James McKeen Cattell

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James McKeen Cattell (May 25, 1860 – January 20, 1944), was an American psychologist, the first professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. His work on mental testing helped establish psychology as a legitimate scientific discipline. Cattell not only developed the experimental aspects, through establishing a laboratory, he also began several scholarly journals for the publication of quality research.

After being dismissed from his academic position at Columbia University due to his opposition to American involvement in World War I, Cattell pursued his writing and development of applied psychology. Cattell's work is significant in that he helped lay the foundation for the development of advances in understanding human nature.


James McKeen Cattell was born on May 25, 1860, in Easton, Pennsylvania, as the eldest child in a wealthy and prominent family. His father, William Cassady Cattell, a Presbyterian minister, became president of Lafayette College in Pennsylvania shortly after James' birth. William Cattell could easily provide for his children, as he had married Elizabeth "Lizzie" McKeen in 1859, and shared Lizzie's substantial inheritance. To the picture of this family's success one could add political power as well, as James' uncle Alexander Gilmore Cattell (1816-1894) 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 fame as a scientist, he spent most of his time devouring English literature, although he showed a remarkable gift for mathematics as well.

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. Cattell left Germany in 1882, on a fellowship to study at Johns Hopkins University, but returned to Leipzig the next year as Wundt's assistant. The partnership between the men 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, Psychometric Investigation. He also spent time conducting research in the laboratory of Francis Galton in London.

After returning from Germany with his Ph.D., Cattell began a meteoric career in America. He served as a lecturer in psychology at Bryn Mawr College in 1887, and a full professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1888. There he started to administer tests to students, coining the term "mental tests." In 1887, he married Josephine Owen, who became his great supporter and motivator. It was she who, in the moment of his depression, encouraged Cattell to continue to go forward.

In 1891 he became the head of the department of psychology, anthropology, and philosophy at Columbia University. He remained there for the next 26 years, teaching, publishing, and researching. He developed a method for ranking according to merit, compiling the Biographical Directory of American Men of Science (1906), and editing it through the first six editions. The book contained names of over 4,000 scientists in the United States, ranked based on their regional distribution and their achievements as seen by their peers.

Cattell served as a president of the American Psychological Association in 1895. He also founded the journal Psychological Review in 1894, and purchased the journal Science from Alexander Graham Bell. Within five years he made Science the official publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1895-1900). In 1904, Cattell founded Popular Science Monthly (which later became Popular Science).

In 1901, Cattell joined the New York Academy of Sciences, being the first psychologist ever admitted to this organization. Through his membership he managed to establish a section of the Academy for Anthropology and Psychology. He was eventually elected President of the NYAS in 1902.

In 1917, Cattell was dismissed from Columbia for his public opposition to the recruitment of young soldiers and American involvement in the World War I. Cattell sent two letters to Congress, in which he expressed his disagreement. The letters were written on college stationery, and the Columbia administration decided to distance itself from Cattell and dismissed him. This move later led many American universities to establish tenure as a means of protecting unpopular beliefs.

After his retirement from Columbia, Cattell started to criticize Columbia’s administration, publishing numerous letters on the topic. He eventually filed a lawsuit against Columbia and won a considerable amount of money. With this money, in 1921, he founded, together with Robert S. Woodworth, and Edward L. Thorndike, the Psychological Corporation, one of the largest mental testing firms in the U.S. which specialized in applications of testing to business. In 1923 he founded the Science Press Printing Company, a publishing house. He presided over the Ninth International Congress of Psychology in New Haven, Connecticut, 1929. He continued to edit and publish his journals until his death.

Cattell died in 1944, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.


Cattell remains famous for his contributions in intelligence testing, as well as his work on individual differences in perception and reaction times.

Cattell’s early career was rather controversial. He became interested in psychology through his own experimentation with drugs. He 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. In addition, he also used other drugs, from morphine to caffeine and chocolate. While recreational drug use was not uncommon among early psychologists, including Sigmund Freud, Cattell's experimentation with hashish reflected a willingness to go against conventional opinion and morality.

Intelligence testing

From the time of his arrival in American academia, Cattell worked hard to establish psychology as a field as worthy of study as any of the "hard" physical sciences, such as chemistry or physics. In his address to the members of the American Psychological Association, he said:

In the struggle for existence that obtains among the sciences psychology is continually gaining ground…. The academic growth of psychology in American during the past few years is almost without precedent…. Psychology is a required subject in the undergraduate curriculum …, and among university courses psychology now rivals the other leading sciences in the number of students attracted and in the amount of original work accomplished (Cattell 1896, p. 1).

Cattell believed that the area of intelligence would first prove that psychology was an exact science. Indeed, he claimed that further investigation would reveal that the intellect itself could be parsed into standard units of measurements. In order to measure intelligence, Cattell believed, he needed to develop standard "psycho-physical" measurement, which would be valid and reliable. In his work he applied the methods of Francis Galton, with whom he had conducted post-doctoral research, establishing the mental testing instruments for which he believed being crucial for success of psychology as science:

I venture to maintain that the introduction of experiment and measurement into psychology has added directly and indirectly new subject-matter and methods, has set a higher standard of accuracy and objectivity, has made some part of the subject an applied science with useful applications, and enlarged the field and improved the methods of teaching psychology. In conclusion, I wish to urge that experiment in psychology has made its relations with the other science more intimate and productive of common good (Cattell 1896, pp. 13-14).

Cattell believed that individuals of high intelligence should marry each other in order to preserve what he believed to be a heritable trait of high intelligence. He even promised his own children $1,000 if they married a professor’s child.

Perception and reaction times

Another area of interest for Cattell was the individual differences in perception and reaction times. He discovered that eyes jump during reading, and that only if eyes are at a standstill can one read words in print. He proved that words and phrases can be read in a small fraction of a second. He also found out that words can be remembered more easily and accurately than letters. Cattell used reaction times to measure mental capacities, trying to determine the range and variability of human nature.


At the beginning of his career, many scientists regarded psychology, at best, a minor field of study, or at worst a "pseudoscience," like 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. His use of statistical methods and quantification of data, as well as his work on mental testing and popularization of the use of psychological laboratory, helped the development of psychology as an exact scientific discipline. At the time of his death, The New York Times hailed him as "the dean of American science."

With his work, he influenced such great names as Edward L. Thorndike, Harry L. Hollingworth (1882-1956), Psyche Cattell (1893-1989) (his daughter), and Clark Wissler. His work on reading and reaction times has revolutionized some practices in education, especially the methods of teaching reading and spelling. Cattell has however been recently criticized for his work in this area, especially due to the failure of the "sight-reading" method that was been applied in American schools, and which, critics claim, produced “impaired” reading ability in children.

Cattell, is however, well known for his uncompromising opposition to American involvement in World War I, for which he was dismissed from his position at Columbia University.


  • Cattell, James M. 1886. "The time it takes to see and name objects" in Mind. 11, 63-65.
  • Cattell, James M. 1890. "Mental tests and measurements" in Mind. 15, 373-381.
  • Cattell, James M. 1895. "Measurements of the accuracy of recollection" in Science. 2, 761-766.
  • Cattell, James M. 1895. On Reaction-Times and the Velocity of the Nervous Impulse. Government Printing Office.
  • Cattell, James M. 1896. "Address of the president before the American Psychological Association, 1895" in Psychological Review. 3(2), 1-15.
  • Cattell, James M. 1903. "Statistics of American psychologists" in American Journal of Psychology. 14, 310- 328.
  • Cattell, James M. 1904. "The conceptions and methods of psychology" in Popular Science Monthly. 66, 176- 186.
  • Cattell, James M. 1906. American Men of Science: A Biographical Directory. Science Press.
  • Cattell, James M. 1909. "The school and the family" in Popular Science Monthly. 74, 84-95.
  • Cattell, James M. [1913] 1977. University Control. Arno Press. ISBN 0405100078
  • Cattell, James M. 1929. "Psychology in America: Address of the president of the Ninth International Congress of Psychology" in Science. 70, 335-347.
  • Cattell, James M. 1943. "The founding of the Association" in Psychological Review. 50, 61-64.
  • Cattell, J.M., & L. Farrand. 1896. "Physical and mental measurements of the students of Columbia University" in Psychological Review. 3(6), 618-648.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Baron, J. 2006. Cattell at Penn. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved on December 31, 2006.
  • Bookrags.com. James McKeen Cattell. Retrieved on December 31, 2006.
  • Green, K.M. Psyography: James McKeen Cattell. Frostburg State University. Retrieved on December 31, 2006.
  • Parrott, B. 1997. James McKeen Cattell. Muskingum College. Retrieved on December 31, 2006.
  • Sokal, M.M. 1971. "The unpublished autobiography of James McKeen Cattell" in American Psychologist. 26, 626-635.
  • Sokal, M.M. 1980. "Science and James McKeen Cattell, 1894-1945" in Science. 209, 43-52.
  • Sokal, M.M. 1981. An Education in Psychology: James McKeen Cattell's Journal and Letters from Germany and England, 1880-1888. The MIT Press. ISBN 0262191857

External links

All links retrieved March 19, 2018.


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