Root \'rüt, 'rut\ n, pl roots.
It’s a simple word, but what it signifies depends on whom you ask. A musician sees a root as the fundamental note of a chord while the mathematician defines it as a set of values. It can be the underground portion of a plant, part of a tooth, or a computer account with special privileges. Rooting is a skill in the martial art of Kung Fu, and millions remember Roots as the Alex Haley novel or the television miniseries of the mid-1970s.
Taken together these definitions suggest that roots are fundamental, contain values, convey privilege, and help us hold our ground when challenged. It’s in these qualities that we find a personal meaning – where “I” began, where “I” sprang into being. This, of course, is Haley’s meaning. Because of Haley’s story, many of us – not just African Americans – were motivated to begin the search for our own heritage. It is a source of personal pride, for example, to know that my great great great great great grandfather, John, was born in North Carolina in 1750 (about the time Haley’s saga begins) and to know the names and something of the lives of the intervening six Browns.
I am, however, an academic psychologist and a few years ago began to wonder about my scholarly roots. I wanted to see if I could trace my intellectual heritage back 130 years or so to the beginnings of scientific psychology. My goal seemed reasonable.
Historians generally identify two individuals as pivotal in the earliest days of the modern scientific psychology tradition: Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) of Germany and William James (1842-1910) of the United States. At least one writer has referred to them as the “old world pope” of European psychology and the “new world pope” of American psychology. Was I “related” to either of them?
James’ career was less orderly than that of Wundt. He began as a physiologist with a medical degree, spent the middle years teaching psychology, and finished as a legendary professor of philosophy at Harvard. (His brother, Henry, was a noted American author.) During his decade of teaching psychology at Harvard, James is credited with mentoring many of those who earned the first psychology doctorates in America and helped found American psychology.
Wundt, also with a medical degree, is considered to have established the first laboratory in psychology in 1879 at the University of Leipzig, and the first psychology doctorates anywhere were earned under his direction. Many Americans (James almost did) made the pilgrimage to Leipzig to study with the master. They represent the founders of the American tradition.
When my initial research showed a relatively quick and direct connection to Wundt, I was understandably excited; he was my great great great great grandmentor! Only five scientists stood between the founder and me. About two years ago I asked my colleagues if they had ever done the same. To my surprise, none had, and I embarked on a project to develop a faculty genealogy for the psychology department – tracing our collective academic ancestors back in time through dissertation advisors and mentors. With psychology’s brief history and clear beginning, it’s likely that all of us could be traced back to its founding and probably to Wundt or James.
So I had a new focus for scholarly inquiry, one that I fully expected to lead in unexpected directions. Most of my scholarship has involved the experimental analysis of behavior – studying rats and pigeons in the celebrated “Skinner Box,” and while the majority of my laboratory studies had led to predicted results, I had no idea where tracing academic lineages would lead me and what stories might be revealed. I was eager.
The project has three phases. First, names of mentors are traced back as far possible, usually through a review of dissertations. This can sometimes be completed online, but often requires travel to the relevant university library. Second, personal recollections and anecdotes about mentors are solicited from those still living, and historical works and biographies are examined for earlier ancestors. Third, a narrative describing the flow and interaction of influences on one’s approach to psychology is developed, noting where we followed in our mentor’s footsteps and where we diverged. Just as with parents and their children, the apple generally falls close to the tree but on occasion rolls off on its own.
My dissertation adviser and mentor was Stan Pliskoff, obviously from the Bronx to anyone who knew him. He was a gifted teacher, an exceptional scientist, and editor of the most prestigious journal in our specialty, the psychology of B.F. Skinner. How Pliskoff became a “Skinnerian” remains a mystery. His dissertation (NYU, 1956) didn’t follow that paradigm nor was his mentor, Howard Kendler, predisposed to that approach. In a recent communication, Kendler (now in his mid-80s) wrote me that Pliskoff was “always a warm, amusing guy although I could never interest him in theory.”
In retrospect, I can see that. I recall the time Pliskoff was to deliver a prime time public lecture on Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, a book that had caused quite a stir in 1971 (cover of Time magazine, etc.). When I asked him how he prepared for the lecture, Pliskoff confessed he hadn’t read the book but did call Fred Skinner to ask what the fuss was all about! The crowd was large, and both the lecture and discussion were terrific.
Kendler – a prolific author and scientist – had studied with Kenneth Spence at the University of Iowa (1944), and Kendler’s early writing was central to the most important debates in learning theory. Spence received a Ph.D. from Yale University in 1933 and was a towering figure in the middle decades of the twentieth century, probably one of the most important psychologists in the world although today few remember him. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and is still the only psychologist ever to deliver the Silliman Lectures, Yale’s oldest and most prestigious series.
Spence’s mentor at Yale had been Robert Yerkes, also elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Yerkes is best known for establishing the Yale Laboratories of Primate Biology in Florida, the leading facility in the world for the study of great apes. Today it is located in Atlanta and is the federally funded Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center. He is also remembered for offering, as president of the American Psychological Association (APA), the services of psychology to the army when we entered World War I. Under his leadership mental tests were developed and used for the first time by the army. Yerkes had received a doctorate from Harvard in 1902 under the direction of Hugo Münsterberg.
Münsterberg is a more tragic figure. A talented scientist, he was invited to head temporarily the psychology laboratory at Harvard at the end of the nineteenth century. After earning acclaim as teacher and chairman, he was offered the permanent position of professor. Although he had a very successful career after settling at Harvard and was elected president of the APA in 1898, he was a German by birth and loyalty, and he faced increasing hostility as World War I became imminent. He died as he stood to give a lecture at Radcliffe College in 1916. He had earned both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Leipzig, the latter in 1885 under the direction of Wilhelm Wundt and only a few years after Wundt founded that first laboratory in psychology.
Wundt was a prolific scholar, publishing nearly 60,000 pages in his career, but he is best remembered as an organizer and advocate. It was he, more than any other individual, who made the case for psychology to be a science in its own right rather than a branch of philosophy or physiology as it then was.
I have been fortunate enough to visit Leipzig, located in eastern Germany, twice since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The first was quite brief, just six hours between trains, but in June of 2002 I was able to spend a couple of days there. On that occasion I visited the grave of Wundt, sat at his desk, signed my name into his student ledger, held one of his books, and examined some of the apparatus he invented as he set psychology on a modern scientific course. Unfortunately the original laboratory had fallen victim to the bombs of World War II.
My initial journey was complete, and I have begun a similar process for my psychology colleagues, two of whom I’ve also traced back to Wundt. I knew who my intellectual ancestors were and had touched physically and emotionally the beginnings of scientific psychology. I continue collecting personal reflections and anecdotes, and the grand challenge of tracing and understanding the progression of societal and intellectual influences beckons. As with most scholarly quests, progress has been slow, but it’s also been wonderfully rewarding.
Originally posted July 1, 2010
Originally posted July 1, 2010