U.S. National Medals of Science in Psychology

It was recently announced that Dr Gordon Bower, Albert Ray Lang Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, will receive the U.S. National Medal of Science “for his unparalleled contributions to cognitive and mathematical psychology, for his lucid analyses of remembering and reasoning and for his important service to psychology and to American science.” 

So rare is it for psychologists to win this award that the honor was highlighted last week — in the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences newsletter — as a celebratory moment for the entire discipline. 

This got us thinking: How often are psychological contributions recognized through the awarding of a National Medal of Science?

Neal E. Miller (1909-2002), of Yale University, for “sustained and imaginative research on principles of learning and motivation and illuminating behavioral analysis of the effects of direct electrical stimulation of the brain.”

Herbert A. Simon (1916-2001), of Carnegie Mellon University, for “fundamental contributions to our understanding of human problem-solving behavior and decision-making, particularly in organizations.”

Anne Anastasi (1908-2001), of Fordham University, for “her work in the development of the discipline of differential psychology as a behavioral science, which illuminates the way traits are influenced by heredity and environment and the methods by which traits and human characteristics are measured.”

Roger W. Sperry (1913-1994), of the California Institute of Technology, for “his work on neurospecificity which showed how the intricate brain networks for behavior are effected through a system of chemical coding of individual cells, which has made fundamental contributions to the understanding of human nature.”

George A. Miller (1920-), of Princeton University, for “his innovative leadership in the scientific study of language and cognition, and for his commitment to improved education for literacy.”

Eleanor J. Gibson (1910-2002), of Cornell University, for “her conceptual insights in developing a theory of perceptual learning; and for achieving a deeper understanding of perceptual development in children and basic processes in reading.”

Roger N. Shepard (1929-), of Stanford University, for “his theoretical and experimental work elucidating the human mind’s perception of the physical world and why the human mind has evolved to represent objects as it does; and for giving purpose to the field of cognitive science and demonstrating the value of bringing the insights of many scientific disciplines to bear in scientific problem solving.”

William K. Estes (1919-), of Harvard University, for “his fundamental theories of learning, memory, and decision. His pioneering development and testing of mathematical models of psychological processes have set the standard for theoretical progress in behavioral and cognitive science.”

R. Duncan Luce (1925-), of the University of California at Irvine, for “his half century of advances in economics, psychology, and sociology based on mathematical modeling of behavior.”


About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

4 thoughts on “U.S. National Medals of Science in Psychology

  1. Harry Harlow (1967) and B. F. Skinner (1968) both won the National Medal of Science in Biological Sciences

  2. Brilliant!

    Harry F. Harlow (1905-1981), of the University of Wisconsin, for “original and ingenious contributions to comparative and experimental psychology, particularly in the controlled study of learning and motivations, the determinants of animal behavior, and development of affectional behavior.”

    B. Frederick Skinner (1904-1990), of Harvard University, for “basic and imaginative contributions to the study of behavior which have had profound influence upon all of psychology and many related areas.”

  3. The topic of the Medal of Science jogged my memory for how psychologists came to be eligible for this award because they were initially excluded. I recalled that Robert Lowman, when he was Science Officer for the American Psychological Association, played a large role in getting the law rewritten to include psychologists. I wrote to Bob, now at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, about his recall of those events. What follows is his reply.

    I worked at the American Psychological Association Central Office as Director of the Office of Scientific Affairs from the late summer of 1976 until the late summer of 1981. The events described below started sometime in 1978 and culminated in December of 1980.

    One evening, after almost everyone else had left the building, an old man walked into my office and sat down in a chair in front of my desk. He did not introduce himself or shake my hand; he just walked in, asked if I was Bob Lowman, and plopped himself down on the chair. I had no idea who he was. I remember saying, “Can I help you?”

    The man immediately started a tirade. He was upset. I don’t remember his exact words, but he started on about how terrible it was that psychologists were not eligible to win the National Medal of Science (also sometimes called the President’s Medal of Science). He told me that only three psychologists had ever won the medal, and all of them had won as biologists. He wanted to know what APA intended to do about it. In the course of conversation, he reiterated that only three psychologists had won the award–B.F. Skinner, Neal Miller, and himself. At this point, my mind started racing. What other psychologist would be in the same category as Skinner and Miller and would be able to qualify as a biologist? Frankly, the National Medal of Science had never been on my radar screen before that evening, and I had no idea who might have won it. All I knew was that the man sitting with me in my office was obviously someone of great distinction, but I wasn’t about to ask the man his name and show my ignorance! The entire conversation lasted probably 15-20 minutes, and the man got up and left the office without any more ceremony than when he had entered. Before he left, I had promised to look into the matter and see if there was anything APA could do to change the situation. I never knew how he found me, or who told him that I was the Scientific Affairs Officer. I can only guess that he had stuck his head in some other occupied office that evening, and that person had given him my name and suggested he speak with me.

    There was no internet, so it took me a while the next day to learn about the National Medal of Science. No one else in the office seemed to know much about it. I discovered that the award was administered by the National Science Foundation on behalf of the President of the United States. I spoke with the individual at NSF who handled the program and found that the Medal was specifically authorized in federal law in 1959, and the law did list the specific fields of science that were eligible. Psychology was, in fact, not among the disciplines listed in the law. I also was able to obtain a list of all previous winners of the award from NSF, and going through the list yielded the names of only three psychologists: B. F. Skinner, Neal Miller, and Harry Harlow, who was obviously the gentleman in my office the evening before.

    I had several conversations with Clarence Martin at the Association for the Advancement of Psychology (AAP, psychology’s lobbyist) about the situation. Clarence got a copy of the statute, and we went over it together. The law said that to win the Medal, recipients had to be “deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to knowledge in the physical, biological, mathematical, or engineering sciences.” We talked about adding the word “psychological” to the list of eligible disciplines, but I insisted that we think bigger. I reasoned that if we were going to try to amend the law, we ought to make it possible for all behavioral and social scientists to be eligible, so I told Clarence to add the words “behavioral and social” to the law instead of just the word “psychological.” He agreed to give it a shot.

    At this point, things become a bit more confused. I put the issue on the agenda of the Board of Scientific Affairs for its next meeting, but I’m not certain what meeting that might have been. I know that BSA discussed strategy, and one outcome was a suggestion that we try to get the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) involved. The thought was that if AAAS was in favor of expanding eligibility, it would not seem to be such a partisan issue. I don’t remember whether I contacted the Section J representatives or whether the BSA chair did. It’s even possible that a member of BSA was a Section J rep at the time. However the contact was made, the strategy worked. AAAS passed a resolution in favor of modifying the law to include our language — the “behavioral and social” sciences — in early 1979.

    Meanwhile, Clarence was looking for sponsors. Ideally, we wanted sponsors in both houses of Congress. The first to agree to sponsor was on the House side, Representative Robert Traxler of Michigan. He introduced a freestanding bill that would have done only one thing–modified the language in the Public Law establishing the National Medal of Science to include the behavioral and social sciences. I don’t have a copy of that bill and don’t have in my records any mention of the H.R. number, but I’m sure that could be retrieved from congressional records.

    As is often the case in Congress, the Traxler bill went no where. But, Clarence and the AAP folks stayed with it, and somehow they were able to get the provision of the Traxler bill included in the NSF authorization bill that was wending its way through the 96th Congress and had an excellent chance of passing. That bill (S. 568 introduced by Sen. Kennedy of Massachusetts on March 7, 1979 and H.R. 5305 introduced by Rep. Richard Ottinger of New York on September 17, 1979) became Public Law 96-516 and was entitled the “National Science Foundation Authorization and Science and Technology Equal Opportunity Act.” President Carter signed that bill into law on December 12, 1980.

    I went on Wikipedia to see what they had to say. They give all the credit to the AAAS resolution and Senator Kennedy, which is true if you only know about the public record. Clarence Martin used to say that good lobbyists never claim credit for what they accomplished, because the politicians think they did it. Traxler didn’t get any credit, because his bill didn’t pass. BSA didn’t get any credit, because its work was all behind the scenes. I didn’t get any credit, even though I was responsible for including all the behavioral and social sciences, not just psychology, because my work was all behind the scenes. Clarence didn’t get any credit, even though he and the AAP staff did ALL the heavy lifting to make this happen, because they were lobbyists who stayed in the shadows so they would be effective next time they were needed. Of course the AAAS resolution was extremely helpful, but APA–specifically BSA–put AAAS up to it.

    After P.L 96-516 was passed, there was quite an incubation period before any psychologists won the award. The first was Herb Simon in 1986, then Anne Anastasi in 1987 and Roger Sperry in 1989. Interestingly, NSF has gone back to 1962 when the first awards were given, and recategorized recipients as behavioral and social scientists. Neal Miller is now listed as a behavioral/social scientist, but B. F. Skinner and Harry Harlow are still listed as biological scientists. I wouldn’t place too much faith in the NSF categories back then, however. They list Roger Adams as a behavioral or social scientist (award date 1964) and he was a chemist. Solomon Lefschetz was a mathematician (award 1964) and similarly listed in behavioral or social science. Some others are similarly miscategorized.

    As best I can remember (plus what I found in my files), that’s how it happened.

    Robert P. Lowman
    University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

  4. One more comment from Bob Lowman that I should have added:

    If you want to add my story, or some part of it, be my guest. Consistent with Clarence Martin’s advice about lobbyists, I’m not worried about who gets the credit. I just reread what I wrote to you, and one thing that is certainly implied, but not stated forthrightly was that Harry Harlow deserves a lot of credit for caring enough about the discipline to track down someone in APA who would attempt to do something about it!

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