Scientist Gets a Hand With Inventing a Legacy

Elmer Gates worked in Chevy Chase in what was called the largest private laboratory in the United States at the time.
Elmer Gates worked in Chevy Chase in what was called the largest private laboratory in the United States at the time. (Elmergates.com)

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By John Kelly
Monday, July 30, 2007

Elmer R. Gates was the most brilliant scientist you've never heard of. He taught dogs to see color. He studied the way emotions affect human breath. He had 43 patents to his name. He spent each waking moment intensely studying his own consciousness, going so deep inside himself that he was certain he had changed the very structure of his brain.

And he did it all in Chevy Chase in what at the time -- 1896 to 1908 -- was said to be the largest private laboratory in the United States. Yet today, even the folks at the Chevy Chase Historical Society haven't heard of this idiosyncratic genius.

Idiosyncratic genius or crackpot?

That's the problem. Some of Gates's theories were so outlandish at the time -- exercising the brain as if it were a muscle? -- that he was embraced, if he was embraced at all, by the fringiest of knowledge-seekers.

Lee Humphries of Minneapolis wants to change that. Last year Lee, 65, launched http://www.elmergates.com, a Web site devoted to all things Elmer.

Gates seems to have been more concerned with how something was invented than what was invented. He was convinced that people could put themselves in the right frame of mind to be creative, possibly by adjusting their physical surroundings. And so he paid special attention to the conditions when he was most creative.

Said Lee: "He kept voluminous records on his own physiology, taking urine samples several times a day and blood samples. He would take his temperature. He was doing this to find out what his physiological state was when he was most productive."

Sometimes Gates would do his thinking in a special chamber in which he could regulate the temperature, humidity and electrostatic charge of the air. All to discover how external forces affected his thinking.

Except he didn't call it his "thinking," preferring the expression "mentative process" or "psychurgy."

Although he lectured at the Smithsonian and his lab played host to esteemed visitors, it was a mention in the book "Think and Grow Rich," by power-of-positive-thinking huckster Napoleon Hill that kept Gates's name alive.

That's where Lee, then a curious high-school student, first encountered him.

"I'm interested in creativity," Lee said. "I felt in my own meager way I had replicated some of [Gates's] results, essentially using the same introspective procedures for problem solving that he used."


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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