Anniversary of James McKeen Cattell’s PhD

James McKeen CattellIt was on this day in 1886 James McKeen Cattell passed his doctoral examinations at the University of Leipzig. Cattell was the first American to graduate under Wilhelm Wundt’s supervision. G. Stanley Hall, however, had earlier spent time learning and working in the famed experimental psychology research laboratory — the first of its kind in the world — after earning a PhD at Harvard under William James. Ironically, Cattell had begun his graduate work under Hall’s supervision at Johns Hopkins, but left Baltimore for Leipzig after a dispute with Hall over his fellowship, which had been withdrawn and given to another Johns Hopkins student, John Dewey.

Cattell was Wundt’s first assistant, and he would go on to found psychology laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University. Cattell also established the first program of mental testing, based on his post-doctoral experience in Francis Galton’s anthropometry laboratory in London. His greatest influence, however, probably came as a result of the large collection of scientific journals he owned and edited. He co-founded Psychological Review with James Mark Baldwin and, after he and Baldwin had split, he founded the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods (now just the Journal of Philosophy). He also owned and edited the journal Science for decades.

Cattell’s position at Columbia was terminated when it was discovered that he had written a letter to members of Congress on university stationery opposing conscription in World War I (which, it was claimed, contravened Woodrow Wilson’s controversial Sedition Act).

The most extensive account of Cattell’s early career is found in Michael M. Sokal’s An education in psychology: James McKeen Cattell’s Journal and Letters from Germany and England, 1880-1888 (MIT, 1981).

Tip o’ the hat to Warren Street’s “Today in the History of Psychology” website .

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.