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October 10, 2002

A glimpse into the past: Prof writes psychology dept. history

Academic departments are like living organisms, evolving according to the personalities that inhabit them as well as internal and external circumstances, a Pitt professor emeritus says.

“This is particularly true for the Department of Psychology,” according to Merle J. Moskowitz. Following his retirement from teaching and administration, Moskowitz has been writing the last of four chapters of his history of Pitt’s psych department, which in 2004 will celebrate its 100th year. Moskowitz has covered the first 70 years in chapters 1-3.

The book traces the development of the department’s curricula and programs, records the numbers of graduates and faculty and some of their achievements from era to era, cites important hirings and departures, mentions certain “firsts,” such as the first master’s degree awarded (1908) and the first female instructor (Miriam Caris Gould in 1913), and covers the shifting emphases in psychology instruction — experimental, clinical, educational, developmental, social, behavioral, physiological, psychiatric — sometimes mingled with the occasional personal anecdote.

“Psychology over the years kept spawning new departments. As the field kept growing, it sloughed off areas that had become non-central or which had become so strong within themselves that they needed a separate department, like neuroscience,” Moskowitz says.

Other such spin-offs include educational psychology, business psychology and speech audiology.

In addition, the department and various segments of the morphing discipline of psychology were shuffled to and fro — both physically and administratively — over the years, until finally landing this fall, more or less in toto, in Sennott Square, Pitt’s newest academic building.

Moskowitz is especially qualified to write this history, since the department has been his academic home for more than 50 years. After winning a four-year undergraduate scholarship to Pitt for earning the highest score on a district American history test, the McKeesport native earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1950 and a master’s in ’52. After completing his doctorate at Harvard and teaching for five years at Bowdoin College in Maine, he joined the Pitt psychology faculty in 1959 and has been here ever since.

His love of history in general, and institutional history in particular, coupled with many years of teaching the department’s History of Psychology course, piqued his interest in telling the department’s story.

The first chapter, which covers 1904-1951, was written in 1987-1988 following a sabbatical of research on the project. “My job here for 22 years or so was as associate chairman of the department. I was responsible for the day to day operation, working with five different chairs over that time,” he says, which gave him access to internal records to supplement the University’s archives.

In part because there were no takers to publish Chapter 1 of the manuscript, and in part because the succeeding years included mostly people he knew personally, Moskowitz shifted his approach starting with chapter 2.

“I decided to write the second part (1952 – 1969) and succeeding parts in a less formal and more personal style, more memoir than history,” keeping to the facts, but adding his interpretations of them, he says.

Moskowitz hopes to complete the history in time for the department’s 100th anniversary celebration. The plan at this point is to post at least the first chapter of Moskowitz’s history as a link to the department’s homepage as part of the celebration.

According to Moskowitz, the two most important aspects of the department’s history are the strong personalities involved in psychology and in Pitt’s administration “and the way the field of psychology is going at a given time — the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times,” he says.

Since the department’s founding in 1904 and continuing through the University’s move from Downtown Pittsburgh to Oakland, Pitt had a strong experimental psychology program housed in what’s now Arts and Sciences.

“In addition,” Moskowitz says, “from about 1912, there was a clinical program, technically called the psycho-educational lab and clinic. It was primarily geared to testing children and dealing with either retarded or superior or handicapped children who were in the educational system. Somewhat later the program moved into more clinical treatment, that is, studying emotional disorders.”

Wallace Wallin was the founder of the clinic and he had contacts with Will Chambers, who became dean of Pitt’s School of Education (founded 1912), under Chancellor Samuel B. McCormick (1904-1920).

“The three men were trying to build up a strong educational psychology program that was both research oriented and treatment oriented,” Moskowitz says.

But in 1920, a major change took place at the top when Chancellor John G. Bowman was brought in to cut costs during the post-World War I depression. To do so, Bowman cut back and consolidated programs.

“The clinical psychology program in education was put into Arts and Sciences and was melded with experimental psychology, or what would be referred to then as academic psychology,” Moskowitz says.

Bowman then proceeded to purge the department of its clinical thrust by refusing to offer tenure to anyone with that focus. Faculty got the message and moved on.

“Bowman had this strong religious belief, saying something like, ‘One cannot take the soul of man and dissect him on a laboratory table,’ which is what he thought the experimental psychologists were trying to do.”

Eventually, Wallin, founder of the psycho-educational lab and clinic, left in disgust and the Chambers, the dean of education quit, Moskowitz says.

Following Bowman’s retirement, the department was rebuilt by its new chair, Wayne Dennis, who by training and field research had a strong orientation to developmental as well as experimental psychology. “For the next seven or eight years, he seeded the department in his image. And since he was building from scratch, the department was [almost all] young faculty,” Moskowitz says.

In 1946, the department moved from the former Alumni Hall (now Eberly Hall) to the 16th floor of the Cathedral of Leaning, providing more lab and office space. The new accommodations, though, were inadequate to handle the massive influx of World War II veterans coming as students, which forced classes to be held all over campus and in off-campus locations, and graduate students to teach many of the department’s offerings.

Also in 1946, the department hired John C. Flanagan, who was the founder of the American Institutes for Research (AIR), which subsequently became affiliated with the department. AIR secured government contracts to do research on a variety of applied areas, such as the development of performance-rating techniques for pilots and air traffic controllers, the design of first-aid training courses and the study of the effectiveness of American high schools.

Psych department programs grew and new ones were introduced as a result of the affiliation with AIR.

“Flanagan was a pioneer in the field of human factors research — and he taught a bitch of a graduate statistics course, I can tell you from personal experience. AIR attracted a number of talented experimental psychologists, outgrew their space in the Cathedral and built what is now the Information Sciences Building as their headquarters,” Moskowitz says.

In addition to its association with AIR, the psychology department achieved national recognition for its annual symposium, which invited national figures to speak on current trends in the field. “Most of the big names in psychology at the time came to speak,” Moskowitz says.

Although AIR eventually moved its headquarters elsewhere, Robert Glaser, one of its senior officials, stayed and took a tenured professorship in the department. “He developed funding for a learning research laboratory, and then by combining with similar efforts in education, Bob Glaser founded the Learning Research and Development Center, and that really put psychology on the map here, and is a model for other universities even now, 40 years later.

“In 1951, Bob Patton, who later hired me, became chair and stayed for 15 years,” Moskowitz says.

“He was studying the effects of electric-shock therapy on rats and doing split brain research on rats and monkeys so the whole department orientation was moving more and more toward the biological, the experimental and toward a very strong applied orientation.”

Succeeding department chairs had other leanings and research interests, Moskowitz says.

“The point is, that throughout the department’s history, and it’s not unique to Pitt’s psychology department, it’s the background of the people, and the leadership of Pitt at a given time, that explains why the department itself changed, and sometimes radically.

“My interest is the department’s history is a combination of things: I look at trends and changes in history and, at the same time, I guess as the result of my psychology training, I look at the people who made the history and what motivated them, why they did what they did, why they became interested in what they became interested in, and how they affected the field.”

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 35 Issue 4

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