The Long and Winding Road: 125 years of the American Psychological Association

On August 3-6, some 10,000-15,000 of the approximately 70,000 members (and 47,000 associates and affiliates) of the American Psychological Association (APA) will descend upon the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown Washington, DC. There, they will attend talks, colloquia, and meetings on all matters psychological and will commemorate the 125th anniversary of the founding of their association. As a professional body, they have much to celebrate. But the road to APA Convention 2017 was not a straightforward march of like-minded professionals towards a common goal.

APA’s first president, Stanley Granville Hall, Image: Frederick Gutekunst/Wikipedia

It began humbly enough. In 1892, Granville Stanley Hall, professor of psychology and president of Clark University, invited 26 American psychologists to join him in forming a psychological association. A dozen invitees attended the first organizational meeting, in Hall’s office, on July 8, 1892. There, they founded the American Psychological Association. The participants learned that many psychologists who could not attend the meeting, such as John Dewey and Lightner Witmer, had agreed to join, and they selected two psychologists who had not been originally invited, Hugo Münsterberg of Harvard and Edward Titchener of Cornell. They elected Hall as the first president and scheduled their first meeting, at the University of Pennsylvania, for December of that year.

Hall, a student of William James, had founded the first American laboratory and Ph.D. program in psychology at Johns Hopkins University in 1883. He also began the American Journal of Psychology, the first American psychology journal, that same year. When Hall founded the APA as an association committed to “the advancement of psychology as a science” (although this goal was not officially established until 1906), he also conceived it as an institutional means of promoting relations with other professional organizations to which psychologists could usefully contribute. This was especially true of the National Education Association, because Hall and many of his colleagues and students promoted psychology as the scientific grounding of pedagogy.

From its inception, membership in the APA was inclusive, at least with respect to religion and gender. The charter members included Edward Pace, a Catholic, and Joseph Jastrow, a Jew, who devised conventions for reporting that evolved into APA style. Two women, Mary Calkins and Christine Ladd-Franklin, were elected members in 1893.

But membership did not guarantee equal standing. Calkins studied at Harvard under James and Münsterberg, who judged her dissertation on learned paired associates to be the best produced in the Department of Philosophy. Yet Harvard declined to award her a degree because Harvard did not then grant degrees to women. Calkins went on to found her own laboratory and psychology program at Wellesley College. She became the first woman elected to the American Psychological Association (1905) and to the American Philosophical Association (1918). (In 1902 Harvard grudgingly offered her a degree from Radcliffe College, which she declined as “second-best.”)

Christine Ladd-Franklin, a student of Vassar College, fulfilled all the requirements for a Ph.D. in mathematics and logic at Johns Hopkins, but again Hopkins would not grant her the degree because she was a woman. Ladd-Franklin had worked in Germany with George Elias Müller and Hermann von Helmholtz on color perception and presented ten papers at APA meetings between 1894-1925, but she was denied a full-time academic appointment at John Hopkins because her husband was already a professor of mathematics.

Pioneering women of the APA: Mary Wilkins (left) and Christine Ladd-Franklin (right). Images: Notman Studio/Wikipedia & Vassar College

Women were not the only “second-class citizens” within the APA. One of the great successes of early American psychologists was in persuading boards of trustees about the practical value of psychology. They advocated for psychology to be recognized as an applied science with the potential to alleviate human suffering and social problems, making it of great practical relevance to educators, businessmen, asylum superintendents, and counselors. But a rift grew between academic psychologists and practitioners. Leaders of the APA and heads of the top programs in experimental psychology were reluctant to grant practitioners full status as bone fide scientific psychologists. This took two forms in the early decades of the APA.

In 1904 Lightner Witmer suggested an experimental society that would exclude “half-breeds and extremists.” Edward Titchener founded such an elite society, which became known as the Experimentalists. The all-male membership was drawn from the top programs and laboratories. In the face of competition from a rival organization (and because philosophers left in 1902 to form their own association), APA meetings saw declined attendance during the ensuing decades.

Between 1892 and 1930, membership of the APA increased from 42 to 1,101. But this total included 571 non-voting associate members who did not satisfy the rigorous credentials for full membership of the APA—namely, a degree in psychology and publications in professional psychology journals. Despite their social interventionist rhetoric, the officers of the APA were reluctant to grant the status of scientific psychologist to those employed in testing and personnel selection in companies, or to those employed as clinical or consulting psychologists in hospitals or private practice.

Concerned about their professional status, consulting psychologists asked the APA to create a certification program, to establish their credentials as experts in their field. The APA demurred. Faced with similar concerns, clinical psychologists in 1917 formed the American Association of Clinical Psychologists (AACP). It’s goal was to promote the professional standards for and legal recognition of clinical psychologists. Robert M. Yerkes, then president of the APA, was deeply concerned about a potential split between the scientific psychologists of the APA and professional practitioners. In 1919 Yerkes persuaded the clinicians to disband the AACP and form the Clinical Section of the APA, where their interests could be better served. In 1921 a Consulting Section was added, but requests for industrial and educational sections were denied.

The APA did establish a certification program, in 1924, but it did little more than award “professional” certificates that had no legal standing. The program was soon abandoned. A year later, the APA introduced an associate membership for those who lacked academic credentials and publications. Because associate membership did not carry voting rights, this change was received less than enthusiastically.

Dissatisfied with the lack of progress on professional issues, the New York Association of Consulting Psychologists in 1930 reconstituted itself as the national Association of Consulting Psychologists (ACP). Throughout the decade, the number of applied or consulting psychologists increased faster than the number of academic scientific psychologists. In 1938 the split that Yerkes had feared finally came to pass. The Clinical Division of the APA and the ACP disbanded and reformed as the American Association of Applied Psychologists (AAAP), with four sections: clinical, consulting, industrial, and educational. The divorce between the academic scientific psychologists and the professional practitioners was complete.

The story might have ended unhappily had it not been for the Second World War and, once again, Yerkes coming to the rescue. The APA and AAAP joined with the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPPSI) and Section I (Psychology) of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to form the Emergency Committee of Psychology, which coordinated psychologists’ contribution to the war effort. This led to the establishment of the Office of Psychological Personnel (OPP), in Washington, DC.

Yerkes seized the opportunity. In 1944, he organized a constitutional convention that reorganized APA. It now encompasses 18 charter divisions, including clinical, consulting, industrial, and educational. (It has since expanded to 54 divisions.) This reorganization was modeled on the divisional structure of the AAAP, which disbanded the same year. The new APA aimed not only to advance “psychology as a science,” but also “as a profession, and a means of promoting human welfare.” The administrative offices of the new APA were housed in the former offices of the OPP in Washington.

Once again, the APA represented both scientists and practitioners, but the tensions remained. Membership of professional psychologists continued to outgrow the academic scientific psychologists. This was largely because after the war clinical and consulting psychology expanded to meet the psychological demands of returning veterans. Simultaneously, industrial and other applied branches of psychology expanded. Professional psychologists came to dominate the APA presidency and other power structures, formerly the province of academic scientific psychologists. Dissatisfied with their loss of power and representation, the academics pressed to restructure the APA to better serve their interests. In 1988, when the APA rejected their recommendations, the academic scientific psychologists formed their own society, the American Psychological Society. Now known as the Association for Psychological Science (APS), APS has a membership of around 33,000.

The split between APA and APS was not exhaustive. Many psychologists retained (and still retain) membership in both societies. It also had little impact on APA membership, which grew at a phenomenal rate in the post war-period, from 1,012 in 1945 to 76,000 (members and fellows, excluding associates) in 2000 (members and fellows, excluding associates). Admittedly, membership peaked in 2008 at 84,000, falling in 2014 to 67,000.

Pop-up History of Psychology Museum at the 2017 APA convention, Image: Cummings Center for the History of Psychology

Whether as members of the APA or APS, over the past 125 years American psychologists have contributed significantly to the advancement of psychological knowledge and the promotion of human welfare (either directly through psychological interventions or indirectly through their lobbying of Federal and State agencies). And yet, the APA has not been without its scandals. (The most notable of these relates to psychologists involved in post-9/11 torture interrogations.)

This summer, as the APA justly celebrates its scientific and professional past and looks forward to “empowering the future of psychology,” it also quietly celebrates another achievement, apparent to anyone walking through the convention center and reflecting upon the enthusiastic young and wise old faces around them. Not only did the ratio of scientific to professional psychologists shift in favor of the professional psychologists over the last 125 years, but over the same period the ratio of men to women also shifted in favor of women. Mary Calkins and Christine Ladd-Franklin must be smiling down from psychological heaven.

Further Reading & Resources

  • Pickren, W. E. & Rutherford, A. (Eds.) (2017). 125 years of the American Psychological Association. Washington, DC: APA Books. (Link)
  • Fernberger, S.W. (1932). The American Psychological Association: A historical summary, 1892-1930. Psychological Bulletin, 29, 1-89. (Link)
  • Sokal, M. M. (1992). Origins and early years of the American Psychological Association, 1890-1906. American Psychologist, 47, 111-122. (Link)
  • Freedheim, D. K., & Weiner, I. B. (2012). Handbook of Psychology, History of Psychology (Vol. 1). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. (Link)
  • Scarborough, E. & Furumoto, L. (1987). The untold lives: The first generation of American women psychologists. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. (Link)