Intellectual Genealogy

Two decades ago the idea of tracing one’s genealogy swept through American society, and many people began uncovering their pasts by tracking their ancestors. My mother took up the challenge within my own family and did research for years before providing a written record for family members. She ran into many difficulties, so I gained some appreciation of the problems. One is simply the combinatorial explosion of our ancestors: two parents, four grandparents, eight grandparents, 16 great-grandparents, and so on. If we assume an average of 25 years for a generation, then if we want to trace our ancestors back 20 generations or so (to the year 1550 or thereabouts), we would be searching for records of about 2,091,747 people! That large number assumes people never marry anyone to whom they are related, and of course that assumption breaks down quickly if we go back far enough. Still, in the year 1550, the mating choices of about a million people eventually led to you. Most genealogists are content to go back a few generations, to a time when we had 16 or maybe 32 ancestors.

Another form of genealogy for academics is the intellectual genealogy, which (at least in its narrow form) does not involve the combinatorial explosion. Most full members of APS received a PhD in psychology with a particular mentor, that mentor received a PhD with someone else, and so on. Just as we can trace our biological lineage, we can trace our intellectual lineage. Doing so is an interesting activity and can lead to an appreciation of the history of our field. Also, because scientific psychology is only 125 years old (give or take a decade), the task is more manageable. Of course, although PhDs have only one official major professor, they may still have many mentors and inspiring teachers.

While I was at Purdue University in the 1980s, one of my graduate students, Mike Stadler, got interested in this topic and wanted to trace his intellectual genealogy, which meant mine, too. As just noted, although most PhDs have only one person who was chair of their dissertation committee, they may have at least several intellectual mentors. In my own case, I would claim as my primary mentors David Elmes and James Leyburn of Washington & Lee University (who helped encourage me on to graduate school) and then Endel Tulving and Robert Crowder at Yale University, during my graduate career. A full accounting of an intellectual genealogy would trace the intellectual roots of all of them back through the years. Bob Crowder, now deceased, was chair of my dissertation committee, and Mike Stadler (now at the University of Missouri) traced back our genealogy back through the years from Crowder, finding many interesting facts and stories along the way.

How does one create an intellectual genealogy? The task will vary greatly depending on one’s genealogy. Usually, the official mentor is listed on the dissertation, and university libraries keep these forever. After discovering the identity of a prior mentor, uncovering information about her or him can be more difficult, especially for more than one generation back. The individual and his or her compatriots may have died, and the written record may be poor. Many departments do not keep good records or even final vitas of emeritus (or deceased) professors, and histories of universities rarely record much about individual faculty members. For the more famous individuals, obituaries (and for some, even biographies) can help, although by their nature obituaries tend to present the deceased in a favorable light no matter what the individual’s personality while living. The whole process of intellectual genealogy can send one to corners of the library where few tread and to journals that have lain unopened for years.

Here’s a brief glimpse of what can be found, from the research Mike Stadler and I did. (More detail on each person appears in the chapter cited at the end of this article.) First, Robert Crowder (1939-2000) was an outstanding experimental psychologist who studied human memory (particularly processes in auditory short-term memory) and who wrote a comprehensive graduate textbook on the topic, Principles of Learning and Memory (1976), which is still frequently cited today. He served as editor of Memory & Cognition in the 1980s and was a member of the Society of Experimental Psychologists.

Crowder received his PhD with Arthur Melton (1906-1978) at the University of Michigan. Melton was a grand figure in the field. He edited the Journal of Experimental Psychology for 13 years (back when there were not many alternative publication outlets for those in this field), and he held leadership positions in many organizations — APA, the Midwestern Psychological Association, the Psychonomic Society. He was also elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Arthur Melton had two mentors: John McGeoch (1897-1942) from his undergraduate days at Washington University and Edward S. Robinson (1893-1937) who advised him at Yale for his PhD. Both of these men came to untimely ends in their mid-40s. McGeoch died of a stroke shortly after arriving at the University of Iowa to be chair; Robinson was struck by a bicyclist on the Yale campus, hit his head on a rock, and never recovered consciousness. Even though both were relatively young when they died, they had made many contributions. McGeoch, among other things, argued for interference as being the chief cause of forgetting in a 1932 Psychological Review paper and wrote an important textbook, The Psychology of Human Learning, published posthumously (1942). Robinson published on topics in social psychology and psychology and law, in addition to important work on experimental psychology. Some of his work resulted in the Skaggs-Robinson hypothesis about how similarity of an intervening task bears a particular relation to retention of an original task.

McGeoch’s mentor was Harvey A. Carr (1873-1954) of the University of Chicago, that great bastion of functionalist psychology early in the last century. After graduating, Carr took a job teaching high school in Texas (including teaching the history of the Civil War), but he eventually found a position at the Pratt Institute and was later lured back to Chicago to take the place of John B. Watson (who had been hired away by Johns Hopkins University). Carr served as chair of the department for 16 years, during which time the program graduated 130 PhDs.

The mentor for both E. S. Robinson and Harvey Carr was James Rowland Angell (1869-1949), so the genealogy narrows. Angell was primarily responsible for having made the University of Chicago the capital of the functional approach during his 34 years there. He produced 50 PhD students, including John B. Watson and Walter S. Hunter. Besides being an important psychologist and champion of functionalism, Angell had great administrative talents. He became dean at the University of Chicago and its acting president for one year. After World War I he became chairman of the National Research Council and, in 1920, president of the Carnegie Corporation. In 1921, he was selected as president of Yale University. He held that position for 16 years and is credited for greatly enhancing Yale’s position as a premier research university.

Curiously, although Angell had outstanding mentors, he had never received a PhD. This curious fact helps answer in a positive manner the question of “What can one do in psychology without a PhD?” with the answer “Be president of Yale.” However, I suspect that times have changed and this feat will not be repeated. Angell himself studied both in the United States and in Europe. In the United States, he studied and worked with both John Dewey (1859-1952) at the University of Michigan and William James (1842-1910) at Harvard. (I must leave the story of why he never got his PhD for another time.)

The above survey represents the quick tour of Mike Stadler’s and my intellectual lineage through Robert Crowder on back to the beginnings of scientific psychology. Those reading this column may wish to trace their own intellectual genealogy back to the 1870s. (Hint to graduate students: This would be a wonderful gift to your major professor. Do the research, write up the interesting story, and present her or him with the outcome.) The task of intellectual genealogy takes some time, but is very rewarding. You learn history and see your own place in a long chain of intellectual predecessors.

My chain stops with John Dewey and William James, which is about as good as it gets. Of course, Dewey and James themselves had mentors. I was alerted to this fact by another one of my own mentors who has counseled and advised me over many years. A few years ago, Endel Tulving sent me some pages from a biography of William James. Henry James, Sr., father of William and Henry, Jr. (the famous novelist) sent his sons to a boarding school in Switzerland run by a German exile named Heinrich Roediger. Heinrich is Henry in English, so one of William James mentors was Henry Roediger. Intellectual genealogies can turn up surprises, too.

Material for this column draws from a chapter published in 2001 by Roediger and M. A. Stadler, “Robert G. Crowder and his intellectual heritage,” in The Nature of Remembering: Essays in Honor of Robert G. Crowder. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.


Can you provide basic guidance (best practices) on how to do this intellectual genealogy. Two day since embarking on this task and I am still at the starting gate.

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