James McKeen Cattell

James McKeen Cattell
Born (1860-05-25)May 25, 1860
Easton, Pennsylvania
Died January 20, 1944(1944-01-20) (aged 83)
Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Nationality American
Fields psychologist, psychometrics
Institutions University of Cambridge, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University
Doctoral advisor Wilhelm Wundt
Doctoral students Walter Dearborn

James McKeen Cattell (May 25, 1860 – January 20, 1944), American psychologist, was the first professor of psychology in the United States at the University of Pennsylvania and long-time editor and publisher of scientific journals and publications, most notably the journal Science. He also served on the board of trustees for Science Service, now known as Society for Science & the Public (or SSP), from 1921–1944.

At the beginning of his career, many scientists regarded psychology at best a minor field of study, or at worst a pseudoscience such as phrenology. Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, Cattell helped establish psychology as a legitimate science, worthy of study at the highest levels of the academy. At the time of his death, The New York Times hailed him as "the dean of American science." Yet Cattell may be best remembered for his uncompromising opposition to American involvement in World War I.[1] His public opposition to the draft led to his dismissal from his position at Columbia University, a move that later led many American universities to establish tenure as a means of protecting unpopular beliefs.[1]

Early life

Born in Easton, Pennsylvania in 1860, Cattell grew up the eldest child of a wealthy and prominent family. His father, William Cassady Cattell, a Presbyterian minister, became president of Lafayette College in Easton shortly after James' birth. William Cattell could easily provide for his children, as he had married Elizabeth "Lizzie" McKeen in 1859; together they shared Lizzie's substantial inheritance. To this picture of the family's success one could add political power as well, as James' uncle Alexander Gilmore Cattell represented New Jersey in the United States Senate.

Cattell entered Lafayette College in 1876 at the age of sixteen, and graduated in four years with the highest honors. In 1883 the faculty at Lafayette awarded him an M.A., again with highest honors. Despite his later renown as a scientist, he spent most of his time devouring English literature, although he showed a remarkable gift for mathematics as well. Cattell said Francis Andrew March, a philologist, was a great influence during his time at Lafayette.[2]

Cattell did not find his calling until after he arrived in Germany for graduate studies, where he met Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig. He also studied under Hermann Lotze at the University of Göttingen, and an essay on Lotze won him a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University, where he left Germany to study in October 1882.[2] The fellowship was not renewed,[2] and he returned to Leipzig the next year as Wundt's assistant.

The partnership between Wundt and Cattell proved highly productive, as the two helped to establish the formal study of intelligence. Under Wundt, Cattell became the first American to publish a dissertation in the field of psychology. The title of his German dissertation was Psychometrische Untersuchungen (Psychometric Investigation). The dissertation was accepted by the University of Leipzig in 1886. More controversially, Cattell tried to explore the interiors of his own mind through the consumption of the then-legal drug hashish. Under the influence of this drug, Cattell once compared the whistling of a schoolboy to a symphony orchestra. While recreational drug use was not uncommon among early psychologists, including Freud, Cattell's experimentation with hashish reflected a willingness to go against conventional opinion and morality.

The main street in the College Hill Neighborhood of Easton, Pennsylvania, home to Lafayette College, is named after Cattell.

Academic career

After completing his Ph.D. with Wundt in Germany in 1886, Cattell took up a lecturing post at the University of Cambridge in England, and became a 'Fellow Commoner' of St John's College, Cambridge.[3] He made occasional visits to America where he gave lectures at Bryn Mawr and the University of Pennsylvania. In 1889 he returned to the United States to take up the post of Professor of Psychology in Pennsylvania, and in 1891 moved to Columbia University where he became Department Head of Psychology, Anthropology, and Philosophy; He became President of the American Psychological Association in 1895.

From the beginning of his career, Cattell worked hard to establish psychology as a field as worthy of study as any of the "hard" physical sciences, such as chemistry or physics. Indeed, he believed that further investigation would reveal that the intellect itself could be parsed into standard units of measurements. He also brought the methods of Wilhelm Wundt and Francis Galton back to the United States, establishing the mental testing efforts in the U.S.

In 1917, Cattell and English professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana (grandson of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Richard Henry Dana, Jr.) were fired from Columbia University for opposing the United States’ conscription policy during World War I.[4] Years later he sued the university and won an annuity. In 1921, he used the money that he had gained from the settlement in order to start The Psychological Corporation to foster his interest in the field of applied psychology. Because he was never able to really explain how psychologists can apply their work, the organization failed until taken over by other psychologists who had experience in applied psychology. Towards the end of his life, Cattell still edited and published his journals. To help himself in the process, he created the Science Press Printing Company in order to produce his journals. He continued his work on the journals until his death in 1944 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Eugenicist beliefs

Eugenics is the "applied science or the bio-social movement which advocates the use of practices aimed at improving the genetic composition of a population, usually referring to human populations."[5] Cattell's belief in eugenics was heavily influenced by the research of Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution motivated Cattell’s emphasis on studying “the psychology of individual differences”.[6]

In connection with his eugencist beliefs, Cattell's own research found that men of science were likely to have fathers who were clergymen or professors. Incidentally, Cattell's father was both.[7]

Catell believed that he had “inherited ability", but he also credited the influence of his environment, saying "it was my fortune to find a birthplace in the sun. A germplasm fairly well compounded [good genes] met circumstances to which it was unusually fit to react”.[7] Cattell’s strict eugenicist ideology even motivated him to offer his own children monetary gifts of $1,000 if they would only marry the offspring of a university professor or academic professional.[8]

Mental tests

Cattell’s research on individual differences played a significant role in introducing and emphasizing the experimental technique and importance of methodology in experimentation in America.[9] Regarding the beginnings of his mental tests, in Leipzig, Cattell independently began to measure “simple mental processes[8] Between 1883 and 1886, Cattell published nine articles discussing human reaction time rates and individual differences.[8] As professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Cattell administered a battery of ten tests to student volunteers, and for the first time introduced the term “mental tests” as a general term for his set of tests which included measures of sensation, using weights to determine just-noticeable differences, reaction time, human memory span, and rate of movement.[8] When Cattell moved to Columbia University, the battery of tests became compulsory for all freshmen. Cattell believed that his mental tests were measuring intelligence; however, in 1901 Clark Wissler, a student of Cattell, demonstrated that there was no statistical relationship between scores on Cattell's tests and academic performance. The tests were finally rendered irrelevant with the development of Alfred Binet’s intelligence measurements.[8][10]


Cattell was well known for his involvement in creating and editing scientific journals. He was so involved in owning and publishing journals, that his research productivity declined. He founded the journal Psychological Review in 1894 along with James Mark Baldwin. He also acquired the journal Science and, within five years, made it the official publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1895-1900. In 1900, he purchased Popular Science Monthly from D. Appleton & Company. In 1915, the title was purchased from him and became Popular Science. He, in turn, founded and edited The Scientific Monthly, which went to the subscribers of the old Popular Science Monthly as a substitute.[9][11]

Cattell was the editor of Science for nearly 50 years. During that time, he did much to promote psychology as a science by seeing to it that empirical studies in psychology were prominently featured in the journal.[8] Regarding his impact on the development of psychology as a science, Ludy T. Benjamin wrote of Cattell's editorship “there is no denying that it significantly enhanced psychology’s visibility and status among the older sciences.”[6]:56


He married Josephine Owen, the daughter of an English merchant, in 1888. Their seven children got their pre-college educations at home with their parents as instructors. The whole family shared in Cattell's editorial work.[2] One daughter, Psyche Cattell (b. 1893) followed in her father's footsteps, established a small child psychology practice in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and developed tests to assess the intelligence of infants.[12]


  1. 1 2 Jonathan Baron (2006). "History: Cattell at Penn". Retrieved 2014-09-24. Baron cites C. S. Gruber (1972), "Academic freedom at Columbia University: The case of James McKeen Cattell", AAUP Bulletin, Autumn, pp. 297-305, with respect to Cattell's views on the war and place in the debate on academic freedom.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Dorothy Ross (1973). "Cattell, James McKeen". Dictionary of American Biography. Supplement Three (1941-1945). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  3. "Cattell, James McKeen (CTL886JM)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  4. Current Opinion, November 1917, p.294
  5. "Eugenics", Unified Medical Language System (Psychological Index Terms), National Library of Medicine, 26 Sep. 2010.
  6. 1 2 Benjamin, L.T., Jr. (1993). A history of psychology in letters. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown. ISBN 978-0697129802. OCLC 26931839.
  7. 1 2 Sokal, M. M. (1980). "Science and James McKeen Cattell, 1894 to 1945". Science. 209: 43–52. doi:10.1126/science.7025202. PMID 7025202.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Thorne, B. M., Henley, T. (2001). Connections in the history and systems of psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
  9. 1 2 Pillsbury, W.B. (1947). Biographical Memoir of James McKeen Cattell 1860-1944. National Academy of the Sciences. http://www.nap.edu/html/biomems/jcattell.pdf
  10. Applied History of Psychology/Models of Testing. Wikibooks. http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Applied_History_of_Psychology/Models_of_Assessment
  11. Cattell, James McKeen (September 1915). "The Scientific Monthly and the Popular Science Monthly". Popular Science Monthly. The Science Press. 87 (3): 307–310.
  12. Cattell, Psyche (1940). The Measurement of Intelligence of Infants and Young Children (1st ed.). New York, New York: The Psychological Corporation.

Further reading

External links

Wikisource has original works written by or about:
James McKeen Cattell
Educational offices
Preceded by
William James
4th President of the American Psychological Association
Succeeded by
George Stuart Fullerton
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