scientific psychology

The Psychology Laboratory at the Turn of the 20th Century

Ludy T. Benjamin, Jr. Texas A &M University

The author provides a brief history of the psychology laboratory from 1879 to 1900, discusses its crucial role in the founding of scientific psychology, and describes how it enabled psychology ‘ s separation from philosophy. The lab- oratory model is described as a research and graduate training enterprise that operated with K. Danziger’s (1990) concept of a “community of scholars” and was eventually extended to the training of undergraduate students.

T he dating of modern psychology begins not with the sensory physiology of Hermann von Helmholtz or Johannes Mtiller, nor with Gustav Fechner s crucial insight on October 22, 1850, about how the physical and psychological worlds could be compared quantitatively, nor with the 1874 publication of Wilhelm Wundt’ s Grund- ziige der Physiologischen Psychologie, the book that of- fered the first compendium of the 19th-century work that was the basis for the science of psychology. Instead, we date the new psychology from the establishment of the research laboratory at the University of Leipzig. It is the establishment of the laboratory that marks the transition of psychology from philosophy to science.

The middle of the 19th century witnessed the birth of American science laboratories–initially in chemistry–and the start of a 100-year American love affair with science and technology (Bruce, 1987). American psychology laboratories joined their natural science counterparts in the 1880s, bringing the experimental method to the investigation of mind, an event that E. G. Boring (1929) declared had no equal in the history of the study of the mind. Indeed, both editions of Boring’s classic textbook defined the history of psychology almost exclusively in terms of the laboratory. One could argue that such an emphasis could be expected because his textbook was, as the title indicated, a history of experimental psychol- ogy; yet for Boring that was psychology.

By the 1880s, the laboratory was, arguably, the pub- lic’s icon for natural science, but the same cannot be said of psychology’s version. Psychologists were aware of the common public perceptions that associated psychology with spiritism, the occult, and other paranormal subjects. They sought to change those views with articles in news- papers and popular magazines, public exhibitions, and pop- ular speeches, all touting the new science of psychology.

Shortly after Hugo Mtinsterberg arrived at Harvard Uni- versity in 1892 to direct the psychology laboratory there, his assistant announced in McClure’s Magazine that the psychology laboratory resembled any other science labo- ratory. “Around the rooms run glass-cases filled with fine instruments. Shelves line up, row after row, of specimen jars and bottles. Charts cover the remainder of the walls. The tables and floors are crowded with working apparatus” (Nichols, 1893, p. 399). However, he continued, the labo- ratory is more than jars, charts, and apparatus: “the spirit that reigns in these rooms is the same that is found in other laboratories of exact science” (Nichols, 1893, p. 399),

The importance of the laboratory for the beginnings of the new psychology would be difficult to overstate. Histo- rian James Capshew (1992) has written that “the enduring motif in the story of modem psychology is neither a person nor an event but a place–the experimental laboratory” (p. 132). As such, this snapshot in the history of psychology begins in Leipzig, Germany, where in 1879 Wundt and his graduate students began conducting original research as a “community of investigators” (Danziger, 1990, p. 18). Danziger (1990) has argued that “the strongest grounds for locating the beginnings of experimental psychology in Wundt’s laboratory. . . [were that it was in this laboratory] that scientific psychology was first practiced as the orga- nized and self-conscious activity of a community of inves- tigators” (p. 18).

Thus, the laboratory was more than specimen bottles, charts, and apparatus, and it was more than the presence of a scientific spirit; it was, in addition, and perhaps of great- est importance, a community of scholars who conducted collaborative research in pursuit of scientific explanations

Editor’s note. Almost two dozen of the leading historians of psychology agreed to write “snapshots” of various aspects of psychology circa 1900. The articles appear in serial form throughout Volume 55. The series was edited by Donald A. Dewsbnry.

Author’s note. I gratefully acknowledge assistance from Richard A. Littman and Laurence D. Smith.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Ludy T. Benjamin, Jr., Department of Psychology, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77483. Electronic mail may be sent to ltb@psyc.

318 March 2000 • American Psychologist Copyright 2000 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 0003-066X/00/$5.00

Voh 55, No. 3, 318-321 DOI: 10.1037//0003-066X.55.3.318

of mind. They shared not only the physical space of the laboratory but an interest in common questions. As stu- dents graduated, others came to the laboratory to work on the same questions or to extend the research to new ques- tions. This community approach stood in stark contrast to the solitary investigations of Wundt’s predecessors, such as Helmholtz and Fechner, and even some of his contempo- raries, for example, Hermann Ebbinghaus.

Wundt’s laboratory attracted many American stu- dents, particularly as fame of the laboratory spread in the United States. G. Stanley Hall arrived in Leipzig in the fall

of 1879 for postdoctoral study, having just finished his doctoral degree with William James at Harvard. Hall spent some time with Wundt but worked principally in the phys- iological laboratory of Carl Ludwig. In 1883, Hall founded what is usually recognized as the first psychology labora- tory in America at Johns Hopkins University. Many of the American laboratories that followed in the last two decades of the 19th century were founded by individuals who had studied with Wundt or Hall (Table 1 lists the 41 psychology laboratories founded in the United States by 1900 and their founders, and indicates which ones studied with Wundt or

Table 1 The Founding of American Psychology Laboratories: 1883-1900

Year Laboratory Founder

1883 Johns Hopkins University Granville Stanley Hall 1887 Indiana University William Lowe Bryan” 1887 University of Pennsylvania James McKeen Cattell b 1888 University of Wisconsin Joseph Jastrow ° 1889 Clark University Edmund Clark Sanford a 1889 University of Kansas Olin Templin 1889 University of Nebraska Harry Kirke Wolfe b 1890 Columbia University James McKeen Cattell b 1890 University of Iowa George T. W. Patrick ° 1890 University of Michigan James Hayden Tufts 1891 Catholic University Edward Aloyius Pace b 1891 Cornell University Frank Angel1 b 1891 Wellesley College Mary Whiton Calkins 1892 Brown University Edmund Burke Delabarre 1892 Harvard University Hugo M/.insterberg b 1892 University of Illinois William Otterbein Krohn 1892 Trenton State Normal College Lillie A. Williams 1892 Yale University Edward Wheeler Scripture b 1893 University of Chicago Charles Augustus Strong 1893 Princeton University James Mark Baldwin 1893 Randolph-Macon College Celestia S. Parrish 1893 Stanford University Frank Angell b 1894 Amherst College Charles Edward Garman 1894 Denison University Clarence Luther Herrick 1894 University of Minnesota Harlow Stearns Gale 1894 University of the City of New York Charles Bemis Bliss 1894 Pennsylvania State University Erwin W. Runkle 1894 Wesleyan University Andrew C. Armstrong, Jr. 1894 Western Reserve University Herbert Austin Aikins 1895 Smith College William George Smith 1896 University of California George Malcolm Stratton b 1896 Wilson College Anna Jane McKeag 1897 Ohio State University Clark Wissler 1898 Bryn Mawr College James Henry Leuba a 1898 University of Texas Not identified 1899 University of Oregon Benjamin J. Hawthorne 1900 University of Maine M.C. Fernald 1900 University of Missouri Max Frederick Meyer 1900 New York University Charles Hubbard Judd b 1900 Northwestern University Walter Dill Scott b 1900 University of Wyoming June Etta Downey

Note. This information was compiled principally from Garvey (1929) and Murray and Rowe {1979). a B Studied with G. Stanley Hall. Studied with Wilhelm Wundt.

March 2000 • American Psychologist 319

Hall). Popplestone and McPherson (1984) have observed that there were fewer than 50 psychology laboratories worldwide by 1900, making the United States home to the great majority of them.

James McKeen Cattell was the founder of two of those early American laboratories, those at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University. He was the first American student to earn his doctorate with Wundt in the new experimental psychology, finishing in 1886. As a 24-year-old graduate student, Cattell wrote to his parents, giving them and us an image of what life was like in the initial laboratory of this new science:

I spend four mornings and two afternoon’s [sic] working in Wundt’s laboratory . . . . Our work is interesting. If I should ex- plain it to you you might not find it of vast importance, but we discover new facts and must ourselves invent the methods we use. We work in a new field, where others will follow us, who must use or correct our results. We are trying to measure the time it takes to perform the simplest mental acts–as for example to distinguish whether a color is blue or red. As this time seems to be not more than one hundredth of a second, you can imagine this is no easy task. (Sokal, 1981, p. 89)

The early psychologists, like Cattell, received their training in philosophy departments of which the new ex-

perimental psychology was a part. When they looked for academic jobs, those jobs were in philosophy, a discipline that was, of course, not a laboratory discipline. It is not surprising that many university administrators were reluc- tant to provide the financial resources necessary to estab- lish, equip, and maintain these laboratories. No doubt many agreed with philosopher August Comte that a science of mind was not possible. Thus, the new psychologists found themselves defending the scientific nature of their disci- pline and arguing that their laboratories needed more space and equipment. These activities, sadly, may seem more traditional than historical to many psychologists today.

Typical of these academic struggles was the effort of Harry Kirke Wolfe to establish his laboratory at the Uni- versity of Nebraska in 1889 (see Benjamin, 1991). Wolfe, like Cattell, had received his doctorate with Wundt in 1886. He began laboratory work at Nebraska with his students using minimal equipment that he built, borrowed from other departments, or purchased using funds from his li- brary book budget (see Figure 1). In his first annual report to the regents, Wolfe asked for $500 to equip the laboratory at a minimal level. First he stressed the low start-up costs, “I cannot emphasize too strongly the necessity of providing some facilities for experimental work . . . . It is possible to

Figure I Laboratory of H. K. Wolfe at the University of Nebraska Circa 1896

320 March 2000 • American Psychologist

build up an experimental dept. in Psychology with little outlay” (Benjamin, 1993, p. 58). Then he argued for the promise of the discipline, “No field of scientific research offers such excellent opportunities for original work; chiefly because the soil is new” (Benjamin, 1993, p. 58).

Wolfe didn’t get any money for his laboratory, so he spent even more of his book budget for equipment and then appealed to the regents once more in his second annual report:

The scientific nature of Psychology is not so generally recog- nized . . . . The advantages offered by experimental Psychology, as a discipline in scientific methods, are not inferior to those offered by other experimental sciences. The measurement of the Quality, Quan- tity, and Time Relations of mental states is as inspiring and as good discipline as the determination of, say the percent of sugar in a beet or the variation of an electric current. (Benjamin, 1993, p. 59)

You may have noticed that Wolfe’s appeals used agricul- tural metaphors and examples, devices that he perhaps believed would influence the administrators of a largely agricultural university. He should have tried some other strategy; the university gave him no more money for his laboratory, and he received a written warning about spend- ing book money for other purposes.

Not all laboratory founders faced the resistance expe- rienced by Wolfe. By the 1890s, the founding pace accel- erated (see Table 1), and many of the new laboratories touted the excellence of their facilities in the pages of journals such as the American Journal of Psychology and Science. It even became commonplace for the psychology laboratories to be described in the university catalogs, as was the case for the natural science laboratories. These brief published accounts usually named the person in charge of the laboratory and included descriptions of the physical facilities, the apparatus, and sometimes the type of work done in the laboratory. For psychologists, this mar- keting of the laboratory was important for student recruit- ment, but it was also a public statement of the scientific legitimacy of the discipline. Psychologists could be said to be engaged in “the flaunting of the laboratory as evidence of worthy membership in the fraternity of science” (Popplestone & McPherson, 1984, p. 197).

The proliferation of American laboratories at the turn of the century changed the nature of graduate education for American psychology students. Whereas before 1900 the majority had journeyed to one of the European universities for their doctoral degrees, in the 25 years after 1904 less than 15% of American psychologists had earned degrees from foreign universities. These new American laborato- ries, however, did not long remain the exclusive province of graduate student training and research.

In a practice that spawned some controversy (see French, 1898; Wolfe, 1895), laboratory training was ex- tended to undergraduate students in psychology. By the first decade of the 20th century, a year-long laboratory course in experimental psychology had become a standard part of the curriculum for undergraduates studying psychol- ogy. To meet the needs of undergraduate laboratory work, a number of prominent psychologists, such as Carl Sea- shore, Edmund Sanford, Lightner Witmer, and most nota-

bly Edward B. Titchener, published textbooks for labora- tory training of undergraduates. Titchener’s four volumes (1901-1905)–two for the instructor and two for the stu- dent-described nearly 100 qualitative and quantitative ex- periments that could be conducted by undergraduate students in a laboratory setting. Thus, the psychology laboratory, in its first 25 years, became fully integrated into the university, housing its community of investigators for original research and serving as a training ground for students at all levels.

In the course of the 20th century, psychology depart- ments have changed much, and the discipline of psychology has changed in ways psychologists 100 years ago could never have imagined. The psychology laboratory is still a fixture in most colleges and universities (and in many nonacademic settings), although the diverse brass instruments and specimen jars that filled the laboratory shelves have been replaced largely by a single instrument, the computer. Psychology faculty and students (both graduate and undergraduate) con- tinue to be involved in laboratory training, and laboratory investigators remain plentiful in psychology today.

Still, among psychologists at the beginning of the new millennium, the laboratory no longer serves as an enduring motif. Within the discipline, the icon of the laboratory and its attendant community of scholars has been replaced by an image of clinical psychologist and client, an image, ironically, that has been the public’s perception of psychol- ogy since the rise of psychoanalysis in America in the 1920s (Hornstein, 1992).


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