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

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.

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