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James McKeen Cattell : biography

May 25, 1860 - January 20, 1944

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. 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.


He married Josephine Owens, 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.

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.

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. The fellowship was not renewed, 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.

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.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 Regarding the beginnings of his mental tests, in Leipzig, Cattell independently began to measure “simple mental processes” Between 1883 and 1886, Cattell published nine articles discussing human reaction time rates and individual differences. 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. 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.Applied History of Psychology/Models of Testing. Wikibooks. http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Applied_History_of_Psychology/Models_of_Assessment

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