Applications Research

In the mid-1960s, a critical mass of sorts was achieved for those interested in teaching, research, and scholarship in the history of psychology. Within the span of a few years, two major organizations appeared: Cheiron: The International Society for the History of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Division 26 (Society for the History of Psychology) of the American Psychological Association (APA). Both sponsor annual meetings, and both are affiliated with scholarly journals (Cheiron is represented by the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences and the Society for the History of Psychology by History of Psychology) that provide an outlet for original research. Two doctoral training programs in the history of psychology exist in North America. One is at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and the other is at the University of New Hampshire.

For most students in psychology, the closest encounter with historical research comes in the form of a project or paper as part of a requirement for a class on the history of psychology. Using the types of resources that we have described in this research paper, it should be possible to construct a narrative on any number of topical issues in psychology.

For example, the ascendancy of professional psychology with its concomitant focus on mental health is a topic of interest to historians of psychology and of considerable importance to many students who wish to pursue graduate training in professional psychology. Using archival materials, original published material, secondary sources, and government documents, a brief example of a historical narrative is provided.

World War II and the Rise of Professional Psychology

America’s entrance into World War II greatly expanded the services that American psychologists offered, especially in the area of mental health. Rates of psychiatric illness among recruits were surprisingly high, the majority of discharges from service were for psychiatric reasons, and psychiatric casualties occupied over half of all beds in Veterans Administration hospitals. Not only was this cause for concern among the military, it also alerted federal authorities to the issue among the general population. At the time, the available supply of trained personnel met a fraction of the need. In a response that was fast and sweeping, the federal government passed the National Mental Health Act of 1946, legislation that has been a major determinant in the growth of the mental health profession in America (Pickren & Schneider, 2004). The purpose of the act was clear:

The improvement of the mental health of the people of the United States through the conducting of researches, investigations, experiments, and demonstrations relating to the cause, diagnosis, and treatment of psychiatric disorders; assisting and fostering such research activities by public and private agencies, and promoting the coordination of all such researches and activities and the useful application of their results; training personnel in matters relating to mental health; and developing, and assisting States in the use of the most effective methods of prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of psychiatric disorders. (Public Law 487, 1946, p. 421)

The act provided for a massive program of federal assistance to address research, training, and service in the identification, treatment, and prevention of mental illness. It created the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and provided broad support to psychiatry, psychiatric social work, psychiatric nursing, and psychology for the training of mental health professionals (Rubenstein, 1975). Through the joint efforts of the United States Public Health Service and the Veterans Administration, funds were made available to psychology departments willing to train professional psychologists. Never before had such large sums of money been available to academic psychology. The grants and stipends available from the federal government allowed universities to hire clinical faculty to teach graduate students, whose education and training was often supported by generous stipends. It was these funds that subsidized the Boulder Conference on Graduate Education in Clinical Psychology in 1949 (Baker & Benjamin, 2000).

The chief architect of the Boulder model was David Shakow (1901-1981). At the time, there was no other person in American psychology who had more responsibility and influence in defining standards of training for clinical psychologists. In 1947, Shakow crafted a report on the training of doctoral students in clinical psychology that became the working document for the Boulder Conference of 1949 (APA, 1947; Benjamin & Baker, 2004; Felix, 1947).

By the 1950s, professional psychologists achieved identities that served their members, served their various publics, attracted students and faculty, and ensured survival by maintaining the mechanisms necessary for professional accreditation and later for certification and licensure. In the free-market economy, many trained for public service have found greener pastures in private practice.

The training model inaugurated by the NIMH in 1949 has continued unabated for five decades, planned and supported largely through the auspices of the American Psychological Association. The exigencies that called for the creation of a competent mental health work force have changed, yet the professional psychologist engineered at mid-century has endured, as has the uneasy alliance between science and practice.

This brief historical analysis shows how archival elements can be gathered from a host of sources and used to illuminate the contextual factors that contributed to a significant development in modern American psychology. This story could not be told without access to a number of original sources. For example, the inner workings of the two-week Boulder conference are told in the surviving papers of conference participants, including the personal papers of David Shakow that are located at Akron in the Archives of the History of American Psychology. Papers relevant to the Mental Health Act of 1946 can be found in the National Archives in Washington, DC. Information about the role of the Veterans Administration in contributing to the development of the profession of clinical psychology can be found in the oral history collection available at the archives of the APA. Such analysis also offers an opportunity for reflection and evaluation, and tells us some of the story of the bifurcation of science and practice that has resulted in American psychology. We believe that historical analysis provides a perspective that can contribute to our understanding of current debates and aid in the consideration of alternatives.

Indeed, almost any contemporary topic that a student of psychology is interested in has a history that can be traced. Topics in cognition, emotions, forensics, group therapy, parenting, sexuality, memory, and animal learning, to name but a very few, can be researched. Archival resources are often more readily available than most might think. Local and regional archives and university library special collections all are sources of original material. For example, students can do interesting research on the history of their own psychology departments (Benjamin, 1990). University archives can offer minutes of faculty meetings, personnel records (those that are public), college yearbooks (which often show faculty members, student groups, etc.), course catalogues, building plans, and many more items. Interviews can be conducted with retired faculty and department staff, and local newspapers can be researched for related stories. The work can be informative, instructive, and very enjoyable.