Lewis Terman

From New World Encyclopedia

Lewis Madison Terman (January 15, 1877 - December 21, 1956) was an American psychologist, noted as a pioneer in cognitive psychology. He is best known as the creator of the Stanford-Binet IQ test, based on the work of Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon. He was a prominent eugenicist and was a member of the Human Betterment Foundation. He was a pioneer of longitudinal methods of study and his research on gifted children laid the foundation for further work in the field. Although his own study of gifted children, known as his "Termites," reflected his own bias and contained several design flaws, it succeeded in convincing the public that being judged highly intelligent was an asset that could be nurtured and lead to success and happiness.


Lewis Madison Terman was born on January 15, 1877, on a farm in Johnson County, Indiana, seventeen miles southeast of Indianapolis. He was the twelfth of fourteen children. When he was 15, he enrolled in the Central Normal College at Danville, Illinois. He received his Associate Degree in 1894, and a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Pedagogy in 1898.

Terman worked as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse to earn money to continue his education. He received an M.A. from the Indiana University Bloomington in 1903, and his Ph.D. from Clark University in 1905. He married a few years earlier, to Anna, with whom he had two children, Fred and Helen.

Suffering from recurring tuberculosis, Terman needed to stay in a warm climate. He worked as a school principal in San Bernardino, California, in 1905, and as the Professor of Child Study and Pedagogy at Los Angeles State Normal School in 1907. In 1910, he joined the faculty of Stanford University as a professor of cognitive psychology and remained associated with the university until his death.

During World War I, Terman worked for the military, conducting psychological testing. In 1916, he published the Stanford Revision of the Binet-Simon Scale, based on previous work by Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon in France. Terman promoted his test, known colloquially as the "Stanford-Binet" test. He described it in his book The Measurement of Intelligence: An Explanation of and a Complete Guide for the Use of the Stanford Revision and Extension of the Binet-Simon Intelligence Scale (1916).

After the war, Terman designed several other tests, including The National Intelligence Test, The Terman Group Test of Mental Ability, and The Stanford Achievement Test. He also conducted research on gifted children with a grant from the Commonwealth Fund. The results of the study were published in Genetic Studies of Genius, Volume I in 1925, Volume II in 1925, and Volume III in 1930.

Terman served as chairman of the psychology department at Stanford University from 1922 to 1945. He was elected President of the American Psychological Association in 1923, and was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the National Academy of Science. He was a member of the Human Betterment Foundation, a Pasadena-based eugenics group founded by Ezra Seymour Gosney in 1928, which had as part of its agenda the promotion and enforcement of compulsory sterilization laws in California.

Terman officially retired in 1942, but continued to conduct studies on giftedness. He died of tuberculosis in Palo Alto, California, on December 21, 1956.


Terman believed that intelligence was inherited and was the strongest predictor of one's ultimate success in life. He had a vision of American society as a meritocracy—a social order based on individual ability or achievement, rather than social status. He thus saw intelligence tests as the means to identify the potential leaders of society.

Terman started his work on intelligence with his doctoral dissertation, entitled Genius and Stupidity: A Study of the Intellectual Processes of Seven "Bright" and Seven "Stupid" Boys. He designed a series of mental tests to distinguish the bright students from the less intelligent ones.

He administered English tests to Spanish-speakers and non-schooled African-Americans, concluding:

High-grade or border-line deficiency … is very, very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among negroes. Their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stocks from which they come. … Children of this group should be segregated into separate classes. … They cannot master abstractions but they can often be made into efficient workers … from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding (Terman, 1916, p. 91-92).

In 1905, Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon published their Binet-Simon Intelligence Scale, in which Terman took great interest. He redesigned the scale, removing several of the original items and adding completely new ones. He also incorporated the German psychologist William Stern's proposal that an individual's intelligence level be measured as an Intelligence Quotient (IQ). The IQ was calculated by dividing the subject’s mental age (obtained from the test) by chronological age and then multiplying by 100. Terman published his Stanford Revision and Extension of the Binet-Simon Intelligence Scale, or simply the Stanford-Binet Scale, in his famous The Measurement of Intelligence: An Explanation of and a Complete Guide for the Use of the Stanford Revision and Extension of the Binet-Simon Intelligence Scale (1916).

Terman also helped adopt his test for the use in the military during World War I. The test was used as the Army Alpha and Army Beta tests, which helped classify recruits. This enabled effective and fast classification of new staff, as the test could be quickly administered to large numbers of people. After the war, Terman applied the same method in classification to school-children. He developed the National Intelligence Tests for grades three to eight. Unlike Binet and Simon, whose goal was to identify less able school children in order to aid them with the needed care required, Terman proposed using IQ tests to classify children and put them on the appropriate job-track. During the 1920s, Terman’s group intelligence tests were used to classify children into homogeneous ability groups, what came to be known as the “tracking system.”

In the 1920s, Terman initiated several longitudinal studies of gifted children that were continued long after his death. He gathered a group of 1,500 California children whose IQs were over 140, and studied them over several decades. The children included in his studies were colloquially referred to as "Termites." Terman carefully recorded all their major milestones in life, from their childhood to deep into the adulthood. After Terman’s death other scientists continued to follow up on the study. One of the most important results of the study was that Terman found that gifted children did not fit the existing stereotypes often associated with them: They were not weak and sickly social misfits, but in fact were generally taller, in better health, better developed physically, and better adapted socially than other children.

Terman’s other, lesser known work consisted of development of scales that measured masculinity and femininity and the degree of marital happiness.


Critics of Terman's work have objected that his tests were biased, giving "scientific" proof which justified racial discrimination, segregation, and even eugenics. Terman failed to take into account the cultural differences inherent in American society. As a result, people who did not belong to the mainstream of American society, especially poor and racial minority children, scored significantly lower than their white, better off counterparts.

Terman’s views on eugenics, his support of sterilization of the unintelligent, and his advocacy of the reducing of the quotas for immigrants from eastern Europe, were also controversial. Debate over hereditary faculties of intelligence has been ongoing into the twenty-first century.

Terman's studies of gifted children, his "Termites," have also been criticized. Determined to show that highly intelligent children, like Terman himself, were not sickly social misfits but were the future leaders of society:

Terman became mentor, confidant, guidance counselor, and sometimes guardian angel, intervening on their behalf. In doing so, he crashed through the glass that is supposed to separate scientists from subjects, undermining his own data. But Terman saw no conflict in nudging his protégés toward success, and many of them later reflected that being a "Terman kid" had indeed shaped their self-images and changed the course of their lives (Leslie).


Terman's Stanford-Binet test has enjoyed wide popularity. It was the first important individual intelligence test in the United States, and is still in use today, despite varying degrees of controversy, as a general intelligence test for adults. The test is currently in its fifth revision.

Terman's research on gifted children, although flawed, succeeded in making people believe it was a good thing to be smart. His intention was to debunk many of the myths that surrounded giftedness. Instead of being perceived as sickly, nerdy wimps, Terman showed that the gifted children he studied, his "Termites," were healthy and socially well adopted, often emotionally more stable than the average children. However, it may be that it was his interest in their lives that helped them succeed an overcome the social and emotional difficulties that have been, and continue to be, observed in gifted children.

His longitudinal studies inspired numerous researchers of giftedness to follow in his steps. He also introduced the longitudinal study as a method in psychological research.

Lewis Terman transformed the psychology department at the Stanford. His son, Frederick Terman, continued in the same steps. As provost of the Stanford University, he greatly expanded the science, statistics, and engineering departments that helped catapult Stanford into the ranks of the world's first class educational institutions, as well as spurring the growth of Silicon Valley.


  • 1916. Terman, Lewis M. The Measurement of Intelligence: An Explanation of and a Complete Guide for the use of the Stanford Revision and Extension of the Binet-Simon Intelligence Scale. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Co.
  • 1917. Terman, Lewis. M. The Stanford Revision and Extension of the Binet-Simon Scale for Measuring Intelligence. Baltimore. Warwick & York, Inc.
  • 1919. Terman, Lewis. M. The Intelligence of School Children: How Children Differ in Ability, the use of Mental Tests in School Grading and the Proper Education of Exceptional Children. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Company.
  • 1925. Terman, Lewis. M. Genetic Studies of Genius. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • 1930. Terman, Lewis. M. Autobiography of Lewis Terman. In Carl A. Murchison, and Edwin G. Boring. A History of Psychology in Autobiography. Worcester, MA: Clark University Press.
  • 1936. Terman, Lewis. M. and Catharine Cox Miles. Sex and Personality; Studies in Masculinity and Femininity. New York. McGraw-Hill.
  • 1937. Terman, Lewis. M. and Maud A. Merrill. Measuring Intelligence: A Guide to the Administration of the new Revised Stanford-Binet tests of Intelligence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin company.
  • 1947. Terman, Lewis M., Melita H. Oden., and Nancy Bayley. The Gifted Child Grows Up: Twenty-five Years' Follow-up of a Superior Group. Genetic studies of genius. v. 4. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • 1975. Terman, Lewis. M. Genius and Stupidity. Classics in Child Development. New York: Arno Press. ISBN 0405064799
  • 1983. Terman, Lewis. M. Terman Life Cycle Study of Children with High Ability, 1922-1982. Ann Arbor: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research.

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