James McKeen Cattell

The American psychologist and editor James McKeen Cattell (1860-1944) was a pioneer in American psychology who influenced the profession to use objective methods of study and to apply psychology to practical aspects of life.

James McKeen Cattell was born on May 20, 1860, in Easton, Pennsylvania. His father was president of Lafayette College in Easton, and his family supported Cattell's education and his early desire to travel and work abroad.

During the eight years following acquisition of a B.A. degree from Lafayette College in 1880 Cattell studied in Europe at Leipzig and at Göttingen under the famed European psychologist Wilhelm Wundt. Moving to England, Cattell worked with Sir Francis Galton, who strongly influenced him. Cattell also admired the American psychologist and philosopher William James. Returning to the United States Cattell worked at Johns Hopkins University.

From 1888 to 1891 Cattell held the first professorship in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia. He made his greatest personal contributions to the field of psychology during 1891-1917 when he was professor at Columbia University. He died in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on January 20, 1944.

Cattell had a strong and lasting impact on psychology in at least three ways. First, he began his career at a time when psychology and other behavioral sciences were allied with philosophy. Cattell championed the notion that psychology and other behavioral, biological, and social sciences could carry on rigorous, objective, scientific research. His impetus hastened a turning point in methodological practices in these disciplines. Some say Cattell probably did more than anyone else of his time to foster the development of the behavioral and biological sciences in the United States.

In his own work, Cattell demonstrated the rigor of a scientific approach as he researched reading and perception, psychophysics, individual differences, and individuals' reaction times to various stimuli. Examples of findings from his research still cited today are that eyes jump during reading, that words in print are only perceived when the eyes are at a standstill, that many words can be learned and remembered more easily and accurately than most letters, and that words and phrases can be read in a small fraction of a second.

Second, Cattell advocated that scientific findings could and should be utilized in practical ways. His conclusions from his study of reading, for example, along with others on reaction time revolutionized some educational practices such as methods of teaching reading and spelling. In 1921 Cattell founded, and for many years served as president of, the Psychological Corporation, the first of many groups applying psychological techniques to practice. Psychological Corporation became and remained a leader in the development of tests for use in education and industry.

Third, Cattell made a mark in history through his service to professional organizations and journals. He was one of the founders of the American Psychological Association and of several other scientific societies. He launched and published several scientific journals, including Psychological Review, Science, Scientific Monthly, School and Society, and The American Naturalist. He also prepared and published the first and subsequent editions of American Men of Science and Leaders in Education.


Further Reading on James McKeen Cattell

Complete reports of Cattell's life and work are in James McKeen Cattell; 1860-1944: Man of Science. Volume one, Psychological Research, contains Cattell's own reports of his research and volume two, Addresses and Formal Papers, consists of Cattell's own presentations.

An Education in Psychology: James McKeen Cattell's Journals and Letters from Germany and England, edited by Michael M. Sokal (1981), gives an interesting personal accounting of the beginnings of Cattell's career. The book also contains brief sections on Cattell at Columbia, Cattell as psychologist, Cattell as editor, and the Cattell family.