A Brief History of Psychology at Texas A&M University
by Ludy T. Benjamin, Jr.
with research assistance from
Darren Marshall, Abby Miller, Jennifer Sembera, and Ashley Williams
Texas A&M University (TAMU) opened its doors in 1876 as the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas at about the same time that Harvard University’s William James was offering what were arguably the first scientific psychology courses in America. At the end of the 19th century, American graduate students studied the new scientific psychology in German universities, especially in Leipzig, and brought that laboratory psychology home with them. The earliest of the American psychology laboratories were founded in the 1880s, and by 1900 there were 40 psychology laboratories at American universities, most of those offering PhD degrees in the new psychology. TAMU had been established by the Texas Legislature as a Land Grant university to provide the State with expertise in agriculture and engineering. For much of its early history, other subjects, such as English or history or psychology, were viewed as service courses to be offered in support of the engineering and agriculture emphases but not to be fields of extended study on their own. Thus, it would be a long time before a psychology laboratory or psychology major would make an appearance at TAMU.
Before there was a scientific psychology, however, there was another academic psychology known as mental philosophy. Courses in mental philosophy-a blend of British empiricism and Scottish realism-were common offerings in American universities in the second half of the 19th century. These courses covered such subjects as the senses, attention, learning, memory, consciousness, dreaming, reasoning, emotion, imagination, and will, subjects that today comprise much of the content of introductory psychology courses. Whereas scientific psychology was late in its arrival at TAMU, mental philosophy was not. It was offered in the very first semester of courses at TAMU, taught by Thomas Sanford Gathright, who was the first president of the College and Professor of Mental and Moral Philosophy. The text used in his course was Joseph Haven’s Mental Philosophy which defined the subject as ascertai ning “the facts and laws of mental operation.” The book presented the study of mind as an empirical science but not an experimental one. By 1879, the year of the founding of Wilhelm Wundt’s Leipzig laboratory, the course in Mental Philosophy was required of all TAMU seniors
The first course offered at TAMU with the word “psychology” in the title appeared in 1913. Educational Psychology was taught by M. L. Hayes, emphasizing the relevance of psychology for teaching in such topics as “instincts, habit formation, memory, [and] attention.” This class was part of the curriculum for teacher preparation and reflected the growth of pedagogical curricula in American universities at that time. The following year Hayes added a course on Adolescence, emphasizing the “study of the psychology of adolescence.”
The first general psychology course was offered in 1920 by the Department of Rural Social Science. Psychology 202 was described in the catalog as a course in psychology “adapted especially to the needs of businessmen and administrators,[emphasizing applications] to life, advertising, and to the management of employees.” A third psychology course was added the following year-Social Psychology-which used E. A. Ross’s text, Social Psychology and Social Control. The catalog description emphasized group behavior and methods of social control. And to remind us that this offering was part of the curriculum of a department now labeled Rural Sociology, the course was said to analyze “the mental attitudes of country people.” Rural Sociology added a fourth psychology course in 1922 entitled Psychology Applied to Industry that included “the relation of the worker’s nervous system to his mind, cultivating right habits in workers, increasing the quantity and quality of production,[and] reducing turnover.” By 1925 the Social Psychology course was taught using Floyd Allport’s textbook, Social Psychology (1924). Lest some believe that social neuroscience is entirely new, the catalog description for the 1925 social psychology course noted that “some attention will be given to the neurological foundations of social behavior.”
In 1935, a separate Department of Psychology was established, headed by Professor Charles Herman Winkler, a 1904 graduate of TAMU. Before moving to Psychology, Winkler had served as Head of the Department of Agricultural Education. As Psychology head, Winkler presided over a very congenial department, perhaps because he was the only faculty member. Winkler offered the courses in Educational Psychology, Adolescence, and a new course entitled Mental Efficiency. But Social Psychology was still taught in Rural Sociology. Even though Psychology was now recognized as a department, students were not allowed to major or minor in the subject.
The first individual trained in scientific psychology did not arrive at TAMU until 1941 when Walter A. Varvel (Ph.D, Kansas, 1938) joined Winkler’s Psychology Department. Professor Varvel (1908-1990) served on the TAMU faculty until his retirement in 1974. Varvel’s early research focused on the Rorschach Inkblot Test, particularly with regard to methods for validation, and the use of the test in assessment of depression. In his first year at TAMU, Varvel added a course on Measurement in Psychology, a course focused on psychological testing, especially intellectual assessment.
In the aftermath of World War II, the Texas Legislature redefined the mission of TAMU as a university, although the official name change from college to university did not occur until 1963. Yet because of the Legislature’s action, the University began some major restructuring in 1947, creating a separate Graduate School. Further the Department of Psychology was joined with faculty from education to become the Department of Education and Psychology. In that same year, a second psychologist was hired, Milam S. Kavanaugh (1899-1999) who taught at TAMU for 22 years. A course on Personality Adjustments was added in his first year, and the industrial course was re-established as Industrial Psychology. It was also in that year (1947) that students were first allowed to minor in psychology with successful completion of 12 hours.
The psychology curriculum expanded in the 1950s with the addition of courses in Child Psychology, Dynamics of Human Behavior (motivation), Differential Psychology, Learning, Experimental Psychology, and in the 1960s with Research Methods, Comparative Psychology, Physiological Psychology, and Abnormal Psychology. Of course psychology faculty numbers also increased during this time.
Although the Department of Psychology had been founded in 1935, it would be another 30 years before students could elect a major in the discipline. It was not until 1965, nearly 90 years after the establishment of the University that a baccalaureate degree (B.S.) in psychology was offered. By that time the Department had added its first female faculty member, Carole Annette Golightly, a social psychologist who came to TAMU in 1964 but stayed only two years. Conditions were not entirely favorable for women faculty in those years.
Psychology was coupled with Education for more than 20 years in a single department, and most psychology courses were seen as supporting one of the several educational degrees or the program in rural sociology. The first graduate psychology course appeared in 1951, an advanced course in Educational Psychology, and five years later was joined by a second graduate course in Human Development. Both courses were meant to serve graduate degrees in teaching and educational administration. No other graduate psychology courses appeared until 1966 when a Research Techniques course was added. The psychologists within the Education and Psychology Department were eager to create their own graduate psychology program and began laying the groundwork for that in 1967 by creating four new psychology courses. The following year, 1968, they were successful in engineering a split of the Department into two separate departments. Faculty were allowed to choose to be in either Psychology or Education. Six faculty members were part of that newly created Psychology Department, including Anthony Bourgeois, Arnold LeUnes, and Albert Casey. Casey, a behaviorist trained at the University of Kansas, was especially instrumental in establishing and strengthening the core experimental psychology courses. The second and third female members of the Department were Sara Jarvis Jones, a clinical psychologist, who arrived in 1970 and social psychologist Hanna Levenson who arrived in 1971 and added a Psychology of Women course to the curriculum. Both were gone by 1976. In 1971 the M.S. degree in Psychology was offered for the first time with emphases in “general-experimental, industrial, and pre-clinical psychology.”
Under President Earl Rudder, the 1960s had brought significant and historic changes to the campus. Racial segregation was ended, women were admitted, and the formerly mandatory Corps of Cadets became a voluntary activity. Further, as the College sought to remake itself as a University, a growing emphasis was placed on graduate education, especially the establishment of new doctoral programs. Enrollment grew at unprecedented rates rising from approximately 7,000 students in 1960 to more than 30,000 by 1980. No other university in the nation showed comparable growth in those two decades. The master’s degree program in psychology was meant to be a stepping stone to acquiring a psychology doctoral program, and TAMU’s administration was eager to build such programs. The Texas State Coordinating Board, however, resisted, arguing that the doctoral psychology programs in other Texas universities were sufficient to meet the State’s needs. But the University was persistent, and finally in 1982 the Coordinating Board commissioned a team of nine distinguished psychologists from around the country to visit all Texas psychology PhD programs and the TAMU campus with the charge to evaluate TAMU’s plans for a doctoral program and its need within the State. The team filed a favorable report that led to the creation of three doctoral specialties in TAMU’s Psychology program: General, Community-Clinical, and Industrial-Organizational Psychology. Those doctoral programs were first announced in the 1984/1985 graduate catalog, and the first psychology doctorate was awarded in December, 1986. In a few years the General program divided into four specialties that would, over time, become: Behavioral and Cellular Neuroscience, and Cognitive, Developmental, and Social Psychology. The Community-Clinical program never really pursued the originally stated model of a community emphasis and created, instead, a traditional scientist-practitioner program in Clinical Psychology that has been accredited continuously by the American Psychological Association since 1988. Thus the Psychology Department today offers doctoral training in six specialties.
Under the leadership of Department Head Stephen Worchel, the Department secured its first separate building in 1988. The building, which was constructed originally for the Physics Department, was renovated at a cost of $4.5 million to the specifications of psychology faculty and included a number of laboratories, classrooms, and special purpose rooms, including an extensive animal laboratory and a psychology clinic. Paul Wellman was the faculty member most responsible for working with faculty to design the layout of the approximately 32,000 sq. ft. facility.
In 2009, the University’s enrollment topped 48,000 students. Psychology is among the most popular subjects on campus with approximately 1,400 majors. The doctoral programs, only about 25 years old now, continue to increase in quality and currently enroll about 100 students. These programs are served by approximately 45 full-time and adjunct faculty members.