James V. McConnell

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James V. McConnell
James V McConnell 5504.jpg
James V. McConnell c. 1955
Born(1925-10-26)October 26, 1925
DiedApril 9, 1990(1990-04-09) (aged 64)
Known forResearch on learning and memory transfer in planarians
Targeted in bomb attack by Ted Kaczynski
Scientific career
FieldsBiology, animal psychology
InstitutionsUniversity of Michigan

James V. McConnell (October 26, 1925 – April 9, 1990) was an American biologist and animal psychologist. He is most known for his research on learning and memory transfer in planarians conducted in the 1950s and 1960s. McConnell also published several science fiction short stories in the mid-1950s.


Most of McConnell's academic career was spent in the psychology department at the University of Michigan, where he was a professor from 1963 through his retirement in 1988. He was an unconventional scientist, setting up his own refereed journal, the Journal of Biological Psychology, which was published in tandem with the Worm Runner's Digest, a planarian-themed humor magazine. His paper Memory transfer through cannibalism in planarians, published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry[citation needed], reported that when planarians conditioned to respond to a stimulus were ground up and fed to other planarians, the recipients learned to respond to the stimulus faster than a control group did. McConnell believed that this was evidence of a chemical basis for memory, which he identified as memory RNA. Although well publicized, his findings were not completely reproducible by other scientists and were therefore at the time completely discredited (for review, see Chapouthier, 1973).

McConnell's work has been referred to by a scientist who hypothesized that McConnell's results could be explained by RNA interference (Smallheiser, 2001).

McConnell originally published satirical articles alongside serious scientific articles in the Journal of Biological Psychology but received complaints that it was difficult if not impossible to tell which was which. He decided to publish the satirical Worm Runner's Digest upside down with its cover as the back of the Journal of Biological Psychology to make it clear which articles were satire. This, he said, created problems with librarians returning the Journal to the publisher with the complaint that it was improperly bound. He was amused by this. He spent many of his evening hours in the 1960s in informal rap sessions with students in their dorms. He was prone to making provocative statements, believed that memory was chemically based and that in the future humanity would be programmed by drugs. He once commented that he would rather be "a programmer than a programmee".

McConnell was one of the targets of Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber. In 1985, he suffered a hearing loss when a bomb, disguised as a manuscript, was opened at his house by his research assistant Nicklaus Suino.

Short Fiction[edit]


  • R. Thompson and J. V. McConnell (1955) "Classical conditioning in planarian, Dugesia dorotocephala", J. Comp. Physiol. Psych. 48, 65–68.
  • J. V. McConnell, (1962) "Memory transfer through cannibalism in planarium", J. Neuropsychiat. 3 suppl 1 542–48
  • Block, R.A, and McConnell, J. V., "Classically conditioned discrimination in the Planarian, Dugesia dorotocephala", Nature, 215, Sept. 30, 1465–66, (1967).
  • Georges Chapouthier, "Behavioral studies of the molecular basis of memory", in: The Physiological Basis of Memory (J.A. Deutsch, ed.), 1973, Academic Press, New York and London, Chap. l, l–25
  • N. R. Smalheiser, H. Manev & E. Costa (2001) "RNAi and brain function: was McConnell on the right track?" Trends in Neurosciences, 24, 216–18.

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