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Mystery friend was ‘Spider-Man’
Web of facts leads
to professor’s ID
BY TIM SIMMONS
Monica Price never knew it,
but her family was one of many
caught in tne web of Peter Witt.
Months ago, Price started looking
for a forgotten friend –
someone who had helped her
grandparents in 196’7 after the
Ku Klux Klan poisoned their well
and burned a cross in their yard.
What she found was a friend to
many, a man with a strong commitment
to civil rights and some
· one who was known worldwide.
“He has a fascinating background,”
Price said, “and so
many people knew the family.”
Witt, who died in 1998, was
best known for
his research in
vol vi n g spiders,
the 1950s and
not see Witt as
her hunt for
Witt in July.
They saw him and his family as
neighbors who supported them
when Isham High, Price’s grandfather,
decided to enroll two of
his children in a previously allwhite
public school in Knightdale.
Growing up, Price had heard
stories of a white family – possibly
a professor at N.C. State
University – who became
friends with her grandparents
after an attack by KKK members,
helping them rally support
and raise money to dig a new
well But High didn’t dwell on the
story. As time dimmed memories
and Price’s grandparents died,
most of the details were lost.
Then Price took a job at
NCSU in July and decided she
should reconnect with that part
of the family’s history. Her efforts
were detailed in a story
last week in The News & Observer
that prompted several
dozen people to respond. While
a German professor who studied
spiders might have seemed an
unusual target in Price’s search,
virtually all of the readers said
Witt was surely the person she
was hoping to find.
His background, they said,
helps explain why.
Born in Germany in 1918, Witt
was trainigg to be a doctor after
the Nazis gained control of the
government. Given a Nazi uniform
at the end of his studies,
Witt chose to bum the uniform
and hide from authorities while
working at an underground hospital
His wife, Inge, whom he met
later, also left Germany during
the years of Nazi control. Their
friends say the experience shaped
their views about social issues.
Active in civil rights, it was perfectly
natural for them to reach
out and support someone like
Price’s grandparents once High
deciderl tli.e children of a sharecropper
were entitled to the same
education as other students.
The two men came from entirely
different worlds, but they
shared a similar sense of justice
After World War II, Witt
moved to Switzerland, where a
Life magazine article eventually
drew the world’s attention to his
work with spiders. Witt discovered
that drugs such as LSD, amphetamines,
marijuana and tranqu
ilize rs had specific an
predictable effects on the webs
created by spiders.
Spiders given amphetamines,
for example, seemingly lost the
ability to recreate patterns they
might spin on any other day.
Those given LSD creat¢ pe!’
GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO
fectly symmetrical webs that
lacked any of the expected variations
needed to catch flies. The
webs were an excellent tool for
measuring the effects of drugs
because of a spider’s innate ability
to spin some of the most efficient
designs found in nature.
Witt’s work was cited for years
by researchers in various fields
from the study of behaviors to the
treatment of mental illnesses. He
· moved.to Raleigh in 1966 to take
a job as director of the division of
research for North Carolina’s De
partment of Mental Health.
‘Spider-Man’ to some
Those who knew about his
work in the labs of Dorothea Dix
called him “Spider-Man,” but at
NCSU and UNC-Chapel Hill, he
was Professor Witt, an adjunct
faculty member. It was this tie to
NCSU that Price knew from the
. family stories.
But to others in Knightdale, the
Witts were known for something
altogether different – a 35-acre
farm where they kept exotic animals.
The occasional escape of
the guanaco, which resembles a
llama, is still part of the town’s lo
cal lore among older residents.
While in Knightdale, Inge Witt
was also known for her work in
low-income schools, which remained
largely segregated at the
The couple eventually moved
to Raleigh in 1988 and built a
home near the historically black
Oberlin community in 1994,
where Witt displayed artwork,
said Richard Hall, a local architect
and close family friend.
Witt was 79 when he died.
“All of this has been an educa- j tion for me,” said Price, who has
exchanged e-mail messages with
one of Witt’s daughters in suburban
Atlanta. “I’m looking forward
to re-establishing ties with
their family, and I really want to
thank those who helped me find 1
Staff writer Tim Simmons
can be reached at 829-4535