Psychology Before 1900

Ludy T Benjamin Junior. 21st Century Psychology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: Stephen F Davis & William F Buskist. 2007. Sage Publication.

In earliest times, basic forms of psychology were practiced by priests, shamans, wizards, seers, medicine men, sorcerers, and enchanters, all of whom offered some blend of magic, religion, and herbal remedies to ease the physical and mental suffering of their patients. These early efforts evolved into the current fields of medicine, religion, and psychology, with a residual overlap of influence among the three. Psychology continued its gradual evolution until the 19th century, one that saw significant changes in this field.

The specific focus of this chapter will be on five forms of American psychology during this period, with some coverage of their European roots. The first is popular psychology, or what might be called the psychology of the people, or public psychology. This is the psychology that emerged from thousands of years of human history, manifesting itself in the 19th century in several forms of pseudoscientific psychological practice such as phrenology, physiognomy, mesmerism, spiritualism, and mental healing.

A second psychology, sometimes labeled medicopsychology or psychiatry, was practiced by physicians and other caretakers in treating the mentally ill who were housed in what were initially called lunatic asylums or insane asylums. These mental asylums were the principal means of care for America’s mentally ill for nearly two centuries, and they were the birthplace of the profession of psychiatry. Twentieth-century battles with psychiatry, especially over the right to deliver psychotherapy services, would play a significant role in the development of the profession of clinical psychology.

A third psychology of the 19th century existed within colleges and universities and was known as mental philosophy. This academic psychology owed much to the philosophies of the British empiricists and the Scottish realists, whose ideas created an empirical psychology that focused on topics of human consciousness such as sensation and perception, learning, memory, reasoning, attention, and emotion.

In the second half of the 19th century, work in mental philosophy and in sensory physiology and neurophysiology culminated in the development of an experimental approach to the study of mind, an approach that sought to make the questions of mind investigable by experimental methods. This was the fourth form, scientific psychology, which drew heavily on the work in physiology and psychophysics in Germany, eventuating in Wilhelm Wundt’s 1879 psychology laboratory at the University of Leipzig.

Finally, the fifth psychology to be discussed is applied psychology. In the United States, this applied psychology began in the last decade of the 19th century and was manifested initially in the fields of educational psychology, school psychology, clinical psychology, and industrial psychology. In the 20th century this psychology would achieve its greatest growth, forming a new profession of psychology, dominated by the specialty of clinical psychology, whose practitioners became the principal providers of psychotherapy in the last several decades of the 20th century. These five separate but interrelated psychologies are key to understanding contemporary psychology as a science and as a profession, as well as understanding the public’s continued attraction to today’s popular psychology (see Benjamin, 2007).

Nineteenth-Century Popular Psychology

Although the science of psychology has existed for more than a century, and a profession based on that science has existed for almost as long, these scientifically based psychologies have never supplanted the popular psychology of the public. Today, there are advertisements for palm readers, seers, psychics, spiritualists, mental healers, and others who offer to tell the future, cure depression, save one’s marriage, and in general help their clients achieve health, happiness, and success. Books, magazines, TV “psychologists,” videos, motivational seminars, and Internet sites will tell you how to lose weight, get a better job, get along better with your spouse, raise your children, be more optimistic, be more assertive, and make more money. Psychology is everywhere. It is the stuff of television, movies, country music lyrics, plays, talk radio, novels, tabloid newspapers, and the Internet. The public cannot seem to get enough of psychology. It is not the kind of psychology that PhD psychologists would call psychology, but it is the public’s psychology, and the public embraces it as both entertainment and a prescription for a better life. In the 19th century, Americans also embraced a popular psychology that promised them similar positive outcomes (see T. H. Leahey & G. E. Leahey, 1983).

Phrenology and Physiognomy

Two of the popular psychologies of the 19th century were based on the physical features of a person’s head and on the belief that differences in facial features or the shape of the head determined a person’s intelligence, personality, integrity, and so forth. Phrenology was the invention of Franz Josef Gall (1758-1828), a German anatomist who believed that different brain regions, responsible for different behavioral and intellectual functions, would grow at different rates, producing bumps and indentations on the skull. By measuring these areas of the skull, Gall reasoned that an individual’s abilities and behavioral propensities could be measured. Thus a person with a bump above and in front of the ear would be judged to have a tendency to steal, whereas an individual with a bump above and behind the ear would be especially hostile. An enlargement at the top of the forehead signified a person who would be unusually kind.

Phrenology was especially popular in the United States, promoted largely by the efforts of two brothers, Orson Fowler (1809-1887) and Lorenzo Fowler (1811-1896). They opened clinics in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia; published a phrenological magazine for the public; wrote and published many books on the subject; and trained individuals in the “science” of phrenology who then opened their own clinics in various U.S. cities or traveled the countryside taking their phrenological expertise to small towns and rural areas. “Having your head examined” was big business in the 19th century. Some parents would subject a daughter’s suitor to such an examination, to see if he was of good character and a promising provider. Some businesses used phrenologists as personnel offices to test prospective employees. Yet most persons sought the services of a phrenologist for personal counseling (see Sokal, 2001). Phrenologists would not only identify areas of personal strength and weakness but also, in the case of weaknesses, prescribe a program of behavioral change. Some bumps signaled the need for “restraint”; some indentations identified characteristics to be “cultivated” (O. S. Fowler & L. N. Fowler, 1859).

Physiognomy, also called characterology, was the evaluation of a person’s character, intellect, and abilities based on facial features. It originated in the 18th century in the work of Johann Lavater (1741-1801) and was promoted in the United States by the Fowler brothers and others. The system emphasized the eyes, nose, chin, and forehead as the principal indicators of character. When a young Charles Darwin interviewed for the naturalist position on board the British research ship Beagle in 1831, he was almost rejected for the job because the ship’s captain, Robert Fitzroy, a believer in physiognomy, determined that the shape of Darwin’s nose indicated he was lazy and lacked determination. Fortunately, Fitzroy changed his mind, and Darwin’s work on the Beagle expedition proved his initial judgments monumentally wrong.

Physiognomy was also used to justify the identification of criminals (see, for example, the work of Cesare Lombroso, 1911), to perpetuate racial and ethnic stereotypes (Wells, 1866), and in many American businesses during the early 20th century, to select employees (see Blackford & Newcomb, 1914).


In 1775 Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), an Austrian physician, began experimenting with magnets as a means to cure physical and psychological symptoms in his patients. Holding magnets in his hands and moving them over a patient’s body, Mesmer reported that his patients experienced a brief fainting spell, after which the problematic symptoms were reduced or eliminated. Mesmer practiced in a time when humoral theories dominated medicine—that is, that bodily fluids or humors such as blood and bile were the keys to good health. Mesmer believed that the body’s fluids were magnetized, and that use of the magnets allowed him to “realign” those fluids and thus restore health. Soon Mesmer found that he could dispense with the magnets and merely pass his hands over a patient’s body, achieving similar recuperative effects. He reasoned that constant use of the magnets had transferred the magnetic properties to his own hands. Mesmer called his procedure animal magnetism, but as other practitioners began to use the techniques the practice was labeled mesmerism.

Mesmer became famous and wealthy, accumulating a clientele that drew heavily from the upper crust of Parisian society. When many individuals, with no medical training, began practicing as mesmerists, it infuriated the French medical community. Physicians asked King Louis XVI to conduct an investigation, which he did, appointing a blue-ribbon commission presided over by Benjamin Franklin. The commission found no evidence that magnetic fluids existed in the body nor that magnetic forces resulted in any healing. No formal actions resulted from the report, and Mesmer and his followers continued their practice.

Mesmerism arrived in the United States in the 1830s and spread, especially in the Northeast. In addition to providing medical healing, mesmerists reportedly cured depression and phobias and helped individuals with self-improvement. Mesmerism is considered to be a precursor of modern hypnotism, a legitimate, if not wholly understood, adjunct to medical and psychological practice. Historians believe that the benefits of mesmerism were the results of suggestions made during hypnotic states. The popularity of mesmerism continued into the early part of the 20th century. It is often regarded as the beginnings of psychotherapy in America (Cushman, 1995).

Medico-Psychology or Mental Asylum Care

Large asylums for the care of mentally ill persons were commonplace in Europe in the late 1700s, but by 1800 there were only three such institutions in a more agrarian United States, and all were small, intended to have no more than 250 patients. The asylum movement in America has been described as a “story of good intentions gone bad” (Shorter, 1997, p. 3). Indeed, that phrase is appropriate over and over again in the history of asylums, from the growth of chronic cases in the 19th century that led to the asylums being warehouses of humanity with little or no treatment, to the use of somatic treatments in the early 20th century, such as the prefrontal lobotomy that produced some reduction of psychotic symptoms at a terrible intellectual and emotional cost, to the deinstitution-alization mandated by the Mental Health Act of 1963 that was to produce a more effective community-based mental health treatment program but instead led to thousands of individuals in need of psychological services living on the streets as homeless persons. But at the beginning of the 19th century, there was optimism that these small hospitals for “insane persons” would provide cures in most cases, especially if patients got treatment early.

Asylums were typically constructed in the countryside several miles outside the nearest town. The rural setting removed the patients from the commotion of city life, providing a more pastoral setting. Further, the rural location meant that most asylums had farms where they could grow their own produce and raise their own animals. These farms not only provided food for the asylum kitchen but also provided outdoor work for the asylum inmates, a kind of occupational therapy. Funding for these asylums was never adequate, and asylums fortunate enough to produce surpluses from their farms could sell those crops or animals and use the funds for other needs.

A physician-superintendent, who was often the only physician on staff, headed these asylums. The remaining treatment staff typically consisted of a nurse and minimally trained individuals who served as ward attendants. Treatment in these hospitals in the first half of the 19th century was often referred to as moral therapy, a program intended to return the patients to a productive life in society. Moral therapy included occupational therapy, exercise and recreation, religious training, instruction in good hygiene, and participation in a variety of activities, often selected for patient interests, such as painting, carpentry, gardening, writing, and music. Medical treatments of the day such as bloodletting, cold baths, laxatives, and opium were also used.

As mental asylums grew in America and problems of successful treatment mounted, the superintendents recognized their need for communication with one another. In 1844 they established the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane and founded a journal, titled the American Journal of Insanity, to publish articles about their asylum work. In 1892 they changed the name of their organization to the American Medico-Psychological Association. In 1918 the name was changed once more to the American Psychiatric Association, and the journal name was changed to the American Journal of Psychiatry.

By the middle of the 19th century, much of the optimism about the effectiveness of the asylums had disappeared. Too many of those admitted were not cured, and many had to be housed for the remainder of their lives. In 1869 the Willard State Hospital opened on the shore of Seneca Lake in New York, the first mental asylum built expressly for the chronically insane. By 1875 there were a thousand patients crowded into this asylum of no hope (Grob, 1994). At Willard, and at other asylums where the patient populations had far outgrown the facilities and the staffs, treatment effectively ceased. Staff efforts were directed primarily at patient management. At the end of the 19th century, the patient population in American asylums underwent another period of rapid growth as these asylums were increasingly used as homes for the elderly, especially those suffering from dementia. Although their length of stay typically lasted no more than five years, their numbers were large, and they swelled a system already bursting at the seams. These asylums would grow in number to more than 300 by 1963, when the Mental Health Act brought about the almost immediate release of hundreds of thousands of mental patients. Some of these enormous state asylums (called state hospitals in the 20th century) had populations of more than 7,000 patients. The squalor, hopelessness, sometime cruelty, and general failure of these institutions were documented in 20th-century books and movies. These exposés, which brought public attention to the failures and the development of psychotropic medications in the 1950s, led to the end of the large state hospitals. The eventual failure of the Community Mental Health Center movement of the 1960s was yet another story of “good intentions gone bad.”

At the end of the 19th century, some psychologists began to show an interest in the problems of mental illness, a subject that was not in the mainstream of scientific psychology at the time. Several psychologists were hired to work in the mental asylums, principally as researchers. Those positions expanded in the 20th century with more and more psychologists taking on treatment roles. That work would prove formative in the development of the profession of clinical psychology (see Cautin, 2006; Popplestone & McPherson, 1984).

Mental Philosophy

In reading many history of psychology textbooks, it is easy to form the impression that psychology did not exist in American colleges and universities until the science of psychology arrived in the 1880s. Yet there was already an academic psychology in place, known as mental philosophy. It was part of departments of philosophy, and it was in these same philosophy departments that scientific psychologists found their first jobs. If you examine the chapter titles in a mental philosophy textbook of the mid-19th century, you would recognize it as a clear precursor to scientific psychology. For example, Thomas Upham’s (1848) Elements of Mental Philosophy, the most popular mental philosophy textbook of its time, included chapters on sensation and perception, attention, dreaming, consciousness, association (learning), memory, reasoning, emotion, and appetites (motivation). Seven of the first eight chapters of the book addressed sensation and perception, which demonstrated the continued influence of British empiricism.

Origin of the empiricist view in philosophy is generally attributed to John Locke (1632-1704). In his most famous work,An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1690, he wrote,

Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, From experience. (Locke, 1690/1849, p. 75)

You will recognize this as the concept of tabula rasa, or blank slate, which Aristotle had described centuries earlier and which Locke resurrected. In this monumentally important passage, Locke rejected the notion of innate ideas and asserted that all knowledge, all the contents of the mind, comes from experience. The initial step in that process, he emphasized, was the role of the senses—all knowledge initially comes to the mind from the senses and then from reflection within the mind.

This emphasis on sensation and perception dominated mental philosophy and would play a significant role in the early years of scientific psychology, notably the work of W. Wundt’s laboratory in Germany and E. B. Titchener’s laboratory at Cornell University in the United States. Empiricism, which began in the late 1600s with Locke, was developed further in the philosophies of George Berkeley, David Hume, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). In Mill’s 1843 book, A System of Logic, he argued that the time had come for an empirical science of psychology. Drawing from recent work in chemistry, Mill proposed an empirical psychology focused on sensation that would analyze consciousness into its basic elements, a kind of mental chemistry. His arguments would influence Wilhelm Wundt, who, 36 years later, would move beyond an empirical science to establish psychology as an experimental science.

Also of great importance to mental philosophy was Scottish realism, a philosophy that arose in opposition to the British empiricist belief that objects and events in the world were not directly knowable but were the products of sensation and reasoning. Thomas Reid (1710-1796), the founder of Scottish realism, disagreed, arguing instead that perception of worldly events and objects is immediate, and that awareness of such does not require reasoning. This philosophy strengthened the regard for observation as key to a science of psychology. Reid wrote a series of books that focused on the five human senses, describing in detail how the senses are used to acquire knowledge of the world. In two of his books he described the mind in terms of its powers, or faculties, such as perception, memory, and judgment. Reid’s taxonomy of mind grew in popularity, leading to the label “Scottish faculty psychology.” His ideas crossed the Atlantic with Scottish immigration to the United States and Canada in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and supplanted the ideas of the British empiricists. Evans (1984) has written that by the 1820s, Scottish philosophy dominated American college classrooms.

We have already mentioned Thomas Upham (1799-1872), one of the principal voices in mental philosophy in America. His textbooks dominated the teaching of mental philosophy for more than 50 years. Upham was professor of mental and moral philosophy at Bowdoin College in Maine. A yearlong course in mental and moral philosophy (one semester of each) was common in American colleges in the 19th century. Moral philosophy covered such subjects as morality, conscience, justice, religion, love, and civic duty.

Upham published Elements of Intellectual Philosophy, which some historians regard as the first textbook in American psychology in 1821. He expanded that work to two volumes in 1831 and also wrote a book titled Elements of Mental Philosophy. Upham divided mental philosophy into three realms, reflecting the influence of Scottish faculty psychology: intellect, sensibilities, and will. The first volume comprised the intellect and consisted of such topics as the senses, attention, dreaming, consciousness, learning, memory, reasoning, and imagination. The second volume comprised the sensibilities (emotions, desires, moral sensibilities, and abnormal actions and feelings) and the will (Upham, 1831). The work of the mental philosophers in the 19th century was to bring their observational science to bear on those topics, particularly those of the intellect. This work proved foundational for the coming experimental science of psychology. Historian of psychology Alfred Fuchs (2000) has written that “Although the experimental psychologists thought of themselves as replacing a philosophical discipline with a science, they could be more accurately characterized as adding laboratory experimental procedures to what was already defined as an empirical, inductive science” (p. 9).

A Scientific Psychology

The 19th century was a period of immense progress in the quest to understand the brain and nervous system. Central to the establishment of psychology as a science was work in neurophysiology and psychophysics.


Physiological research involved both structure and function and was focused on questions of nerve specificity, the localization of function in specific regions of the brain, the operations of the senses, and the speed of conductance in the nerves. It was known that the nerves carried information from the senses to the brain (afferent processes) and from the brain to the muscles and effectors (efferent processes). In the first part of the century researchers discovered that nerves in the spinal cord were arranged such that the dorsal part of the cord carried sensory (afferent) information and the ventral part of the cord carried motor (efferent) information. This neural specificity was named the Bell-Magendie law after its two discoverers, Charles Bell and François Magendie.

About the same time, in 1826, Johannes Müller (1801-1858) found that sensory nerves carry only one kind of information, regardless of how they are stimulated—a discovery known as the doctrine of specific nerve energies. Thus the optic nerve carries only visual information, the auditory nerve carries only sound information, and so forth. This finding gave further support to the idea of organized specificity within the central nervous system. There were those researchers who searched for specificity of function within the brain, believing that specific behaviors were governed by specific brain areas, an idea known as cortical localization of function. Paul Broca (1824-1880) was one of the pioneers in this area, locating an area of the left frontal lobe that he found was key to human speech. Today that brain region is known as Broca’s area.

One of the key beliefs in early 19th-century neurophysiology was that nerves conducted information virtually instantaneously. Müller had written that nerve conductance was so fast that it might occur at the speed of light. Yet by the middle of the 19th century, this belief was being questioned. Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) sought to testnerve conductance speed using the severed leg of a frog. He electrically stimulated the upper end of the leg and measured the time required before the foot twitched. The study was a difficult one because of the small time interval involved, but what Helmholtz discovered was quite astounding. He calculated that the impulse traveled at a speed of approximately 90 feet per second. Hardly the speed of light! This discovery would prove key to many studies in the early years of scientific psychology because it was the basis of the reaction-time method.


October 22, 1850, was a Tuesday. Gustav Fechner (1801-1889) would remember the date exactly because of an incredible insight that occurred to him that day. What was this monumental insight? Fechner realized that it was possible to measure, with great precision, the relation between the physical and psychological worlds—in short, he had discovered a scientific approach to the centuries-old mind-body problem.

The psychological world and the physical world are not the same. If they were, there would be no psychology. All psychological phenomena could be explained fully by the laws of physics. But the physical world and the psychological world are not in a one-to-one correspondence. A pound of feathers and a pound of lead weigh the same in physical terms but when each is placed separately on the outstretched palms of a human subject, the person reports that the lead is much heavier than the feathers. Lights can be made physically brighter that are not perceived as brighter by human observers. Objects can be seen as moving that are actually stationary (one sees motion in motion pictures even though no movement occurs on the screen, only in the viewer’s head). Fechner discovered a way to measure the psychological perception of physical events as a way to compare the physical and psychological worlds. Consider his work in difference thresholds, or what is called a just noticeable difference or jnd. The jnd is the smallest difference that can be detected when a stimulus value is changed. For example, for a weight of 30 ounces, the jnd is 1 ounce. That means a person can reliably differentiate between a weight of 30 ounces and 31 ounces. This relation is lawful, such that the ratio of the change to the value of the stimulus is a constant. So for a 60-ounce weight, the jnd would be not 1 ounce but 2 ounces. Quantitatively, those two jnds are different; once is twice the weight of the other. Yet qualitatively (and this was the key part of Fechner’s insight), they represent the same difference! Fechner developed several psychophysical methods for determining difference thresholds and absolute thresholds (the minimal stimulus value that could be detected). These methods were part of the mainstay of the early psychological laboratories and are still used today in psychological research.

Wilhelm Wundt as Founder

Following graduation from medical school at the top of his class in 1855, Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) worked as a research assistant, first for Johannes Müller and then Hermann Helmholtz. He was well versed in the physiology and psychophysics of the 19th century and was particularly influenced by Fechner’s 1860 book, Elements of Psychophysics. Wundt’s vision for a scientific psychology gestated for nearly 20 years. In 1874 he published the first textbook of the scientific work relevant to psychology, Principles of Physiological Psychology. In that book he left no doubt about his intent: “The book which I here present to the public is an attempt to mark out a new domain of science” (Wundt, 1904, p. v). Five years later, in 1879 at the University of Leipzig, he established the world’s first psychological laboratory. He would remain active in his laboratory into the 1910s, mentoring more than 160 doctoral students in psychology and philosophy.

Much of the research in Wundt’s laboratory was on sensation and perception, reflecting the influence of the British empiricists. Soon the volume of research required a journal to publish the results, so in 1881, Wundt began publication of Philosophical Studies, the first journal for scientific psychology (the title Psychological Studies was already in use for a parapsychology journal and thus could not be used). Wundt also drew on Helmholtz’s work on the speed of nerve conduction as a basis for studying the time course of mental events.

Using a reaction time technique pioneered by the Dutch physiologist F. C. Donders, Wundt measured the difference between a simple reaction time (recognizing when a light was presented) and a choice reaction time (recognizing whether the light was green or red and then responding to each one differently). The longer reaction times in the second task were seen to represent the processing times of the mental events in the complex task that were not involved in the simple task. Thus by further complicating various reaction time tasks, it was possible to measure the speed of thinking.

For Wundt, the goal of psychology was to understand consciousness, which Wundt defined as the sum total of all facts of which a person is conscious. Consciousness was built up through an individual’s experiences in the world. These experiences, according to Wundt, were composed of sensations, associations, and feelings. These were the elements of consciousness, and Wundt proposed studying those elements to discover the ways in which they were combined to form what he called psychical compounds or aggregates. The compounds were of paramount importance. Wundt (1902) wrote, “The actual contents of psychical experience … [depend] for the most part, not on the nature of the elements, so much as on their union into a composite psychical compound” (p. 33). Thus, the mind was an active entity that organized, analyzed, and altered the psychical elements and compounds of consciousness, creating experiences, feelings, and ideas that were not evident in any study of each component by itself. Wundt called this psychological systemvoluntarism to indicate the voluntary, active, and willful nature of the mind.

Wundt’s laboratory was soon joined by other psychology laboratories in Germany, including those of Hermann Ebbinghaus at the University of Berlin and Georg Müller at Göttingen in the 1880s, both of whom did important work on memory, and Carl Stumpf at Berlin and Oswald Külpe at the University of Würzburg in the 1890s. Wundt also trained many of the American psychologists who would return to found laboratories in their own country—for example, James McKeen Cattell at the University of Pennsylvania (1889), Harry Kirke Wolfe at the University of Nebraska (1889), Edward Pace at Catholic University (1891), Frank Angell at Cornell University (1891), Edward Scripture at Yale University (1892), George Stratton at the University of California-Berkeley (1896), and Walter Dill Scott at Northwestern University (1900). By 1900 there were 40 psychology laboratories in the United States (Benjamin, 2000), and many others had spread across Europe as well.

Scientific Psychology in the United States

The United States generated its own homegrown science of psychology, principally from the influence of William James (1842-1910) and his student G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924). James began teaching a course on scientific psychology at Harvard University in 1875, and Hall would earn his doctorate with James there in 1878. James was not a laboratory psychologist, although he did have a laboratory for demonstration purposes. James’s chief influence on psychology—and it was an incredibly significant one—was his writing of the Principles of Psychology, published in 1890, which many historians consider the single most important psychological work in the English language. James’s two-volume work influenced a generation of students to pursue this new science. Although James’s book was never revised, it remains in print today and has been continuously available since its publication. Whereas James did not revise his 1400-page magnum opus, he did write a brief edition in 1892 titled Psychology (Briefer Course), which served more commonly as a college textbook.

Upon graduation, Hall pursued additional study in Germany in 1879 and, for a brief period, worked in Wundt’s laboratory in its initial year. Eventually Hall would establish his own psychology laboratory in 1883 at Johns Hopkins University, the first such laboratory in America. His students would soon found other psychology laboratories at Indiana University, the University of Wisconsin, Clark University, and the University of Iowa. Hall was an exceptionally ambitious man (see Ross, 1972), and he did much to promote the development of the new science. He founded the first psychological journal in America, the American Journal of Psychology, first published in 1887. He founded the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1892 and served as its first president. In the 1890s he was an important force in launching the child study movement, which will be discussed later. His research focused mostly on what would today be called developmental psychology. His most important contribution in that regard was a two-volume work titled Adolescence: Its psychology and its relations to physiology, anthropology, sociology, sex, crime, and religion (1904). This work was important, in part, because it changed the word adolescence from a largely technical term to a word in everyday usage in the English language.

In the year that Hall founded the APA, significant happenings were occurring in the laboratories of American psychology. Four of Wundt’s doctoral students, two of them American, came to the United States that year to serve as laboratory directors at their respective universities. The Americans were Lightner Witmer, who took over Cattell’s lab at the University of Pennsylvania after Cattell moved to Columbia University in 1891, and Edward Wheeler Scripture, who was in charge of the laboratory at Yale. Edward B. Titchener, an Englishman, arrived that same year to direct psychology at Cornell University, and Hugo Münsterberg, a German, was recruited to Harvard University by William James to direct that laboratory. Each of these individuals would prove especially important to the development of American psychology.


Edward Bradford Titchener (1867-1927) was 25 years old when he arrived at Cornell University. He established a brand of psychology there that would become known as structuralism, a reductionistic approach to the study of consciousness that sought to study consciousness by breaking it down into its fundamental elements, namely sensations, feelings, and images. Identifying the elements of consciousness was the first of his goals for psychology. A second was to discover how the elements became grouped and arranged, and a third was to determine the causes of the particular arrangements of elements. Titchener believed that the causes of these elemental arrangements would be found in underlying physiological processes.

For his research, Titchener relied mostly on a single method—introspection, or looking within. (See the following chapter for additional information regarding Titchener and introspection.) Titchener put his introspectors (his graduate students) through rigorous training to develop in them what he called the introspective habit. In introspection the individual was to report on mental events, describing them as accurately and completely as possible, striving to report one’s consciousness at its most basic level, that is, in terms of its elements. Training in introspection allowed observers to function automatically in making internal observations, with minimal disruption of the mental event being studied. Titchener’s introspectors were expected to avoid making the stimulus error, that is, confusing what was being observed (e.g., a book) with the basic elements of that stimulus (e.g., color, texture, shape). It was these elements that Titchener believed were the fundamentals of conscious experiences, and he expected the introspective accounts in his laboratory to be at that level. Titchener’s research focused on sensations that he studied in terms of their primary attributes: quality (cold, red, salty), intensity (bright, loud), clearness (distinct vs. indistinct), and duration (time course of the sensation). He and his students identified more than 44,000 separate, distinct sensory experiences (elements) in vision and audition alone (see Evans, 1984; Titchener, 1898)

Whereas Titchener’s psychology focused on the structure of consciousness (its elemental content), a rival psychological school—functionalism—was more interested in the functions of consciousness, that is, what is it that consciousness does for the organism? Why does consciousness exist? It might be obvious that the ideas of Charles Darwin, especially the issues of individual differences and adaptation, would be of special interest to this psychological group.


American functional psychology was rooted in the ideas of William James, G. Stanley Hall, and James McKeen Cattell. James argued that consciousness enabled the individual to make choices, which was its adaptive significance. Consciousness helped an organism to maintain attention in situations of stimulus overload, to attend selectively when selection was an advantage, and to make use of habitual responding when such automaticity was adaptive. Hall and Cattell were particularly interested in applying the science of psychology—Hall to education and Cattell to mental testing, especially intelligence testing. A strong interest in the applications of scientific psychology was a key part of functionalism, whereas Titchener was adamant that application was premature until the structure of consciousness was completely worked out. Addressing the functionalists’ interests in applied work, Titchener (1910) wrote, “The diversion into practical channels of energy which would otherwise have been expended in the service of the laboratory must be regarded as a definite loss to pure science” (p. 407).

Whereas structuralism existed principally at Cornell University, the University of Chicago served as the stronghold for functionalism. Head of the psychology department there at the end of the 19th century was James Rowland Angell (1869-1949), who had studied with William James and John Dewey before pursuing further graduate work in Germany. (See the following chapter for additional information on James Rowland Angell and functionalism.)

The structuralists had emphasized the study of sensations; the functionalists would emphasize the study of learning because it was through learning that consciousness could serve its adaptive function. In their research the functionalists used introspection, but not in the way Titchener advocated. Instead, their method was more of a self-report of experience, usually of discreet, brief sensory events. They also used psychophysical methods, questionnaires (made popular in the work of Hall), mental tests (many of them devised by Cattell), and animal studies in a program of comparative psychology in which nonhuman organisms were studied in order to generalize findings to human behavior. In addition to learning they studied sensation and perception, child development, intelligence, sex differences, motivation, abnormal behavior, personality, and other topics. Further, they also used their science to investigate applied questions in education, business, and the law. Both schools of psychology would lose their influence in the 1920s with the rising dominance of behaviorism in American psychology (O’Donnell, 1985).

The New Applied Psychology

In contemporary psychology, applied psychology dominates the field, principally in the practice of clinical psychology but in many other applied specialties as well. Yet when scientific psychology began in the last quarter of the 19th century, application of the new science was not an immediate goal. The new psychologists sought to understand the normal mind, to explore ordinary mental life in terms of sensation, perception, learning, thinking, and so forth. As we have described earlier, when scientific psychology arrived on the scene, an applied psychology already existed. It could be found in the field of psychiatry as it labored to cure persons with mental illnesses, and it could be found in popular psychology in the many forms of pseudoscientific practice such as phrenology and mesmerism. A new applied psychology, however, would develop from the scientific laboratories, promoted largely by those identified with functional psychology. The earliest of these applications was in the field of education.

Child Study

At the end of the 19th century, America was undergoing significant social change. Cities were experiencing expansive growth brought on by the industrial revolution. Exploitation of children in factory jobs led to new child labor laws and compulsory school attendance laws that forced children into longer stays in school. New waves of immigrants were arriving in America, also swelling the enrollments in schools. Concerns about juvenile delinquency, about integrating new immigrants into American society, and about the explosive growth of school enrollment brought a new focus to the American educational system and new demands for reform. In the early 1890s, G. Stanley Hall called for a national program of what was labeled “child study.” Psychologists, educators, and parents were to band together in a program of research to learn all there was to know about children. Everything was to be studied: sensory capabilities, religious beliefs, physical characteristics, sense of humor, memory, play, language development, personality, attention span, and so forth. Hall’s belief was that armed with this new knowledge of the child, education could be vastly improved through better teacher training and more individualized and scientifically designed school curricula. In a popular magazine article written in 1894, Hall touted the applicability of his new science: “The one chief and immediate application for all this work is its application to education” (p. 718). The child study movement, which lasted until about 1905, never achieved the lofty goals that Hall and others imagined (see Davidson & Benjamin, 1987; Ross, 1972). Although child study proved to be more popular psychology than scientific psychology, no theory guided the research, and it proved impossible to integrate the disparate results of the many questionnaire studies into any meaningful prescriptions for educational change. It was, however, the first principal application of the new scientific psychology, and it did foster the development of several fields of psychology that would prove important, notably developmental psychology and educational psychology.

Clinical and School Psychology

In March 1896, a schoolteacher visited Lightner Witmer (1867-1956) at the psychology department of the University of Pennsylvania. The teacher brought with her a 14-year-old boy who had difficulty spelling. The teacher believed that the problem was a mental one, and she reasoned that if psychology was the science of the mind, then psychology ought to be able to help. Witmer accepted the challenge and was able to develop a treatment program that helped the boy considerably. As word spread about his success with this case, other children with educational and behavioral problems were brought to him. Thus was born the first psychological clinic in America. By December of that year, Witmer was so pleased with the outcomes of the work in his clinic that he gave an address promoting applied psychology at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in which he urged his colleagues to use psychology “to throw light upon the problems that confront humanity” (Witmer, 1897, p. 116).

Soon the Philadelphia public schools began to use Witmer’s clinic on a routine basis, referring children there who seemed to be in need of the kinds of diagnostic and therapeutic services offered. The growth of the clinic led Witmer in 1907 to establish a journal, titled The Psychological Clinic, to publish descriptions of the more important cases that had been treated successfully. This work proved to be an important precursor in the fields of clinical psychology and school psychology, and it is for that reason that Witmer is generally labeled the founder of both fields (see Baker, 1988; McReynolds, 1997).

Another important precursor of clinical psychology can be found in the 1890s work of James McKeen Cattell (1860-1944) in the field of mental testing. Cattell (1890) coined the term “mental test” and developed numerous tests that assessed sensory, motor, and cognitive functioning. His tests were considered to be measures of intelligence until research at the beginning of the 20th century showed poor correlations between his tests and academic performance. His intelligence tests were supplanted by tests developed by French psychologist Alfred Binet (1857-1911). Intellectual assessment, primarily using the Binet tests, would become the most characteristic activity of clinical psychologists in the first half of the 20th century (Sokal, 1987).

The Psychology of Business

By 1900 scientific psychology had not only moved into the domains of clinical and educational work but had also initiated work in the field of business. The initial foray was in the field of advertising. According to historians of American business Bryant and Dethloff (1990), “Advertising became increasingly important after the 1890s as manufacturers reduced price competition and stressed product differentiation [and as] manufacturing capacity came to exceed demand … In an economy of excess, advertising became the means to dispose of an oversupply” (p. 190). Companies greatly expanded their advertising budgets to deal with product surpluses, and they grew increasingly concerned about maximizing the effects of their advertising campaigns. Because advertising was about appeal and persuasion of customers, businesses looked to the new science of psychology for help. In 1895 the University of Minnesota’s Harlow Gale (1862-1945), who had studied with Wundt, conducted a survey of approximately 20 businesses, asking about their advertising strategies. His work, although the first of the advertising studies in psychology, had little, if any, impact on American business. But Walter Dill Scott (1869-1955), a psychologist and a Wundt doctoral student, made a significant contribution to the field, changing the way businesses advertised, leading them to create advertisements that had greater suggestive appeal. Scott argued that humans were nonrational, highly suggestible creatures “under the hypnotic influence of the advertising writer” (Kuna, 1976, p. 353). Scott advocated two advertising methods in particular: the direct command and the return coupon. Both techniques relied on Scott’s belief that individuals were compulsively obedient. Scott’s early work in this field appeared as a series of monthly articles in advertising magazines. These were later collected in the first two books on the psychology of advertising (Scott, 1903, 1908), the principal beginnings of the field known today as industrial-organizational psychology.


The 20th century would soon prove to be one of enormous progress in the discipline of psychology, witnessing the division of the field into numerous scientific and practice specialties. Specialties such as clinical psychology, school psychology, industrial-organizational psychology, and counseling psychology dominated the applied fields, and newer applied specialties such as health psychology, forensic psychology, and sport psychology would appear near the end of the century (see Benjamin & Baker, 2004).

The “schools” of American psychology, manifested in structuralism and functionalism in the 19th century and in behaviorism for much of the 20th century, gave way to divisions of scientific psychology by subject matter, such as social psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, and behavioral neuroscience. In examining the continuing evolution of psychology in the 21st century, both as a science and as a field of professional practice, it is important to recognize that the seeds for these areas were well established in the fertile soil of the 1800s.