McMicken College of Arts & SciencesMcMicken College of Arts & SciencesUniversity of Cincinnati

McMicken College of Arts & Sciences

Department of Psychology

Department of Psychology

Department History to 1960

In 1870, several Cincinnati institutions were combined under the name the University of Cincinnati; six years later, in the 1876-1877 academic year, the first coursework in psychology was offered by Wayland Richardson Benedict, Professor of Philosophy & History. Professor Benedict received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Rochester, and attended Rochester Theological Seminary before coming to Cincinnati as the pastor of the Mount Auburn Baptist Church in 1873. In 1875, he accepted a position as one of the three faculty members of the Academic Department at the University. Benedict had a perspective on philosophy that is somewhat surprising for someone trained as a clergyman. Benedict's lectures on intellectual philosophy focused on the physiological conditions of mental activity, and psychology as the science of mind. Assigned readings included the work of Alexander Bain and Herbert Spencer, both important contributors to the 19th Century fusion of British associationism and evolutionary thinking. Twenty years later, Benedict was still lecturing on the relationship between "nerve-matters" and consciousness, but had shifted with the times and was using texts by Titchener and Kulpe that reflected the early German influence on psychology. Benedict, who was liked and respected by a large following of students, retired in 1907 after 32 years of service to the University.

By the last decade of the 19th Century, a number of Psychology Departments had been established both in the United States and Germany. Thirty-two psychology laboratories had been founded at colleges and universities in the U.S. by 1900. Psychology was still being taught as part of the philosophy curriculum by Professor Benedict at the University of Cincinnati for the 1900-1901 academic year. However, in the Spring of 1901, it was decided that an independent Department of Experimental Psychology and Pedagogy should be established. The minutes from the Sept. 30, 1901 meeting of the University Board of Trustees notes that $600 was to be set aside for books and $1,000 for equipment for the department. At this same meeting of the Board, Charles H. Judd, PhD was appointed Professor of Psychology and Pedagogy at an annual salary of $2,000. Judd first become interested in psychology under the tutelage of A. C. Armstrong at Wesleyan College in Middletown, Connecticut. At Wesleyan, Judd was introduced to the emerging experimental psychology, and through his connection to Armstrong, he met all the influential American psychologists of the day at the 1893 meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA). Interestingly, E. L. Thorndike was a student of Armstrong's at the same time Judd was at Wesleyan, and the two students took a seminar on the psychology of William James in the same year. Following his graduation in 1894, Judd went off to Leipzig, Germany to pursue his doctoral degree with Wilhelm Wundt, who had established the first psychology laboratory in 1879. He finished his work in two years, and returned to Wesleyan in 1896 as an instructor of philosophy. After founding a psychology laboratory at New York University in 1900, Judd accepted the position at Cincinnati, where he taught courses in both psychology and education, and established a psychology laboratory in three rooms on the second floor of "old" McMicken Hall. Judd's course in psychology was entitled Physiological and Experimental Psychology, and "treated the methods and results of scientific psychology" as they related to "conscious experiences and their conditions."

In his autobiography, Judd notes that he arrived at the University during a time of upheaval, when the President had instituted a system of elective studies that, as he described it, was based on a sort of "strict natural selection". There were no required courses. Whether or not a course was taught was based solely on whether enough students elected to take it. There was no faculty input into the formation of policies, and no faculty meetings were held. In addition, his course load prevented him from pursuing his research. Therefore, when Judd was offered a position at Yale the following year, he resigned his position at Cincinnati. Charles Judd went on to be president of the American Psychological Association in 1909, and then, Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Chicago.

With the resignation of Judd, the position in psychology was filled by another important, early figure in American psychology, Margaret Floy Washburn. She was appointed Assistant Professor of Psychology and Dean of Women on May 19, 1902 at a salary of $1,500. Washburn attended Vassar College, where she developed interests in both science and philosophy and decided that experimental psychology represented the ideal union of her interests. Hearing that Wundt's first American student, James McKeen Cattell, had started a laboratory at Columbia University, she approached Cattell about being a "hearer" in his courses (at that time women were not accepted as graduate students at Columbia). Cattell accepted her into his classes, and treated her as an equal to the male students in terms of assignments and projects. After a year under Cattell's mentoring, and at his suggestion, she applied to Cornell's graduate program in philosophy, arriving at the same time as E. B. Titchener, fresh from Oxford and Wundt's lab at Leipzig. She finished her PhD in 1894 under Titchener's tutelage, thus becoming the first woman psychologist. Following stints at Wells College and Cornell, Washburn accepted the position at UC. She expanded the course offerings in psychology by developing a course in folk psychology (based on the work of Wundt), a laboratory course, a history and systems of psychology course and a developmental and educational psychology class. Unfortunately, Washburn was not happy in Cincinnati. Although she notes that the University administrators made every effort to treat her like other faculty members, she was the only woman at Cincinnati. In addition, she had been associated with the most exclusive and prestigious Eastern educational institutions, and was unprepared to deal with the open admissions policy at the University of Cincinnati (the applications of all city high school graduates were accepted for admission). In her autobiography, she states that "I had to condition half of my introductory class." Most importantly, however, she was very close to her family and friends in the East, and so when an opportunity arose for her to go back to her alma mater of Vassar, she jumped at the chance and left Cincinnati after only one year. As she says, "I could spend every Sunday with my parents, who were living only sixteen miles away." Washburn went on to be president of the American Psychological Association in 1921, and made significant early contributions to motor theories of consciousness and comparative psychology.

Although the University had succeeded in attracting two first-rate, young psychologists to its new psychology department, both had stayed only a year. Cincinnati's luck with its third recruit was no better. The position was offered to the first psychology PhD from the University of Chicago, John Broadus Watson, but Watson accepted a position at Chicago. Instead, John Willis Slaughter was appointed instructor of psychology for the 1903-04 academic year. Slaughter had earned his PhD at the University of Michigan with Walter Pillsbury, who had been a fellow student of Washburn's in Titchener's lab at Cornell. He added a course in comparative psychology to the curriculum developed by Washburn, along with a graduate offering in the psychology of morality, art and religion. Apparently his views on the "scientific" analysis of ethics and religion led to problems with the University administration. In Mcgraine's book on the history of the University, it is noted that Slaughter's contract was not renewed because he advocated "free love." Then President of the University Charles Dabney is quoted as saying "No man, either by word or his manner of life can teach things destructive of the very foundation of human society in any institution for which I am responsible."

The next recruitment lead to greater departmental continuity and stability. Burtis Burr Breese, PhD was appointed Professor of Psychology for the 1904-05 academic year and would continue to serve UC until 1937. Breese had earned bachelor's degrees from both the University of Kansas and Harvard, a master's degree from Harvard and his PhD from Columbia. He had been a student of William James at Harvard and of Cattell at Columbia. After serving as Professor of Psychology and Ethics at the University of Tennessee, he came to Cincinnati at age 37, where he remained professor of psychology until he retired in 1937 at age 70. Breese taught basically the same selection of courses that had been instituted by those who preceded him, with much of the coursework being devoted to educational applications of psychology. Through the cooperation of the Cincinnati public schools, children with mental and emotional disorders were brought to the psychology laboratory for testing and study. Diagnoses and an assessment of prospects for learning were made, and suggestions were made for methods of instruction. Breese also published a number of papers on binocular rivalry, the alternation of visual experience that is produced when the two eyes are exposed to conflicting stimuli. Breese's most significant contribution to academic psychology was his textbook entitled Psychology, first published in 1917. This introductory text was used by many colleges and universities in the United States. In the preface, Breese emphasizes his commitment to an empirical approach to psychology. He states that he has sympathy for the objective and quantitative aspects of consciousness, but still finds the method of introspection valid, views that echo those of William James, his former mentor. Breese served as chair on 34 master's theses, starting with the first master's degree in psychology at UC (Emma Kohnky, 1909). Several of these students remain living legacies of his career. He also supervised the first PhD in psychology at Cincinnati (Charles M. Diserens, 1922). In his 33 years of service, Breese taught over 6,000 students in his classes. Burtis Burr Breese died of a heart attack on July, 31, 1939. However, the tradition of research, scholarship, teaching and service that he personified has continued since his arrival in Cincinnati 106 years ago. A number of important "firsts" occurred during the "Breese" Era. Louis Aryal Lurie was appointed the first graduate assistant in 1908. Emma Kohnky earned the first graduate degree in psychology (an MA) in 1909, and Charles Diserens was awarded a PhD in psychology in 1922. The next PhD in psychology was not awarded until 1939 when Maurice Newburger completed the degree. Dr. Newburger had earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees at UC under the tutelage of Drs. Breese and Diserens. Interestingly, part of his graduate career was supervised by Dr. Louis A. Lurie who was the medical director at the Child Guidance Home of Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati at that time.

A second faculty member, Dr. Ernest Lynn Talbert, was added to the faculty in 1914. Dr. Talbert earned his PhD at the University of Chicago in 1910 before joining the Department of Philosophy at UC. Shortly thereafter, he moved to the Psychology Department until 1938 when he became Professor of Sociology. Dr. Talbert also served as Director of Admissions in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences and Supervisor of Evening Courses from 1915 to 1938. Dr. Talbert taught courses on the psychology of primitive people and social psychology, and had a reputation as an outstanding teacher and advocate for students. He preferred the tutorial approach to the classroom lecture, a preference he developed as the result of a sabbatical leave at Oxford University in England. Dr. Talbert was active in the Cincinnati Peace Society and prison reform movement in Cincinnati. In recognition, Talbert House, an agency which provides services to individuals re-entering society following prison, was named in his honor. Dr. Talbert retired from University service in 1949, and died in 1971 at the age of 93.

A third faculty member was added at the instructor level in 1918. Charles Murdoch Diserens was appointed with a starting salary of $600/year. Dr. Diserens completed his PhD at Cincinnati. Diserens was a scholar in the classical sense, with broad interests that spanned a variety of disciplines. He published papers in Psychological Review; and Psychological Bulletin as well as other respected professional journals on topics such as psychological objectivism, humor, motivation, Freud and medieval magic. He taught classes in introductory psychology, history and systems of psychology, motivation, applied psychology and developmental psychology. Dr. Diserens was a colorful, and somewhat tragic character. Some students called him "Dizzy Diserens" due to his informal manner, rumpled dress and because he behaved like the archetypical absent-minded professor, forgetting to come to class or lecturing with his fly open. He was also called "Horse Collar Charlie" because his over-sized shirts made the collar around his neck look like a horse collar. By all accounts, he was a favorite with the students throughout his career. Each of the former students I interviewed reported fond memories of "Dizzy", his encyclopedic knowledge and encampment at Fries Cafe. One reported having a cat named Dizzy! Dr. Diserens retired in 1959 following 41 years of University service.

Edward Stevens Robinson was another Breese student who went on to a distinguished career in psychology. Robinson was a psychology major at Cincinnati where he worked with Dr. Breese. He graduated in 1916, the winner of the McKibben medal from the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences. This award recognizes the outstanding graduate of the College each year. Robinson earned a PhD from the University of Chicago in 1920, working with two Chicago functionalists, Carr and Angell. He subsequently held academic appointments at both the University of Chicago and Yale. Robinson's interests were initially in mental fatigue and memory, but later turned to applied social psychology. His most influential work was on law and social science, which led to his book Law and the Lawyers. Robinson was active in a number of professional organizations including chair of the psychology section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and treasurer of the APA. He also served as the editor of Psychological Bulletin. Robinson died in 1937 at the age of 44 following a head injury suffered when a bicycle hit him as he crossed a street on the Yale campus.

The first coursework in clinical psychology was offered in the 1923-1924 academic year. Emerson A. North, MD, Instructor in Neurology at the College of Medicine, offered a course entitled clinical psychology. In addition, Maurice Levine, who had recently completed a master's degree in psychology at UC, offered a course in abnormal psychology. Both North and Levine would go on to head the Psychiatry Department at the College of Medicine in later years.

In 1928, another full time faculty member was added to the Psychology Department. James Vaughn earned his doctoral degree from the University of Chicago in 1927. He was an applied psychologist with interests in the areas of motivation, learning and mental fatigue. His main teaching responsibility was the course and laboratory in experimental psychology. One alumnus remembers that Dr. Vaughn would often quip "You'd better read McDougall on that topic" when he was uncertain about the answer to a question. Another remembered the help provided by Dr. Vaughn when she became interested in the writings of Freud. At the time (the 1930s), Freud's works were locked away in the library, and could only be read by students who had special permission from a faculty member. Dr. Vaughn died tragically in a fire in 1957 at the age of 59.

With the retirement of Breese in 1937, Arthur Gilbert Bills was recruited to head the Department of Psychology. Bills earned his doctoral degree at the University of Chicago and was an assistant professor there for 10 years prior to being recruited to Cincinnati. Dr. Bills, in the tradition of Chicago functionalism, described himself as an "eclectic" psychologist with interests in applied problems such as mental fatigue. Bills' most enduring contribution to psychology was the discovery of blocking. Previous to Bills' work, investigators had noticed that reaction time tended to increase progressively as a person performed a task over a long period of time. Bills noted that in fact, modal reaction times remained relatively constant over time, but that occasional trials with very long reaction times would begin to appear. He referred to this phenomenon as blocking, and attempted to relate it to problems such as stuttering. Bills wrote three books; General Experimental Psychology (1934), The Psychology of Efficiency (1943), and Methods of Psychology (1948). He taught a variety of courses, including introductory psychology, personality, psychological measurement and the psychology of individual differences, which he introduced into the curriculum. Arthur Bills considered himself to be primarily a teacher. It is widely reported that he was a superb scholar who maintained the highest academic standards. In recognition of his contribution to teaching and research, the Arthur Bills Research Award is given by the Psychology Department to the undergraduate student who writes the best research paper during the academic year.

Arthur Bills played a central role in establishing clinical psychology at the University of Cincinnati. He was responsible for developing one of the first clinical training programs in the country, and established the University of Cincinnati Testing and Counseling Center in 1957. Dr. Bills was a fellow of both APA and AAAS, and served as president of the Midwestern Psychological Association. He was an active crusader against "smut," and lectured to groups of citizens about the sexual symbolism embedded in various magazines and other publications.

Dr. Bills handled all the administrative tasks of the Psychology Department. He set the budgets and salaries, decided who would be hired, and reviewed all graduate applicants single-handedly, as his predecessor had done. His goal was to run an efficient department on a shoestring budget, and, if possible, return money to the College at the end of the year. It is also reported that he was a diabetic whose behavior was unpredictable around mealtime. Faculty and students alike knew to avoid discussion of difficult or controversial topics before lunchtime!

Arthur Bills was replaced by Wesley Allinsmith as department head in 1961, and retired in 1963. However, he continued to work as a senior research psychologist at Longview Hospital and to teach part-time at Xavier University. During his tenure as head, 20 doctoral degrees were awarded and the department grew to eight full time faculty. He died in Cincinnati at age 70 in 1966. Arthur Bills left the department with a strong tradition of undergraduate and graduate teaching, and an emphasis on applied research.

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