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History of the Experimental Psychology Department at Oxford
Gustav Fechner can be said to have founded experimental psychology with his influential work on psychophysics in Leipzig, Germany in 1860. As far as Oxford is concerned, John Locke may be recognised as the first to have developed philosophical aspects of psychology in the mid-17th century, but an important step occurred for psychology with the establishment of an academic appointment in Oxford in 1898. Henry Wilde, an electrical engineer from Manchester with a strong interest in philosophy, gave £10,000 to the University of Oxford for the establishment of a Readership, the Wilde Readership in Mental Philosophy. Psychology was not yet an independent subject of study. It was studied as mental philosophy, and Henry Wilde endowed the readership under specific terms. The duty of the Reader (now elevated to the title of Wilde Professor) was “to study the human mind based on observations and reflection on experiences exclusive of methods of experiment”.
G.F. Stout, the first Reader elected to the post, respected the terms of his appointment:
"Let us suppose that a man is engaged in examining a material object. Let us say the he is testing the quality of a cigar. He looks at it; he feels it; he puts it to his ear and listens to the crackle which is a mark of dryness; he smells it before commencing to smoke; if he is not discouraged by these preliminaries, he may then proceed to smoke it; he thus brings into play the functions of smelling and tasting. Now in describing the man’s procedure, we have had to use words such as examining, testing, looking, feeling, listening, smelling, and tasting. These are all terms standing for psychological facts.”
Stout, G.F. (1898) A Manual of Psychology, Vol. 1, p. 1.
W. McDougall, the second Wilde Reader (1904), had a different approach to the science. Regardless of the terms of his appointment, he set up his own laboratory in space donated by the Department of Physiology. Experimental psychology thus began unofficially, and contrary to the strictures laid down by Wilde himself. W. Brown, one of McDougall’s students, published his disappointment that full recognition was not given to the discipline:
“Oxford is the only great university in the world which still has no laboratory in experimental psychology … In Oxford even the word “psychology” is not used; the title is “the Wilde Readership in Mental Philosophy”.
Brown, W. ( 1933) The importance of psychology – I. Oxford Magazine, May 11th, 629-630.
Things were to change. In 1935 W. Brown became the third Wilde Reader, and thanks to a donation by his friend Mrs Hugh Watts, experimental psychology officially became an independent discipline with the foundation of an Institute. Facilities in the Institute were modest, but at last its members had their own laboratory and a lecture room for teaching a graduate course. In 1947 the University created a Chair of Psychology, a permanent professorial position, held by G. Humphrey, and established its undergraduate programme that included psychology in the Final Honours School of Psychology, Philosophy and Physiology:
“In certain ways the Honours School of Psychology, Philosophy and Physiology is unique, at least at this University, in that it forms a special kind of meeting place for the man of the laboratory and the “humanist”. It is, perhaps, particularly over examinations that the clash of personality and training comes out … This interchange of ideas and scrutiny of psychologists’ work by philosophers and physiologists - the converse also happens at times - helps to give a special flavour to what has become known as P.P.P.”
Humphrey, G. (1953) Five years in the Oxford Chair. British Journal of Psychology, 44 (4), 381-383.
Despite these major achievements, there was still opposition to the discipline:
“Oxford is the home of philosophers. It is safe to say that there are more of them to the square mile than anywhere else, perhaps with the exception of the Vatican. They have at times had strong views about psychology, particularly experimental psychology. An eminent tutor used to set his pupils an essay in which they were expected to prove that experimental psychology was impossible; and he was not alone at the time in his belief. In fact, when experimental psychology was born with Fechner’s “Psychophysics” in 1860, the dictum “This is all nonsense!” seems to have arisen simultaneously from twenty Oxford colleges … For in 1945 the idea of an experimental study of the mind was still a bit of a novelty in this home of ancient philosophical traditions. All this did not make things easier for a new professor … He heard the lions on the shore sniffing round him, waiting for him to make a wrong move.”
Humphrey, G. (1953) Five years in the Oxford Chair. British Journal of Psychology, 44 (4), 381-383.
But interest and support of the few kept it going:
“Nightly the Institute windows glow with midnight electricity burnt to illuminate, if not problems, at least the experimental apparatus calculated to elucidate them. Rats, it is true, are forbidden access the premises by the City Council, but work proceeds with their assistance elsewhere, through the kindness of another department.”
Oldfield, R.C. (1950) Psychology in Oxford - 1898-1949 Part II. Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, July.
Student applications grew. More lecturers were recruited, and the Institute became inadequate to accommodate the increased number of staff and students. Coincidentally, a major development required the Institute building to be demolished. In 1957, the Institute moved to a spacious Victorian house at 1 South Parks Road. Additional lecturer posts were established, and psychology was becoming part of Oxford's long tradition of philosophy:
“Psychology at Oxford is envisaged broadly - much more broadly than at Cambridge. Whereas at Cambridge psychology is accepted – for better or worse - as Science, at Oxford it is viewed as neither Science nor Humanity yet as partaking of the nature of both. Although experimental psychology has a central place in the School, it is stressed that everyday observation, clinical enquiry and – last but not least - plain hard thinking are not less essential than experiment to the development of a firm psychological discipline. In accordance with this view, the Professorship is not restricted to Experimental Psychology (as at Cambridge) and provision has been made for lectureships in general and social as well as experimental psychology … no split has hitherto developed between the experimental and the less experimental psychologists at Oxford.”
Zangwill, O.L. (1956) Psychology at Oxford and Cambridge. Oxford Magazine, May 10th, pp. 396-398.
Interest in the discipline did not wane. The Institute was once again in need of a more suitable building. A new site was found in a building shared with Zoology on South Parks Road. The University created a second Chair of Psychology, and asked the Faculty Board for a suitable name to attach to it. Just before the official opening, the Psychology Board proposal to name the Chair for its benefactor and to expand applications to any field of Experimental Psychology was approved. The new Chair of Psychology was replaced by The Watts Professorship of Psychology. The Institute became the Department of Experimental Psychology. A new school was established, the School of Experimental Psychology, allowing students to focus exclusively on experimental psychology after 2 terms of a Preliminary Course.
From 1970 the Department continued to grow, with appointments, staff movements and funding to support research activities:
“The department is handsomely supported to the tune of more than £600,000 per year by research councils and other outside bodies, and it is funded by the University as a laboratory science. McDougall would be surprised, Brown bemused but pleased, and perhaps even Wilde would no longer be irritated.”
Weiskrantz, L. (1986) ‘Illusions and Delusions’ and Beyond: Fifty Years of Experimental Psychology at Oxford. Oxford Magazine, 4th week, Michaelmas Term, pp. 5-6.
By 2000 the Department had established new research centres with state-of–the-art facilities:
1991 -The McDonnell-Pew Cognitive Neuroscience & MRC Brain & Behaviour Centres
1993 – The Oxford BabyLab
1995 – The Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Lab
1997 – The Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain (FMRIB)
When it joined the Medical Sciences Division, collaboration with disciplines in neuroscience, psychiatry and linguistics expanded, leading to the establishment of further research centres:
2001 – The Visual Development Unit
2010 - The Centre for Developmental Science and the Oxford Centre for Human Brain Activity (OHBA)
2012- The Oxford Cognitive Neuropsychology Centre (Oxford CNC) and the Oxford Centre for Anxiety Disorders and Trauma (OXCADAT)
New undergraduate and graduate teaching programmes were established (1997 M.Sc. in Neuroscience, 2002 M.Sc. in Psychological research, 2011 Biomedical Sciences degree), and research carried out by the Department received international recognition:
“RAE Results Highlight Oxford’s “World-Leading” Research:
Oxford Psychology achieved outstanding results in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) announced on 18 December 2008 … 35% of the Department’s work was rated in the highest category 4*, defined as “world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour”. A further 45% was rated 3* i.e. “internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour.”
Today, the Department continues its links with other departments locally, nationally, and internationally to understand “the human brain in health and disease”.