Weird History

This Controversial Study You've Never Heard Of Allowed Scientists To Separate Twins At Birth  

Melissa Sartore
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The 2018 documentary Three Identical Strangers introduced audiences to Edward Galland, David Kellman, and Robert Shafran - a set of triplets separated at birth. Three different families adopted Galland, Kellman, and Shafran at the urging of a psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Neubauer, who believed multiples were better off as individuals, without potential competition for attention and affection. The boys spent their childhoods apart, with no knowledge of their brothers until they met by happenstance years later, as detailed in the documentary

This idea that splitting up multiples could benefit children, prompted experiments designed to assess the result of twin separation. Researchers studied Galland, Kellman, and Shafran alongside several sets of twins separated at birth to determine the effects of "nature vs. nurture" on childhood development. The highly controversial study took place in secret, and the psychiatrists never published their findings. With or without the study's conclusion, the experiment itself made an impact on psychiatry, adoption, and the treatment of multiples.

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Photo:  Three Identical Strangers/Neon
Multiples Were Strategically Placed With Adoptive Families

Adoption agency Louise Wise Services placed Edward Galland, David Kellman, and Robert Shafran - the triplets featured in Three Identical Strangers - into homes with different socioeconomic backgrounds. The other multiples in Peter Neubauer's study - by some accounts at least eight sets of twins but maybe as few as five (or three or four) - experienced equally calculated placements.

Twins were put into families with similar structures. For example, if one twin was adopted into a family with another child, the other twin was similarly adopted. This was to assess the impact of diverse circumstances on child development and to answer questions about the ongoing nature vs. nurture debate.

Viola Bernard And Peter Neubauer Put Their Theories To The Test By Experimenting On Children

Psychiatrist Viola Bernard believed that twins, triplets, and other multiples should be raised separately for their benefit. Bernard attended Cornell University and spent her career working with children in New York. From Bernard's perspective, multiples who were raised separately had a better chance of establishing familial relationships, as they were likely to receive undivided attention.

In theory, the child would be able to establish individuality in the family unit with greater ease. Bernard's theory applied to adoptive children and, as a consultant for the Louise Wise Services adoption agency, she advised them to split up multiples.

Child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Peter Neubauer, the director of New York's Child Development Center of the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, devised an experiment based on Bernard's theory. Neubauer was born in Austria and studied at the University of Bern before fleeing Hitler's regime in 1941. A successful psychoanalyst in New York, he wanted to study the emotional health of separated multiples, intentionally dividing twins and triplets to explore the questions of nature and nurture in childhood development. 

Bernard and Neubauer were leaders in the field of psychiatry during the mid-20th century. Some may argue that both researchers had worthy intentions: Bernard hoped to make adoption "a remarkable human experiment" that benefitted child and parents alike, while Neubauer aimed to understand and improve children's overall mental health.

The Louise Wise Services Adoption Agency Provided The Test Subjects

Dr. Viola Bernard consulted for the Louise Wise Services adoption agency in New York City. Founded as the Child Adoption Agency of the Free Synagogue in 1916 by philanthropist Louise Waterman Wise, the adoption agency focused on placing Jewish orphans into loving homes.

Bernard wanted to avoid adoption placements that proved difficult for children and potential parents. She had witnessed the painful experience of an 11-year-old named Sarah, a girl who had to be removed from a misplacement, describing it as "a psychiatric equivalent to radical surgery." To make adoption "affirmative," Bernard advocated that "the central social reality of adoption is its power to prevent misery and maldevelopment of children who lack families of their own."

Before closing in 2004, Louise Wise Services placed more than 7,000 children, including those studied by Peter Neubauer. During the mid-20th century, Louise Wise Services also worked with several other adoption agencies and programs, including Spence-Chapin (which later handled Louise Wise Services' records) and the Indian Adoption Project, to place almost 400 Native American children in homes across the United States. 

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Photo:  Powerhouse Museum from Sydney, Australia/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Neither The Children Nor Their Adoptive Parents Were Told About The Siblings

The participants in Peter Neubauer's study were unwitting subjects in an experiment involving twins or triplets. Adoptive families were also unaware that their children were part of a multiple, and the children never received any information about their pasts. According to a paper published by researcher Samuel Abrams, a man who worked with Neubauer, this was part of the rationale for the study:

Once the placements were made, for ethical reasons, the agency could tell neither the adoptive parents nor the children of the existence of a twin, lest that knowledge impair the family-child bonding that was expected to evolve and is recognized as so necessary for growth and development.

Edward Galland, David Kellman, and Robert Shafran later found each other, as did Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein. Twins Doug Rausch and Howard Burack also reunited as adults, but only after a remorseful former employee of the adoption agency contacted Rausch. The woman told him, "I’m not supposed to do this. I can get in a lot of trouble, but I'm going to do it anyway... Well, I have some news for you. You have an identical twin brother."

Rausch indicated that his adoptive parents were disappointed about not being given the option of adopting both boys.