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John Garcia ( June 12, 1917 - October 12, 2012) was an American psychologist, most known for his research on taste aversion learning. Garcia studied at the University of California-Berkeley, where he received his A.B., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in 1955 at the age of 38. He was appointed Professor Emeritus at Los Angeles' University of California, though he at other points has also been an Assistant Professor at California State College, a Lecturer in the Department of Surgery at Harvard Medical School, Professor and Chairman of the Psychology Department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and Professor of Psychology at the University of Utah.
Garcia was born a farm worker on June 12, 1917 near Santa Rosa, California, and died a world-renowned member of the National Academy of Sciences on October 12, 2012. Along the way he was a farmer, a cartoonist, a ship fitter, an Air Corps Cadet, an amateur boxer, a high school teacher and a college professor, as well as a research scientist at Harvard Medical School and the Brain Research Institute at UCLA. During World War II he built submarines for the US Navy, and then enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
Garcia lived with his parents on their farm. By age 20, he was working as a mechanic making 18-wheeler trucks. A few years later he solved the problem of installing mufflers onto submarines and consequently became a ship fitter. During World War II, he joined the United States Army Air Corps and became a pilot; after persistent nausea, he could no longer fly and he finished his term as an intelligence specialist. When demobilized, he used the G.I. Bill to pay for his college tuition. He attended Santa Rosa Junior College where he achieved a bachelor’s degree. He then attended the University of California at Berkeley where he achieved a master’s degree and Ph.D. Dr. John Garcia, of La Conner, led the great American life. He was a first generation American, the son of Spanish immigrants: Sara Casasnovas y Unamuno and Benigno Garcia y Rodriguez.
In 1943, he married the love of his life, Dorothy Inez Robertson. They were married 69 years, living the last 28 years in Skagit County, first on Pleasant Ridge, then 9 years in La Conner.
After the war, John used the G.I. Bill to go to UC Berkeley where he did radiation and brain research. Early on, he discovered that rats could detect and avoid low doses of radiation, lower than a dental x-ray. This led to sharp scientific battles with B.F. Skinner's Behaviorist Psychology and pro-nuclear members of the military industrial complex; a fight he eventually won. When sheep started dying en masse downwind from the nuclear test sites, it was members of his lab that identified the cause as radiation poisoning. He flew to Vienna with JFK to meet with the Russians; he testified before congress along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Through all this, he always thought of himself as a farm boy bringing real animals and real people into the cloistered world of academic debate; taking on not only the nuclear and scientific establishment, but also the IQ and SAT testers, and the bureaucratic inertia of the Environmental Protection Agency. He always insisted that science must conform to the real world, and the lives of ordinary people. His later work showed how taste aversion could be used to train wolves and coyotes, in the wild, not to prey on livestock. The "Garcia Theory" (of taste aversion) is named for him.
Having lived all over the United States, John retired from teaching at UCLA, and moved with Inez to Skagit Valley in 1985, as it was so like the farm country in California where he grew up.
Garcia's first postdoctoral job was with the U.S. Naval Radiological Defense Lab in San Francisco, California in 1955. He began to study the reaction of the brain to ionizing radiation in a series of experiments on laboratory animals, mainly rats. Garcia noticed that rats avoided drinking water from plastic bottles when in radiation chambers. He suspected that the rats associated the “plastic tasting” water with the sickness that radiation triggers.
During the experiments rats were given one taste, sight, sound as a neutral stimulus. Later the rats would be exposed to radiation or drugs (the unconditioned stimulus), which would make the rats sick. Through these experiments, Garcia discovered that if a rat became nauseated after presented with a new taste, even if the illness occurred several hours later, the rat would avoid that taste. This contradicted the belief that, for conditioning to occur, the unconditioned response (in this case, sickness) must immediately follow the conditioned stimulus-to-be (the taste). Secondly, Garcia discovered that the rats developed aversions to tastes, but not to sights or sounds, disproving the previously held theory that any perceivable stimulus (light, sound, taste, etc.) could become a conditioned stimulus for any unconditioned stimulus.
Garcia's discovery, conditioned taste aversion, is considered a survival mechanism because it allows an organism to recognize foods that have previously been determined to be poisonous, hopefully allowing said organism to avoid sickness.
As a result of Garcia's work, conditioned taste aversion has been called the "Garcia Effect."
Throughout his work Garcia also achieved a number of awards such as the Howard Crosby Warren Medal and the APA Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1983 and has over 130 publications.