The Early Days of Experimental Psychology at UA

By Norm Ellis

If you really want to know about the heritage of the psychology department, read Paul Siegel’s 84-page paperback, “A Personal History of the Department of Psychology of the University of Alabama,” which was written in 1995 (see link above). I believe you’ll find it interesting. In 1937 A&S first began listing psychology courses in the catalog; the College of Education already listed such courses. An MA degree was offered in the late ’40s, and the PhD in the 1958-59 year.

I entered the MA program in 1951. At that time there were 6 or 7 faculty members, including Oliver Lacey (Chair), Paul Siegel, George Passey, Al Peyman, Elliot McGinnes, and Margaret Quayle. Lacey was a Cornell graduate and a “brass instrument psychologist” but with a strong interest in statistics. Siegel and Passey are best described as neobehaviorists. McGinnes was a Harvard-trained social psychologist; Peyman and Quayle were clinicians. Scientific psychology was the main thrust of the department.

Students came away steeped in Pavlov, Thorndike, Titchner, Watson, Hull, Spence, Tolman, and Skinner. For the MA degree, students completed 48 hours of course work, a thesis, an oral exam, and acquired a reading knowledge in either French or German. In one year, 30 students were admitted and 5 graduated! The demanding academic program was made even more daunting by numerous beer parties, all-night poker, and sundry other gaieties (Tuscaloosa County was dry at that time; so there were many homebrew experts around).

The department was housed in Comer Hall with an animal lab in the basement. A “computing room” featured one Marchand calculator. When jammed, a repairman from Birmingham had to be called. If you were responsible, you’d better wipe away your fingerprints and steal silently away. Of course, a calculator failure was devastating for all of us for we had to compute ANOVAs and other statistics on a regular basis for the Lacey courses.

Ray Fowler was a classmate in the MA program; we both survived and Ray later became chair of the department. I went on to LSU to work on a PhD and returned to UA in the 1954-55 year as a temporary acting assistant professor (I was told the title was better than instructor). Mike Dinoff was a student in my physiological class. He later became a faculty member and clinic director. The department had changed little by this time.

I returned again in 1964 as a full-fledged faculty member. By then, the PhD program was offered in clinical and experimental. The faculty consisted of Earl Brown (Chair), P. Siegel, C. Rickard, K. Melvin, M. Dinoff, A. Peyman (now part-time), S. Kendall, W. Sullins, J. Koehler, B. Hall, and R. Fowler. A. Baumeister, P. Weisberg, and H. Miller came later. Becky Pollitt was office manager for the department when I returned (and when I retired). She played a strong and much-needed role in the department over the years.

In 1965 a PhD in experimental psychology with an emphasis on research in mental retardation was introduced. This program was modeled after one that I had participated in at Peabody College. An NICHD grant provided funds for fellowships. In the 1990s we modified the program to include the full range of intelligence and labeled it cognitive psychology.

In my early days in the Department, SEPA had not come into being. We attended the meetings of the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology and the Alabama Psychological Association. The SSPP was a strong organization committed to philosophy and academic/scientific psychology. These were the big social events of the year, attended by both faculty and graduate students.

My return to Tuscaloosa was just after the “stand in the schoolhouse door.” Segregation was much the order of the day — separate drinking fountains in stores, separate seating in the theaters, and the presence of the KKK (They dropped leaflets from an airplane into our yard a few days after we arrived). Morrison’s Cafeteria on The Strip, and other establishments in the city, were being picketed. One of our faculty members was arrested in a protest. One of my students marched in a protest in Tuscaloosa and was denied service by a downtown shop. His house was also vandalized. I digress, but in retrospect, it seems hard to believe. It was the worst of times.

Finally, I remember with great pleasure the students who completed the MR/Cognitive PhD during my tenure in the department. A majority of them went on to hold faculty positions in good colleges and universities, and many made substantive contributions to scientific research in psychology.