Meet Nadezhda Ladygina-Kohts: The first woman to study animal psychology

May 23

It was believed until the 20th century that cognition was exclusive to humans. Some zoologists, including Charles Darwin, hypothesised that our young cousins in the primate world are not as simple as they seemed, but it was Nadezhda Ladygina-Kohts, the co-founder of the Darwin Museum in Moscow and the first animal psychologist, who actually unlocked the mystery of the animal mind. Enjoy this collaboration with the Moscow Agency for Recreation and Tourism (Mosgortur).

Top student

Nadezhda Ladygina was born on 18 May 1899 in Kuznetsk, Saratov Governorate (now Penza Region), the same year her family moved to Penza. Her mother came from a merchant family, while her father was a teacher of music and singing at an art school. There were three other girls and one boy in the Ladygin family.

In 1908, Nadezhda graduated from school in Penza at the top of her class and the same year enrolled in the physics and mathematics faculty of the Moscow Higher Women’s Courses, where natural history was taught by the best scientists of the time – professors Nikolai Koltsov, Pyotr Sushkin and Sergei Chetverikov.

She became interested in animal behaviour in the very first year of her studies. Reading the book The Mind and Life by Professor Vladimir Bekhterev left no doubt in her mind that this was the field for her.  Ladygina’s goal was to pinpoint the stage at which animals develop the ability to think and if it can be compared to what goes on in the human mind.

 Alexander Kohts and Nadezhda Ladygina-Kohts with stuffed gorillas

Museum as a family business

Nadezhda met Alexander Kohts at the Moscow Higher Women’s Courses, where the young professor held zoology practicums and delivered lectures on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. He brought in exhibits from his personal collection to better explain Darwin’s account of the origin of species. In 1907, shortly before meeting his wife, Alexander Kohts moved his personal taxidermy collection to the school’s building in Merzlyakovsky Pereulok. This marked the birth of the Darwin Museum, which at that time did not have a building of its own but occupied several rooms at the women’s institute.

Nadezhda Ladygina-Kohts and Alexander Kohts

Nadezhda and Alexander married in 1911. The Darwin Museum became their common cause into which they invested time, energy and money. Alexander’s wedding present was a stuffed white hawk, and Nadezhda gave him a stuffed lion cub. The newlyweds used the money given to them as wedding gifts to buy stuffed white and black wolves. Their wedding gifts to each other and their first purchase as a family were donated to the museum.

Nadezhda Ladygina-Kohts with a stuffed white wolf bought with money received for her wedding

In 1913, Nadezhda and Alexander went to Europe on their honeymoon, though the trip mixed business and pleasure: they planned to visit Europe’s major zoological museums. They visited 20 such museums in Germany, France, Belgium and Great Britain, making the acquaintance of their directors and laying the foundation for their future friendship and scientific exchanges. They also bought numerous exhibits at the world famous workshops in London.

Alexander Kohts and Nadezhda Ladygina-Kohts

Joni the chimp

The scientific career of Nadezhda Ladygina-Kohts began in 1913 when her husband gave her an 18-month old chimpanzee named Joni. They kept him in an isolated room in their flat, where Nadezhda studied him every day and recorded his behaviour in minute detail.

She invented several methods of probing Joni’s cognitive processes, including the match-to-sample test. The idea was to make the chimp select a sample identical to the one it had been shown before. Another test was to show Joni a figure consisting of several parts, and the chimp was to make a similar figure from the parts offered to him. It turned out that the animal could do this quite easily.

Nadezhda Ladygina-Kohts and the chimpanzee Joni, 1914

Nadezhda established that simians (anthropoids or higher primates) can distinguish geometric figures, colours and colour shades.  She used her research to write her dissertation, A New Method of Studying the Cognitive Abilities of the Chimpanzee, which was widely recognised by scientists. In 1923, the results of her experiments were published in her first book, Investigation of Chimpanzee’s Cognitive Abilities, and were later reprinted in a two-volume monograph, which brought her universal acclaim.

Joni lived with the Kohts for two and a half years until he caught pneumonia and died in 1916. It was a terrible loss for Nadezhda and Alexander, who came to love him as a member of the family.

A handshake before Belka and Strelka

Nadezhda Ladygina-Kohts used exclusively humane methods in her experiments. She started by winning an animal’s trust before beginning experiments based on an accurate assessment of the natural abilities of each one. She never used physical pressure and never punished her animals.

Animal psychology is a laboratory science. Only by placing animals in situations that can never happen in the wild can scientists analyse their mental processes. This is why Nadezhda established an animal psychology lab at the Darwin Museum.

Nadezhda Ladygina-Kohts and Alexander Kohts with jackdaws

One experiment was held to determine if birds could distinguish colours while also observing their emotions. The study involved 12 parrots with brilliant plumage. It turned out that they can distinguish between seven basic colours and close shades, as well as two- and three-colour combinations and colour drawings.

Nadezhda Ladygina-Kohts also advocated the idea of establishing a special laboratory to study animal psychology at the Animal Theatre of Vladimir Durov, an animal trainer and scientist. One of the scientists working at the laboratory was Maria Gerd (Gertz), a pupil of Nadezhda Ladygina-Kohts and the author of numerous studies on animal training who later became world famous as the trainer of the first Soviet dogs in space, Belka and Strelka.

Nadezhda Ladygina-Kohts and Alexander Kohts

The poet

In the early 1920s, Alexander Kohts was appointed director of the Moscow Zoo, where Nadezhda could conduct her experiments. She studied the instincts of mammal predators, corvids and domestic fowl. The results of these experiments were presented in the still unpublished monograph The Instinct.

However, that study was immortalised by a poet. One day Nadezhda was walking around the zoo when Vladimir Mayakovsky spotted her. She was too busy observing the animals and did not notice the poet, who was greatly impressed by the encounter and wrote the following poem about it:


Maybe someday

She will enter the zoological alleys-

She loved animals-

 as well,


Just as she does

On the card I have in the table.

But Nadezhda remained indifferent to the poet’s attention.

Alexander Kohts and Nadezhda Ladygina-Kohts

Observations of her son

In 1925, Nadezhda and Alexander had their only son, Rudolf or Rudik, who became a subject of Nadezhda’s research. She started dictating her observations of the newborn’s behaviour just two hours after his birth. Over the next seven years, Nadezhda observed her son’s mental development and took daily notes. She administered the same tests to Rudik as to Joni.

According to her observations, Joni and Rudik developed at the same rate for some time, but Joni’s development ceased at the age of three, while Rudik continued to acquire new skills and knowledge. Unlike primates, a human child develops the skill of symbolic and abstract thinking, which is closely connected with speech, around two to three years old.

Alexander Kohts, Nadezhda Ladygina-Kohts and their son Rudik

Although she found many similarities in the behaviour of chimpanzee and human child, Nadezhda also established that there were major qualitative differences in their emotions and play, which proved that the basic psychological processes of humans and chimpanzees are dramatically different.

The results of the study were summarised in a two-volume monograph titled Infant Chimpanzee and Human Child: Instincts, Emotions, Play, Habits and Gestures (Infant Chimpanzee and Human Child: A Classic 1935 Comparative Study of Ape Emotions and Intelligence, published 2002). The edition includes numerous photographs taken by Alexander Kohts. The book was translated into several languages and earned Nadezhda Ladygina-Kohts widespread recognition.

Primates have insights

Nadezhda experimented with various animals but preferred primates. In the late 1940s and early 1950s she worked with an adult chimpanzee named Paris.

During each new experiment he was given a new “tool” to be used to retrieve a piece of food placed in a small tube. Paris easily solved that problem and used any available tool, such as a spoon or a plank. When there was a choice, Paris chose the longest or largest tool, for example, a heavy stick. Paris also displayed construction skills, bending or unbending tools, biting off extra twigs, untying knots and coils of wire, and removing extra parts. However, he did not learn to make tools from small items, which Nadezhda saw as clear evidence of their limited cognitive ability.

Stuffed Joni at the Darwin Museum

The experiments performed by Nadezhda Ladygina-Kohts with Paris showed that animals have insights. In psychology, insight occurs when the solution to a problem suddenly presents itself following incorrect attempts based on trial and error. The conclusions made by Ladygina-Kohts were used in subsequent studies of this basic psychological function.

Many modern scientists often make reference to her work, and Russian and international textbooks on zoology and evolutionary theory include excerpts from her books. Nadezhda Ladygina-Kohts was years ahead of her time. Her discoveries led to the establishment of new fields of research, such as cognitive science, comparative psychology and human ethology (the study of human behaviour). For example, the match-to-sample method is widely used in work with children with autism spectrum disorders, and her research into insight has been cited in gestalt psychology.


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