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James McKeen Cattell
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James McKeen Cattell

James McKeen Cattell (May 25, 1860-January 20, 1944), American psychologist, was the first professor of psychology in the United States. 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.

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 Pennsylvania 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.

By all accounts, Cattell had a happy childhood. He 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 a M.A., again with highest honors. Despite his later renoun 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 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. 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.

A Career in the Academy

After returning from Germany with his Ph.D., Cattell began a meteoric career in America, with the following highlights: Lecturer in Psychology, Bryn Mawr, 1887; Professor of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, 1888; Department Head of Psychology, Anthropology, and Philosophy, Columbia University, 1891-1905; President of the American Psychological Association, 1895.

From the beginning of his career, 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. Indeed, he believed that further investigation would reveal that the intellect itself could be parsed into standard units of measurements.