edwin Twitmyer was denied his place in history and I.P. gleefully let his dogs take the man’s place. Psychology was serious business in 1902. Thankfully this prudishness would come to an end just a couple years later when Freud started in with the mom jokes.

This is old stuff. It was sent to subscribers at least a week ago. Get it when it’s new. Get Graying Matter delivered to your inbox each week. You’ll get a free book, too. Sign up here.


I want to give you an audiobook.

It's a collection of short stories about time travel, alien invasions, selling homes in alternate dimensions, giant combiner robots, post-apocalyptic beagles and much more. And it's all read by the amazing Phil Thron.

It's yours when you sign up for my newsletter. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!