W.A. Horsley Gantt (1892 – 1980)

Witness Post: Horsley Gantt

My two older sisters, Eleanor and Millie, met a tall man with chiseled cheeks, intense eyes, wild eyebrows, hair on the sides of his head (not much on top), and the most joyful outward leaning spirit. He was trim and elegant and seemed to know lots about how things worked in the world. His name was Dr. Gantt to us, but his friends called him Horsley. Having never heard of a man named Horsley before, I had never met anyone like Dr. Gantt before either, so the oddities all fit together.

Dr. Gantt was retired when we met him, but you couldn’t tell it from his calendar. He was often traveling as a guest lecturer to scientific organizations all over the world. When he was back in the States, he was equally busy. For relaxation he most loved to talk with “young adults” to find out what they were thinking. He had a particular penchant for students who were interested in the sciences or in any matter of the mind.

Our family connected with Dr. Gantt through a program called “Science Seminars,” which were open to high school juniors and seniors in Baltimore, Maryland. Our oldest sister, Eleanor, applied to and was accepted into the seminars, and one year later, she was joined by our sister, Millie. The lectures were held at Johns Hopkins and had exotic titles like “The Physiology of the Conditioned Reflex.”

As Millie recalled years later: “I enjoyed a number of evenings listening to these amazingly smart and accomplished people talking about things I had never heard of or thought about before. There were writers on speaking terms with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and scientists from the Manhattan Project and microbiology. I was tongue-tied, and probably incredibly awkward, but the Seminars really came at an important time for me, and made me think that I wanted more, and that maybe the Ivy League wasn’t out of my reach.”

Dr. Gantt took an immediate liking to Eleanor and started to invite her to his soirées, which were hosted at his home in the Roland Park section of Baltimore. The evening parties were co-hosted by Dr. Gantt and his wife, Rebecca Bromiley, who was affectionately named, Boots. Their guest list included a mixture of young people and very learned older colleagues, like John Dos Passos. Eleanor and Millie were in awe of these speakers and their level of thinking. They came home with stories that were full of fascination and awe. Dr. Gantt and my sisters became fast inter-generational friends; and our parents and brothers and sisters were great admirers of Dr. Gantt and Boots over the years.


Dr. Gantt (left) with two smiling friends

Dr. Gantt came to our home in Baltimore, Maryland, a few times and he told us stories of his years of study at laboratories in the Ural Mountains of Russia. His work was just as Russia was politically transforming into the Soviet Union. When he talked about Russia, my mind went racing. The 1965 movie, Dr. Zhivago, had just come out, and when Dr. Gantt was talking, I had images of Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in my head with a train steaming across the snow-covered valleys toward safety in the Ice Palace. Dr. Gantt said that he was one of many scientists invited to participate in research projects studying dogs and other animals with Prof. Ivan Pavlov, who was writing a theory he called, conditioned stimulus response. I did not know anything about how or why dogs salivated, but when Dr. Gantt explained the principles, they made sense. Having been drooled upon by our dogs when I fed them, I knew that food somehow triggered the drooling. He called it “Pavlovian.”  It would be a few more years, when I was studying Psychology in high school before that meaning became clear.

Gantt Biography

William Andrew Horsley Gantt was the son of a Virginia businessman and a college-educated mother. Both of his grandfathers were medical physicians. Born on October 24, 1892 Horsley was a healthy child. A younger brother arrived in the next year. The Gantt’s lived on a Virginia farm estate named “Rock Cliff,” located along the James River. Tragedy struck the family in 1895, when his father died suddenly. Horsley was only three, and his mother began teaching school to support him and his younger brother. Despite great financial hardship, the boys enjoyed a robust, adventurous childhood on the farm and in the nearby town of Wingina, Virginia.

When Horsley was twelve years old, his mother moved the family to Charlottesville, Virginia, and enrolled him in the Miller School on scholarship for gifted and talented children. Horsley graduated from Miller with the highest marks ever earned at the time. He attended the University of North Carolina on a partial scholarship and studied biology, chemistry, and physics. To supplement his meager stipend, Horsley tutored fellow undergraduates in his subject areas and even taught physics and chemistry at the nearby Greensboro High School. After his undergraduate studies, he enrolled at the University of Virginia, where he received his M.D. degree in 1920.


In 1922, Horsley Gantt left Virginia and took a train to New York. He immediately left New York by steamer and headed to Petrograd (now Leningrad). He had volunteered to serve with Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration (ARA) providing medical assistance to Russian citizens. While there Gantt began a study of the effect of war and famine on the health of every day Russians, and at the same time he collected data and reminiscences for a history of Russian medicine. With an ear for language, Gantt picked up Russian and in short order he was nearly fluent.


Dr. Ivan Pavlov

Following his work with the ARA, and after brief stays in London, England, and Helsinki, Finland, Dr. Gantt returned to Russia to study with physiologist Ivan P. Pavlov in his Leningrad laboratory. It was this work with Pavlov which most profoundly directed Gantt’s scientific career. Gantt became deeply involved with Pavlov and his studies into conditioned reflexes, staying to research and study with Pavlov for five years. In Dr. Gantt’s estimation, Ivan Pavlov’s research and findings ranked up there with Charles Darwin’s in their importance to the world of science.

Life for Dr. Gantt was not all work and no play. He loved to go on day and overnight hikes in the Ural and Caucasus Mountains. He invited an American writer friend to accompany him on hikes in the Caucasus’s. His name was John Dos Passos. The friendship with this American author lasted for the rest of their lives.

Pavlovs Dog Experiments On PavlovCartoon On Point, from the canine point of view

Pavlov had investigated the conditional reflex in his famous studies of the bell and the salivating dog. Gantt in turn spent the next fifty-six years in the laboratory continuing the experimental investigation of the conditioned reflex in the classic Pavlovian method. He established two Pavlovian Laboratories in the United States, first at Johns Hopkins in 1929, and later at the Veterans Administration in Perry Point, Maryland. In addition, he founded and presided over the Pavlovian Society, and edited the Society’s Pavlovian Journal of Biological Science (originally entitled — Conditional Reflex).

After Gantt returned from the USSR and joined the Phipps faculty, he expanded on Pavlov’s discoveries. Whereas Pavlov had studied the digestive system, Gantt aimed to apply the same principles of “the trainability of automatic physiological responses” to the cardiovascular system of humans. His discoveries about conditioned changes in heart rate and blood pressure contributed to the development of biofeedback as a therapeutic method in behavioral psychotherapy.

In other ways, Gantt worked to apply the principles of behavioral conditioning to the understanding of mental disorders. In developing the idea that some forms of psychological suffering might derive from a split in the conditioned responses of different bodily systems to the same stimulus, Gantt anticipated our modern concept of stress as a linkage between psychological suffering and physical illness.

Pavlov-DogPavlov in his laboratory with a dog

Gantt’s studies of medicine in Russia resulted in his publishing of several books and numerous articles concerning Russia and Pavlov. With the advent of the Cold War, Dr. Gantt was also an actively-sought public speaker. Many of his invitations were from colleagues who wanted to know what his years “behind the iron curtain” were like.

Fluent in Russian, Gantt translated many scientific works and papers. His scientific investigations yielded objective data in the field of behavioral biology, mainly focused on conditioning, pharmacology, and psychiatry.


Dr. Gantt with a patient on the operating table

Dr. Gantt continued to practice medicine well into his 70’s. He was a revered surgeon and scholar, two talents he honed and practiced his entire career.


A signed Book of Lectures by Ivan Pavlov for Horsley Gantt, 1925

Over the years Dr. Gantt published a vast number articles on a variety of topics which were aligned with his research. He boldly formulated his own theories of schizo-kinesis and auto-kinesis, which are still referenced by researchers today. Dr. Gantt was also an active member and officer of numerous professional psychological, pharmacological, and medical societies.


For his thorough research and breakthrough findings he received several prestigious awards. In 1944 he received the Lasker Award for his work on the experimental basis for neurosis, and in 1950 he was honored with the American Heart Association Award for his work on cardiac conditioning. He also was honored with the Gold Medal Award from the Society of Biological Psychiatry.

One final honor came to Dr. Gantt in 1970: he was nominated by colleagues in the medical community for the Nobel Prize in Medicine/Physiology. The Nobel committee passed over Gantt during his lifetime, though many of his former colleagues promoted the idea of honoring the breadth of Gantt’s professional contributions in the years before he died. The Nobel Prize committee missed the opportunity during his lifetime and later posthumous nominations went dormant.

John A. Popplestone, W. Horsley Gantt, and Bernard Weiss at the annual APA Meeting (1969)

From Left: John Popplestone, Horsley Gantt, Bernard Weiss at annual APA meeting, 1969

Dr. Gantt’s life was marked by enormous energy and dedication. He was known as a behavioral biologist with an insatiable curiosity. Not measuring his life in coffee spoons nor fancy acquisitions, he was philosophical about it all. He felt his life was filled with abiding friendships, which mattered tremendously to him. He also spoke often of his concern for global human welfare. These expansive qualities are vividly reflected in his personal papers.

Our sister, Eleanor’s former husband, David N. White, is a renowned plastic surgeon and sculptor. He got to know Dr. Gantt through Eleanor. Johns Hopkins Hospital had commissioned the rendering of a bust of Dr. Gantt, which is featured in one of the new wings of the hospital. Before Dr. Gantt’s health started to fail, he sat as a model for Dr. White. Pictured below, the bronze sculpture is a lasting tribute to this great thinker and researcher of the human mind and our human condition.


Bronze bust of Dr. W. A. Horsley Gantt (David N. White, MD, sculptor)


Image result for horsley gantt

Chronology (from http://www.medicalarchives.jhmi.edu/sgml/gantt/gtt-bio.htm)

Born at “Rock Cliff” in Wingina, Virginia, October 24.
Gantt’s father dies, October 3.
Attends Miller School for exceptional students on a scholarship.
Enrolls at University of North Carolina, on a scholarship, teaching chemistry and biology to pay his way.
Teaches physics and chemistry at Greensboro, NC High School.
Gantt’s mother dies, December 19.
Receives B.S. from University of North Carolina.
Receives M.D. from the University of Virginia.
Interns at Church Home Hospital and Union Protestant Hospital (now Union Memorial) in Baltimore.
While a resident in gastroenterology at University Hospital (Baltimore), Gantt is granted a leave of absence to join the American Relief Administration.
Arrives in Russia in June to begin serving as Chief, Petrograd Unit, American Relief Administration; collects data for study of effect of war and famine on health, and on the health care delivery system in Russia; in October of 1922 Gantt is introduced to Pavlov by his Russian colleague and translator, Nicholai Zelheim.
Resident, University College Medical School, London, where he studies liver pathology with Dr. John McNee.
Travels to Finland in August where he lives with a Russian-speaking family.
Returns to Petrograd in January to study with Pavlov at the Institute of Experimental Medicine.
Publishes Medical Review of Soviet Russia.
Translates and publishes Pavlov’s Lectures on Conditional Reflexes.
John Dos Passos and Gantt meet in Russia and hike in Caucasus Mountains together, becoming lifelong friends.
Leaves Russia, accompanying Pavlov and a delegation of Russian physiologists to Boston for the International Physiological Congress.
Adolf Meyer brings Gantt to the Johns Hopkins psychiatric staff to found the Pavlovian Laboratory, where he remains until his retirement in 1958.
Translates and publishes Alexis Luria’s Nature of Human Conflict.
Studies cerebral anatomy at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institut für Hirnforschung, Berlin.
Gantt and Adolf Meyer visit Pavlov in Russia.
Gantt marries Mary Gould Richardson on June 23.
Serves as an active member of the Foreign Policy Association, first as Secretary and then as Chairman (1944-46) of the Baltimore branch.
Visits Pavlov in Leningrad.
Pavlov dies on February 27 at age 86.
Gantt’s son, Andrew, is born.
Gantt’s Russian Medicine is published.
Gantt’s daughter, Emily Perkins (Perky), is born.
Translates and publishes Pavlov’s Lectures on Conditioned Reflexes: Conditioned Reflexes and Psychiatry.
Acts as Vice-Chairman of the Baltimore branch of the Russian War Relief.
Publishes Experimental Basis for Neurotic Behavior. Research completed for this publication earns him the Lasker Award in 1946.
Together with William G. Reese, Gantt helps found the Psychological Research Laboratory at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Perry Point, Maryland, where he serves as a consultant in psychiatry.
Receives the American Heart Association Award for his research in cardiovascular conditional reflex and hypertension.
Gantt is suspended by the Veterans Administration and investigated as a security risk for his alleged Communist sympathies. He is cleared and reinstated.
Gantt is visiting Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine.
Founds the Pavlovian Society and serves as president until 1965.
Gantt is guest lecturer at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Leningrad.
Translates and publishes Konstantin Bykov’s The Cerebral Cortex and Internal Organs.
In July Gantt retires from Johns Hopkins, becoming Associate Professor Emeritus, but continues to direct the Pavlovian Laboratory.
Gantt visits and lectures in Russia and Czechoslovakia.
Appointed Chief Investigator at the Psychophysiological Research Laboratory at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Perry Point.
Elected president of the Society of Biological Psychiatry and President of the American Psychopathological Association.
Travels to South America.
Resigns the directorship of the Pavlovian Laboratory at Johns Hopkins in June.
Gantt’s wife, Mary, dies of cancer on July 17.
Gantt and Rebecca Esler “Boots” Bromiley marry on August 8.
Initiates publication of the Conditional Reflex Journal under the auspices of the Pavlovian Society, and acts as editor-in-chief until 1978.
Elected President of CIANS (Collegium Internationale Activitas Nervosae Superioris) and becomes editor of Soviet Neurology and Psychiatry.
In honor of Pyotr Anokhin’s 60th birthday, Gantt lectures in Leningrad.
Nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine.
Receives the Gold Medal Award from the Society of Biological Psychiatry.
Appointed Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Maryland.
Gantt is invited delegate to the 2nd International Conference for Unity of Sciences in Tokyo, Japan.
Spends eight days in Russia with a tour arranged for the Veterans Administration and the State Department.
Receives the van Giesen Award from the New York Psychiatric Institute, and the Purkinje Medical Society Award, Prague, Czechoslovakia.
Appointed Adjunct Professor of behavioral science at the University of Louisville.
Lectures in Japan.
Gantt dies on February 26 at age 87.

One thought on “Witness Post: Horsley Gantt

  1. I knew Dr. Gantt when I was a doctoral intern at the VAMC, Perry Point, MD, 1975-1978. The other students and I would meet with him in his office at lunchtime (he always served tea and triskets). He listened to our discussion of our dissertation research and encouraged creativity. Dr. Gantt was an inspiration to us and truly a fascinating person. I consider myself blessed to have known him.

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