Biographies of Famous Psychologists
Here are some short biographies of famous psychologists with additional links with more information. This will help you learn some of the history of where these psychologists get their teachings from and how it stems from their influences. Please refer to our broad range of resources on psychology as you continue your research and studies in the field.
Sigmund Freud has become synonymous with psychology as it is known today. His teachings, though, have been largely disproven and questioned over the years by a great body of psychologists. Thinker Carl Jung revolutionized psychology through his practice of analytical psychology and evaluation of his patients as “whole entities” of consciousness. Ivan Pavlov instituted behavioral psychology with his milestone experiments in conditioning. More recently, thinkers like Noam Chomsky and B.F. Skinner have proposed psychological investigation into linguistic and genetic factors in promoting psychological findings. Though Freud remains the “father of modern psychology”, his works are constantly challenged and adapted by the thoughts of his contemporaries.
Gordon Allport (November 11, 1897 – October 9, 1967) was an American psychologist who is often referred to as one of the founding figures of personality psychology. He earned a scholarship to attend Harvard University, where his older brother Floyd Henry Allport was working on a PhD in Psychology. Shortly after graduating college, he had the chance to meet Dr. Sigmund Freud in Vienna. Allport taught at Harvard University from 1924 to 1926, left to teach introductory courses at Dartmouth College for four years, and then returned to Harvard where he was an influential faculty member until his death in 1967 of lung cancer.
Allport is known as a “trait” psychologist, after having developed a list of 4,500 traits which he organized into three levels. He also theorized the idea of internal and external forces that influence individual behavior, called genotypes and phenotypes. Genotypes are internal forces related to information retention and how it influences individual interaction with the world. Phenotypes are external forces related to the individual accepting their surroundings and the way their behavior is influenced by others.
- Why Should We Care About Gordon Allport?
- Personality Theories – Gordon Allport
- The Functional Autonomy of Motives
Sigmund Freud (May 6, 1856 – September 23, 1939) was an Austrian psychologist who founded the psychoanalytic school of psychiatry. He is considered one of the most prominent thinkers of the 20th century. He graduated from the medical school of the University of Vienna in 1881, and studied under the famous neurologist Jean Martin Charcot in Paris in 1885. He returned to Vienna in 1886 to work with patients suffering from hysteria, formulating theories about the origin and treatment of mental illness. His theories were initially met with hostility when he presented them in the 1890s, but they slowly gained respect and had earned Freud international recognition by 1910.
Freud is widely known for his theories of the unconscious mind and the defense mechanism of repression, and for creating the practice of psychoanalysis to treat psychopathology through dialogue between a patient and psychologist. He theorized that an individual’s childhood shapes their personality. Freud also interpreted dreams as insight to unconscious desires, redefined sexual desire as the primary motivation of humans, and developed therapeutic techniques such as the use of free association. Furthermore, he was an early researcher in the field of cerebral palsy, and published several papers.
John B. Watson
John B. Watson (January 9, 1878 – September 25, 1958) was an American psychologist who established the psychological school of behaviorism. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1903, and stayed there for several years performing research on relationships between sensory input and learning, and bird behavior. He left research after a public scandal in 1920, and moved into a career in advertising where he promoted behavior manipulation in consumer culture.
Dr. Watson performed the “Little Albert” experiment, in which he and his assistant Rosalie Rayner applied classical conditioning principals to teach “Little Albert,” an 8-month old boy, to fear a white rat. The experiment has come to be considered quite controversial in modern times. He taught at Johns Hopkins University, where he became head of the psychology department after just two years. At age 36, he became the youngest president of the American Psychological Association in its history.
Donald Olding Hebb (July 22, 1904 – August 20, 1985) was a Canadian psychologist who was influential in the area of neuropsychology, researching how neurons contributed to learning and other psychological processes. After graduating from Dalhousie University with a BA in 1925, he took up teaching for a time and entered McGill University in 1928 as a part-time Graduate Student. He studied under Karl Lashley at the University of Chicago beginning in 1934, following Lashley to Harvard in 1935. He ultimately received his PhD from Harvard in 1936. Hebb began working with Wilder Penfield at the Montreal Neurological Institute in 1937, was appointed to a teaching position at Queen’s University in 1939, and moved to Florida to work at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in 1942. He returned to McGill University in 1947, and became chairman of the psychology department in 1948, where he remained until he retired in 1972. In 1985, he returned to Dalhousie University as a psycology professor emeritus, where he stayed until 1985.
Hebb was the president of the American Psychological Association in 1960. His most important work is “The Organization of Behavior,” published in 1949. This book combined his work in neurosurgery with his study of human behavior, to finally properly connect the biological functions of the brain with the higher functions of the mind.
Harry Harlow (October 31, 1905 – December 6, 1981) was an American psychologist best known for his maternal-separation and social isolation experiments on rhesus monkeys, demonstrating the importance of care-giving and companionship in social and cognitive development. Harlow received a PhD from Stanford in 1930, and accepted a professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He persuaded the University to construct a Primate Laboratory, one of the first in the world. Harry Harlow was head of the Human Resources Research branch of the Army from 1950-1952, head of the Division of Anthropology and Psychology of the National Research Council from 1952–1955, consultant to the Army Scientific Advisory Panel, and president of the American Psychological Association from 1958-1959.
Harlow famously conducted a series of experiments between 1957 and 1963 in which baby rhesus monkeys were taken from their mothers and offered a choice between a terrycloth and a wire surrogate mother. The monkeys were subject to a variety of situations, and their search for comfort in the mother surrogates was studied. As a result, Harlow concluded that nursing strengthened the mother-child bond because of intimate body contact, which was a revolutionary idea at the time.
Hans Jurgen Eysenck (March 4, 1916 – September 4, 1997) was a British psychologist, best remembered for his work on intelligence and personality. He received his PhD from the Department of Psychology at University College London during the second world war, and was a Professor of Psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry from 1955 to 1983.
Eysenck described the two personality dimensions, Extraversion and Neuroticism, in his 1947 book “Dimensions of Personality.” He discussed how these two dimensions were similar to the four personality types proposed by Hippocrates. In 1951 he published his first empirical study of the genetics of personality, based on an experiment conducted with identical and fraternal twins from 1948 to 1951. He concluded that neuroticism was not statistical, but “to a large extent hereditarily determined.”
Abraham Maslow (April 1, 1908 – June 8, 1970) was a professor of psychology at Brandeis University who founded humanistic psychology and created Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. He received his BA in 1930, his MA in 1931, and his PhD in 1934, all in psychology, all from the University of Wisconsin, where he was mentored by professor Harry Harlow. He was on the faculty of Brooklyn College from 1937 to 1951, a professor at Brandeis University from 1951 to 1969, and then a resident fellow of the Laughlin Institute in California until his death in 1970.
Maslow created a Hierarchy of Needs, depicted by a pyramid with the levels of psychological and physical human needs. As an individual ascends the steps of the pyramid, they attain self-actualization. Maslow placed the most basic physiological human needs, such as breathing, food, water, and sex, at the bottom of the pyramid, with safety needs such as security, order, and stability on the second tier. The bottom most two steps are important to an individual’s physical survival. The third level is love and belonging, where an individual is physically stable and ready to share themselves with others. The fourth level is the Esteem level, where individuals share their accomplishments. The top of the pyramid is the self-actualization level, reached when individuals reach a state of harmony and understanding.
Edward C. Tolman
Edward Tolman (1886 – 1959) was an American psychologist. He was most famous for his studies on behavioral psychology. He studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and received his PhD from Harvard in 1915. He taught psychology at University of California, Berkeley, for most of his career, from 1918 to 1954. He famously refused to sign a loyalty oath during the McCarthy era, feeling that it infringed on academic freedom, a position he took to the California Supreme Court in 1955, and won, reinstating all who refused to sign the oath.
Tolman is best known for his studies of rats in mazes. A key paper Tolman co-authored in 1946 demonstrated that rats that explored a maze when not hungry could run it correctly on a subsequent first trial when they were hungry. Tolman was a “Stimulus-Stimulus” theorist, debating against “Stimulus-Response” theories.
Carl Gustav Jung
Carl Gustav Jung (July 26, 1875 – June 6, 1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist and the founder of analytical psychology. He is considered the first modern psychologist to state that the human psyche is “by nature religious” and to explore it in depth, and is also one of the most well-known pioneers in the field of dream analysis. A prolific writer, his collected works fill 19 volumes, and many of them were not translated to English until after his death.
Jung’s theories have had an enduring influence on psychology to this day. His theories include the concept of introversion and extroversion, the concept of the complex, the concept of the collective unconscious, and synchronicity. He recommended spirituality as a cure for alcoholism, and is considered to have had an indirect role in creating Alcoholics Anonymous. Furthermore, he proposed that art could be used to alleviate trauma, fear, or anxiety and to repair, restore and heal. He felt that art expression and dream imagery could be helpful in the recovery from emotional distress and trauma.
Kurt Goldstein (November 6, 1878 – September 19, 1965) was a German Jewish neurologist and psychiatrist who was a pioneer in modern neuropsychology. His holistic theory of the organism based on Gestalt theory deeply influenced the development of Gestalt therapy. In 1930 Goldstein accepted a position at the University of Berlin. In 1933 he was captured by the Nazi party and imprisoned. He was released on the condition that he would leave the country and never return.
He studied brain-damaged soldiers during World War I, realizing that biology and medicine were unable to explain the impact of the injuries and the adjustments the patients made. This caused him to challenge approaches that dealt with “localized” symptoms, instead suggesting that an organism be analyzed on the totality of its behavior and interactions.
Kurt Lewin (September 9, 1890 – February 12, 1947) was a German-American psychologist, known as one of the modern pioneers of social, organizational, and applied psychology. He received his PhD from the University of Berlin. He emigrated to the United States in 1933, working for Cornell University and the University of Iowa before going on to become the director for the Center for Group Dynamics at MIT.
While at MIT in 1946, Lewin received a phone call from the Director of the Connecticut State Inter Racial Commission requesting assistance in finding an effective way to combat racial and religious prejudices. The “change workshop” he established laid the foundations for modern sensitivity training, leading to the establishment of the National Training Laboratories in 1947. Lewin described change as a three-stage process. The first stage, “unfreezing,” involved dismantling the existing “mind set”. The second stage is where the actual change occurs, leading to a confusing transition period. The third stage, “freezing,” is where the new mindset is crystallized, and the individual’s comfort level returns to normal.
- Kurt Lewin Center for Psychological Research
- Kurt Lewin: Groups, Experiential Learning and Action Research
Alfred Adler (February 7, 1870 – May 28, 1937) was an Austrian medical doctor, psychotherapist, and founder of the school of individual psychology. He collaborated with Freud and colleagues to co-found the psychoanalytic movement, and was the first major figure to break away to form an independent school of psychotherapy and personality theory. Adler is considered, along with Freud and Jung, to be one of the three founding figures of depth psychology, emphasizing the unconscious and psychodynamics. Adler received a medical degree from the University of Vienna in 1895, beginning his work as an ophthalmologist before switching to general practice. His clients included circus performers, leading to suggestions that the unusual strengths and weaknesses of these performers led to Adler’s insights in “organ inferiorities” and “compensation.”
Adler’s clinical works are collected in twelve volumes, and contain a wealth of theories. Adler developed a list of so-called personality types, meant to be taken as provisional or heuristic, because Adler did not actually believe in personality types. He also often emphasized that one’s birth order had an influence on one’s style of life. Furthermore he held controversial views on homosexuality, going so far as to classify them as a “failure of life,” stemming from an inferiority complex toward one’s own gender. His opinion began to shift in the mid-1930s toward the end of his life.
- Adlerian Society UK Institute for Individual Psychology
- North American Society of Adlerian Psychology
Burrhus Frederic Skinner (March 20, 1904 – August 18, 1990) was an American behaviorist, author, inventor, social philosopher and poet. He was the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University from 1958 until his retirement in 1974. He invented the operant conditioning chamber, innovated the philosophy of Radical Behaviorism, and founded a school of experimental research psychology – the experimental analysis of behavior. He received a PhD from Harvard in 1931, remining there as a researcher until 1936. He then taught at the University of Minnesota and at Indiana University before returning to Harvard in 1948, where he remained until he retired.
Skinner invented the air-crib, an easily cleaned box that is temperature and humidity controlled, designed to make early childcare simpler by reducing the mess, while encouraging the baby to be more confident, mobile, comfortable, and healthy, thereby being less prone to crying. It was one of his most controversial inventions. The more well-known invention is the Operant Conditioning Chamber, also known as the Skinner Box. It was a lab apparatus large enough to contain a test subject, such as a rat or pigeon, at least one lever (often two or more), and a feeder. Some have devices for various stimuli, and may contain an electrified net or floor. The concept of the Skinner Box has been extended, leading some to refer to slot machines and online games as a type of Skinner Box.
Carl Rogers (January 8, 1902 – February 4, 1987) was an influential American psychologist and among the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology. Rogers is widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of psychotherapy research. He received his PhD from Teachers College at Columbia University in 1931. In 1930, Rogers served as director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in Rochester, New York. From 1935 to 1940 he lectured at the University of Rochester and wrote The Clinical Treatment of the Problem Child (1939), based on his experience in working with troubled children.
Rogers’ theory of the self is considered to be humanistic and phenomenological. As of 1951, his theory was based on 19 propositions. Also, Rogers is known for practicing “unconditional positive regard,” which is defined as accepting a person “without negative judgment of …. [a person's] basic worth.” His theory and its application to cross-cultural relations has involved workshops in highly stressful situations and global locations including South Africa, Central America, and Ireland. This work resulted in a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for Rogers.
Edward Thorndike (August 31, 1874 – August 9, 1949) was an American psychologist whose work on animal behavior and the learning process led to the theory of connectionism and helped lay the scientific foundation for modern educational psychology. He also worked on solving industrial problems, such as employee exams and testing. He received a PhD from Columbia University in 1898. In 1899 he became an instructor in psychology at Teachers College at Columbia University, where he remained for the rest of his career.
Thorndike’s testing expertise was used by the United States Army in World War I. Thorndike created an Alpha and a Beta multiple choice test that were predecessors to today’s ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery), administered by the United States Military Entrance Processing Command to determine qualification for enlistment into the United States Armed Forces. Soldiers were given Alpha tests for classification purposes. After realizing that some soldiers could not read well enough to take the Alpha test, the Beta test (consisting of pictures and diagrams) was created. These tests encouraged the later development of educational psychology. Thorndike studied adult learning, and believed that the ability to learn did not decline until age 35, and then only at a slight rate. Thorndike was also one of the first pioneers of active learning, in which children are allowed to learn on their own, without instruction from teachers.
Edwin R. Guthrie
Edwin Ray Guthrie (1886-1959), was a philosopher, mathematician, and later became a behavior psychologist. He obtained his PhD in philosophy from the university of Pennsylvania in 1912, and took a position as a philosophy professor at the University of Washington in 1914. Guthrie’s main principle for his theory of learning was contiguity, defined as, “A combination of stimuli which has accompanied a movement on its reoccurrence tend to be followed by that movement”. He said that all learning is based on a stimulus-response association. And each movement produces stimuli which then become conditioned. Every motion serves as a stimulus to many sense organs in muscles, tendons and joints.
Guthrie did a collaborative study with George P. Horton which involved the stereotyped behavior of cats in a puzzle box to show the associative theory of learning. A cat was placed in a glass-paneled box to allow for photography, and the cat could open the door by touching a post. The cat would take approximately 15 minutes to touch the post the first time in the box. The second time, the cat would usually duplicate its behavior. The cats repeated the same sequence of movements associated with their previous escape, showing an example of stereotyped behavior. This experiment allows us to assume than an animal learns an association between a stimulus and a behavioral act after only one experience.
Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (September 14, 1849 – February 27, 1936) was a famous Russian physiologist. He is best known for the concept of conditioned reflex, referred to by the phrase “Pavlov’s Dogs”. In the 1890s, Pavlov was studying the gastric functions of dogs, and observed that they salivated before food was actually delivered to their mouths, and so he set out to investigate this phenomenon.
During his research on the physiology of digestion in dogs, Pavlov noticed that, rather than simply salivating in the presence of meat powder (an innate response to food that he called the unconditioned response), the dogs began to salivate in the presence of the lab technician who normally fed them. In his initial experiment, Pavlov used a bell to call the dogs to their food and, after a few repetitions, the dogs started to salivate in response to the bell. It is popularly believed that Pavlov always signaled the occurrence of food by ringing a bell, but his writings record the use of a wide variety of stimuli in addition to a bell, including electric shocks, whistles, metronomes, tuning forks, and a range of visual stimuli.
Karl S. Lashley
Karl Spencer Lashley (1890–1958), was an American psychologist and behaviorist known for his influential contributions to the study of learning and memory. He received his PhD in genetics from Johns Hopkins University, and became an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis in 1920. He later taught at the University of Chicago (1929-1935) and Harvard University (1935-1955), and served as the director of the Yerkes Laboratories of Primate Biology from 1942 to 1955.
Lashley researched brain mechanisms related to sense receptors and the cortical basis of motor activities. Much of his work was done on the measurement of behavior before and after specific, quantifiable cortical damage in rats. He would train rats to perform tasks for a food reward, and damage parts of the rat cortex, either before or after training. He found that the amount of cortical tissue damaged had specific effects on the acquisition and retention of knowledge, but the location of the removed cortex tissue did not affect the rat’s maze performance, leading Lashley to conclude that memories are not localized, but widely distributed across the cortex. Further study in this area has shown his research to be imperfect.