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Department History

Until the mid-19th century, psychology was regarded as a branch of philosophy and was commonly taught under the title of “Mental Philosophy.” Northwestern’s Psychology Department dates back to 1909, when it quietly separated from the Philosophy Department and became its own entity. The Department initially included only two regular faculty members, Walter Dill Scott and Robert Gault, and offered eight courses. Since 1909, the Psychology Department has grown considerably; we now have 41 faculty members and offer more than 80 undergraduate and graduate courses.

Northwestern Firsts:

The First Psychology Course?

Thomas Cadwallader, a historian of psychology at Indiana State University, presented a paper at the 1985 meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association entitled “The Midwest’s – and the Nation’s? – First Course Called ‘Psychology:’ Northwestern University, 1857.” He noted that Randolf S. Foster, president of the University from 1856 to 1860, had used the title “Psychology” for a course in 1857, well before the term was first used at Yale (1872-73) or Harvard (1874-75). After checking all schools in the Midwest at that time, and some farther east, Cadwallader speculated that Foster’s course may well have been the first in the nation to use the title “Psychology.”

First Meeting and First President of the Midwestern Psychological Association

The Midwestern Psychological Association is the oldest regional association dedicated to psychological science. It held its first meeting at Northwestern University in 1926, and its first president was Adam Raymond Gilliland of Northwestern. A psychologist with broad interests, Gilliland studied developmental, personality, and clinical psychology, published several books, and worked on the measurement of infant intelligence.

Northwestern’s First PhD in Psychology

Northwestern’s first PhD in Psychology was awarded in 1925 to Edward Lester Clark, whose specialty was psychometrics and whose dissertation was entitled, “The Graphic Rating Scale at Northwestern University.” Clark joined Northwestern’s Psychology faculty, helped to develop the Personnel Department (now the Department of Human Resources), and ultimately became the University’s Director of Admissions, a position in which he developed the Northwestern Analogies Test, a predictor of college grades. The first direct reference to psychology in a dissertation at Northwestern was in 1923 by Franklin Simpson Hickman, a Religious Education student. The title was “A Psychological Study of the Conviction which Leads to the Choice of a Religious Vocation.”

Women in Northwestern’s Psychology History

In 1922, Margaret Elizabeth Wilson received her PhD in Anatomy with a dissertation entitled, “The Intermedullary Course of the Tactile, Painful, and Thermol [sic] Afferent Impulses of the Trigeminal Nerve.” Though she was not officially in psychology, it is believed that her dissertation was the first on a psychological topic by a woman at Northwestern. Dorothy Mary Morgan and Helen S. Shacter received PhDs in psychology in 1932, with dissertations entitled, “An Experimental Investigation of the Choice Reaction” and “An Inquiry into the Sustained Attention of Preschool Children.”

The first female to join Northwestern’s psychology faculty was Janet Taylor Spence, in the fall of 1949, having just received her PhD from the University of Iowa. She recalled,

“If this this event had occurred in 2008, it would have been unremarkable-nothing out of the ordinary. But at the time, it was not in the least ordinary; in fact, it was quite extraordinary… Some women did get PhDs, but usually they found positions outside of academia. If they did teach, it was often at a woman’s college or the like. If a woman married a man in the same specialty who held an academic position, she often ended up working with her husband as an unpaid Research Associate or with a salary paid for on his grant.”

Spence remained a faculty member at Northwestern until 1960 and subsequently spent many years at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research spanned many topics within psychology, including pioneering work on the psychology of women. She was also a founder and the first president of the Association for Psychological Science.

Long-Serving Northwestern Psychologists:

Walter Dill Scott

Walter Dill Scott began as an undergraduate at Northwestern in 1891 and retired as President of the University in 1939. Early in his career, Scott worked in the psychology of advertising, writing articles in a business magazine, giving lectures to businessmen, and publishing a book in the field. He taught courses in the psychology of business, emphasizing advertising and sales. In 1909 when psychology became a department, Scott was appointed as its first chairman. He developed rating scales used by the U.S. Army to assign over one million men to duties in which they could use their special abilities. As director of the Committee on Classification of Personnel for the Army, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. In 1919, Scott was elected president of the American Psychological Association and became head of the Scott Company in Chicago, a consulting firm for business problems. The next year, he was persuaded to give up his successful firm and become president of Northwestern University. Under his 19-year presidency, Northwestern’s Chicago Campus was built and several professional schools were added.

Carl Duncan

Carl Duncan joined the psychology department in 1947 and retired in 1987. Though his specialty during the greater part of his career was the psychology of problem solving and thinking, and many of his published articles related to motor skills and performance, his interests covered a wide range of topics. He had expertise in both sensation and perception as well as in the history of psychology. Duncan was president of the Midwestern Psychological Association from 1965 to 1966, a member of the prestigious Society of Experimental Psychologists, and director of the department’s senior honors program for 35 years. The department’s annual Duncan Lecture in Memory Consolidation is named in his honor.

Donald T. Campbell

Donald Campbell was the main figure in social psychology at Northwestern from 1953 to the late 1970s. His life was filled with accomplishments. He worked briefly as a farmer and then went on to graduate first in his class at the University of California, Berkeley, defend merchant ships during World War II, complete his PhD, and join the psychology faculty first at Ohio State, then at the University of Chicago, and then at Northwestern.

Campbell brilliantly integrated ideas in social psychology, perception, psychometrics, sociology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, education, and philosophy. He asked questions like: How can cultural stability and change be measured? Can mistaken perceptions, from visual illusions to racial and gender stereotypes, be explained by the same processes as accurate perceptions? How is altruism possible when selfishness is an inherent property of natural selection? How can we tell if government programs are effective? In his attempts to answer such difficult, interdisciplinary questions, Campbell led many fruitful collaborations, developed new research approaches, and published articles in a wide range of journals. He was a William James Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Psychology department would like to extend a special thank you to Win Hill, a retired faculty member to whom we are greatly indebted for having written and preserved much of the Psychology Department’s history.

This and more information about the Psychology Department and its history can be found in the department newsletter, Psychwatch and its archives.