The American psychology laboratory has changed in many ways from its modest beginnings in a handful of universities, becoming a major enterprise that attracts national funding and attention.
“Understanding the growth and development of the psychological laboratory offers insights into the practice and perception of psychological science as well as its meaning and its value to society,” said David B. Baker, Director of the Archives of the History of American Psychology, The University of Akron.
Baker discussed these insights in the symposium “All Labs Great and Small: A History of the Psychology Laboratory in America,” which also featured presentations by APS Fellow and Charter Member Ludy T. Benjamin, Texas A&M University; Wade Pickren, APA Archives and Library Services; and discussant Lewis P. Lipsitt, Brown University, an APS Fellow and Charter Member.
“The dating of modern psychology does not begin with the sensory physiology of Hermann von Helmholtz … nor does it begin with the 1874 publication of Wilhem Wundt’s book The Principles of Physiological Psychology ,” said Benjamin in his presentation “Note to the President: We Are a Science! Déjà Vu All Over Again.” “Instead, we date the new psychology with the establishment of Wundt’s research laboratory at the University of Leipzig [in 1879].”
All Labs Great and Small
A History of the Psychology
Laboratory in America
David B. Baker, chair
The Archives of the History of American Psychology, The University of Akron
Ludy T. Benjamin, Jr.
Texas A & M University
APA Archives and Library Services
Lewis P. Lipsitt, Discussant
It was the establishment of the laboratory that marks the transition of psychology from philosophy to science.
The middle of the 19 th century saw the birth of the science lab in the United States . The psychology lab joined their natural science counterparts in the 1880s. Most historians agree that G. Stanley Hall established the first American experimental psychology laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in 1883.
Before the 1900s, the majority of American graduate students went to Europe to pursue advanced study. Wundt’s experimental laboratory at the University of Leipzig attracted American students including Hall and James McKeen Cattell, who, in 1886, became Wundt’s first American PhD.
By the 1880s, the laboratory had become the public’s icon of the natural sciences. For the psychology lab, however, this was not the case. In the public’s eye, psychology was associated with phrenology, spiritualism, the occult, and other paranormal subjects.
Psychologists were aware of these associations and worked to educate the public about the new psychology and laboratory science through articles in newspapers and popular magazines and public exhibitions and popular speeches. The 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago included a two-room display of psychological lab apparatus. By 1900, there were 41 psychology labs in the United States . It was commonplace to include a description of the lab in university catalogs as a “public statement of the scientific legitimacy of the discipline,” Benjamin said.
The perception of psychology as less than a science was not limited to the public in general, but also existed in academia. Benjamin related the story of Harry Kirke Wolfe, Wundt’s second American PhD, earned four months after Cattell’s, to illustrate the battles fought by early psychologists to obtain laboratory resources. Wolfe’s clashes with the administration at the University of Nebraska , where he spent most of career, are familiar even to modern researchers.
Wolfe set up his lab at Nebraska in 1889 using minimal equipment he built or borrowed from other university departments. He struggled to obtain funds for equipment, often using book funds to purchase needed materials. In his annual reports to the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, Wolfe stressed the low start-up costs for his lab, as well as the scientific nature of the work, but was often not given the funds he requested.
During the first half of the 1900s, American psychology laboratories received much of their funding from private sources. This pattern changed dramatically after World War II with the creation of the National Institute of Mental Health and its intramural and extramural grant programs.
“The infusion of [federal] grant money … after World War II was on a scale unprecedented in American psychology,” said Pickren in his presentation “Funds That Launched a Thousand Laboratories: NIMH & Psychological Science in the 1950s-1960s.” “Psychological science has prospered in the enriched environment made possible by NIMH.”
The Mental Health Act of 1946, which called for the creation of NIMH, altered the size, direction, and practices of American psychology. By 1960, NIMH had become the dominant source of mental health in the United States and the major source of funds for the conduct of psychological research.
The first director of NIMH, Robert H. Felix, believed that “a multidisciplinary effort was necessary, and that psychology and the behavioral sciences were critical to that research effort,” Pickren said. NIMH provided money for a wide variety of research, not wanting to constrain research in an area poorly understood.
In its first 15 years, from 1948 to 1963, the extramural grant program awarded $154 million in research grants. Programs funded during this period included research on differential learning conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, which was explicitly drawn upon by later early enrichment programs, including Mark Deutsch’s IDS program, Pickren said.
Psychology has changed much in the past 125 years. The field has moved from the measurement of observed behavior to the study of cause/effect relationships, noted Lipsitt. Many things remain the same, though. The laboratory is still a central part of many departments, and like Wolfe, psychologists still have to wage many battles — for resources and funding, against perception, and for the respect of natural science colleagues.