The Cummings Center for the History of Psychology has just released the first video in a new series 5 Minute History Lesson. Episode 1, featured above, explores the life and work of psychologist James V. McConnell. A second episode, on Ruth Howard Beckham, is scheduled for release this summer.
The first 2013 issue of the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology is now online. This month’s Time Capsule section features a piece by Larry Stern on psychologist James McConnell’s efforts to poke fun at the discipline.
In 1959, McConnell began the Worm Runner’s Digest after the appearance of his memory transfer research in the pages of Newsweek. As Stern describes,
… McConnell was inundated with letters from high school students from around the country asking where they could obtain worms for their projects and how they should go about caring for and training them. Some students, according to McConnell, demanded that he send a few hundred trained worms at once since their projects were due within days.
After answering the first few letters McConnell realized that something more efficient was needed. So he and his students wrote what amounted to a training manual describing their work and how to repeat their experiments.
McConnell firmly believed that “anyone who takes himself, or his work, too seriously is in a perilous state of mental health.” So as a joke, he affixed the name Worm Runner’s Digest to the top of the manual. Adorning the front page was a crest that one of his students designed, complete with a two-headed worm with pharynx fully exposed, a pair of diagonal stripes in the maize and blue colors of Michigan across the escutcheon of said planarian, a coronet made up of a Hebbian cell assembly, a ¥ for psychology, a homage to the stimulus-response of behaviorism, and a motto, ignotum, ignotius which, loosely translated, means “When I get through explaining this to you, you will know even less than before I started.” To top things off, McConnell labeled it Volume I, No. 1.
To McConnell’s astonishment, word of this new “journal” got out and he started receiving submissions. So he decided to “pep things up a bit” by scattering poems, jokes, satires, cartoons, spoofs and short stories more or less randomly among the more serious articles.
Other psychologists who joined in on the fun include B. F. Skinner and Harry Harlow, who each wrote satirical pieces related to their own work.
Before long McConnell received criticism that it was difficult to distinguish between the serious scientific contributions to the journal and the comedic contributions. To address this issue, in 1967 the journal was renamed the Journal of Biological Psychology, with the Worm Runner’s Digest relegated to the publication’s back pages where its pieces were printed upside down. Twelve years later, the Worm Runner’s Digest came to an end.
Read the full piece, “Psychological Hijinks,” online here.
The October 2012 issue of the American Psychological Association‘s Monitor on Psychology is now online. Included in the issue’s Time Capsule section is a piece by Jamie Chamberlin on the persistent myth that John Watson was fired from Johns Hopkins in 1920, not due to his affair with graduate student Rosalie Raynor, but rather because it was discovered that Watson was conducting research on physiological responses during sexual intercourse. This rumor seems to have originated with psychologist James Vernon McConnell (1925–90) and made its way into numerous of textbooks in the latter part of the twentieth century.
As Chamberlin describes,
It wasn’t until 2001 that the story was seriously investigated. That’s when Benjamin began his probe, eventually working with three graduate students to trace the story through introductory and history textbooks, the Watsons’ divorce record and the correspondence of Watson, Larson, McConnell and others. The research team found that the story stretched and changed, with other versions alleging that Watson and Rayner used a kymograph measuring device during intercourse. McConnell claimed that there was a photo of the instruments Watson used for the sex research. But Benjamin, who traveled to both Hopkins and the Canadian Psychological Association museum where they supposedly hailed from, found no evidence that the instruments existed or had ties to Watson.
At least one textbook regarded the sex research story as gossip, the AP authors found. In the third version of his “History of Psychology” text, psychologist David Hothersall wrote: “A careful examination of Watson’s dismissal and divorce convinced a recent biographer of Watson that there is no evidence that he was dismissed because of alleged experiments concerned with human sexual behavior.” Hothersall omitted the story entirely from his text’s 2004 fourth edition, as did most other authors by that time.
How did a rumor become textbook fodder? “Nothing really sells like sex,” posits Jodi Whitaker, of The Ohio State University, one of Benjamin’s co-authors. “It was a wonderfully salacious story to spread around.”
The full article, “Notes on a Scandal,” can be read online here.