When Was Psychology Accepted as an Academic Discipline: Analytical Essay

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Have you ever wondered why someone around you, or even yourself, behaved or thought about something a certain way? If you answered “no” to this question, you would be lying. Concern for human behavior is a universal behavior among humans that has been prevalent since at least the eighth century BC in Ancient Greece. Philosophers wanted to understand what they described as the “psyche”, referring to what we know as the “mind” today. After centuries of continued interest in this trail of thought, experimentation, and research a formal academic discipline was created and named psychology. Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behavior. Given the vast interest in the various subjects that fall under the category of psychology, it is one the most extensive and intersectional academic disciplines.

History of the Discipline of Psychology

Although the ideas and main goals in the field of psychology have been around for centuries, it was not until the late 1800s that the practice began to take shape in an academic setting. In 1879 German physician, physiologist, philosopher, and professor Wilhelm Wundt opened the Institute for Experimental Psychology at Leipzig University in Germany. Because this was the first psychological laboratory in the world, Wundt has been referred to as the father of modern experimental psychology by many scholars. According to one of Wundt’s first students, he was the first professor in the philosophic field to experiment in front of his students, and “the laboratory was a small private venture of his own” (Hall, 1912, p. 315). This same student, named Granville (G.) Stanley Hall went on to become one of the most prominent pioneers in the academic discipline of psychology in America. Hall was born in Ashfield, Massachusetts, and studied philosophy at Williams College from 1863-1867. He then went on to complete his graduate studies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in 1878 he received the first Ph.D. ever awarded by Harvard's philosophy department. His degree was also the first American Ph.D. on a psychological topic. It was not until his postgraduate work in 1869 that he traveled to Germany and worked under Wundt in the laboratory. With the influences of not only Wundt but various other revolutionaries in the field of psychology such as Gustav Fechner and William James, Hall was able to further his historical awareness, an aspect of academia that was not common during this time yet extremely important. In 1880 he received an invitation to deliver a course of lectures on psychology at John Hopkins University. Only four years after the establishment of the Institute for Experimental Psychology in Germany, Hall opened a small teaching and research psychology lab at John Hopkins which was the first of its kind in America. In the fall of 1887, he launched the American Journal of Psychology, the first psychological journal in English which is still being published today. Hall then went on to become the first president of Clark University where he founded the American Psychological Association (APA) in July 1892. It was at this time that psychology really began to excel as a serious academic discipline. Various subfields and foci of research began to emerge such as functionalism, structuralism, and psychoanalysis. Although the field of study was expanding quickly, it was still mainly confined to an academic setting until 1896 when University of Pennsylvania professor, Lightner Witmer, opened the world’s first psychological clinic for patients, shifting the focus from experimental work to a practical application of his findings. Then, Charles Frederick Menninger and his sons Karl Augustus and William Clair founded The Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas in the early 1920s. They took a compassionate approach to the treatment of mental illness and were well-trained and adept at relating to patients which was still rare for this time period (Dwyer, 2010). This is where psychology changed from a theoretical and knowledge-seeking approach to the societal and mental health counseling focus it has today. In the early 20th century tests such as the IQ, Rorschach, and Army intelligence tests were created and are still used today in academic and work settings to gain information about a person’s intelligence, aptitude, and personality. While these types of experiments are widely regarded as beneficial and ethical, there were many others such as frontal lobotomies and electroconvulsive therapy that have remained controversial since their emergence. Because of the rapid spread of experimental practices in the field, the American Psychological Association published the first edition of the Ethical Standards of Psychologists in 1953. The document undergoes continuous review and is now known as APA's Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. In 1946, President Harry Truman signed the National Mental Health Act, providing generous funding for psychiatric education and research for the first time in U.S. history. This act lead to the creation of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 1949. It was after this that the FDA began to approve various drugs to treat more common mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. In the late 20th century, a shift of popularity in the field can be seen as more and more psychologists used their knowledge to assist the general public, and subfields such as social work emerged. In the 1980s federal motions such as the Insanity Defense Reform and Homeless Assistance Acts were passed with an aim to assist specific groups of people who were seen to have a disadvantage in society due to psychological factors. The subject of the study of psychology (the mind) is one that is so vast and complex that there is an almost infinite amount of different foci, experiments, research projects, and subfields that can be extracted from the discipline. Even through all the years of extensive work done in the discipline, Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus’s theory that the psyche is a mysterious object that one can never know fully still remains true to this day. For this reason, it is important for scholars in the discipline to continue to obtain and spread the important knowledge that is produced.

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Prominent Researchers in Psychology

One of the earliest and most important professors and authors in the discipline of psychology, William James has earned the title among many as “the father of American psychology.” James was born in New York City on January 11, 1842. James’ father was the wealthy Henry James Sr., a theologian who valued education and intelligence. James was the oldest of five children, all of whom were raised with a major focus on knowledge and were educated by tutors in NYC and Europe during the family’s various transatlantic trips. This meant he became fluent in five different languages. He began his academic career by studying art with William Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island in 1858. Eventually, he chose a different path for his life. In 1861, James enrolled at the Lawrence Scientific School, where he studied chemistry and physiology. He went on to study at Harvard Medical School in 1864. Only one year later he took a break from his education to join an expedition to the Amazon basin. It was not until 1869 that James earned his medical degree from Harvard but by this time, he had decided that he did not want to practice medicine. So, he became a lecturer at the university initially on physiology but later on psychology and philosophy. It was here that he crossed paths with the aforementioned G. Stanley Hall, as Hall was one of the graduate students in his psychology course. James advocated for the pragmatic theory of truth, a mix of the correspondence theory of truth and the coherence theory of truth, which states that a proposition is true if it is useful to believe. His worldview of pragmatism included that the world is a mosaic of diverse experiences that can only be properly interpreted and understood through an application of 'radical empiricism' (Shultz, 2004). Radical empiricism asserts that there can never be an entirely objective analysis of the world and experience; the mind of the observer and the act of observation affect any empirical approach to truth. In 1887 James published his most renowned and influential book, The Principles of Psychology, combining his ideas on psychology and philosophy.  The book was written with much clarity and charm and vehemently disputed Wundt’s view of psychology, more specifically, Wundt’s analysis of consciousness into elements (Schultz and Schultz, 2004). William James’ contributions to the field of psychology were endless.  The Principles of Psychology is still read and studied today, over one hundred years after its publication.  His new, innovative ideas enlightened the United States, calling for the beginning of functionalism. James was influential to many other psychologists such as Freud with his psychodynamic theories and personality research. Although James did not confirm himself as a psychologist, he was a philosopher and educator of both psychology and the newly developing world.   

Like G. Stanley Hall, James Cattell was a student working in the Institute for Experimental Psychology under Wilhelm Wundt who later went on to do his own influential work in the discipline. Cattell was the first-born child of William Cattell and Elizabeth McKeen in Easton, Pennsylvania in 1860. William Cattell had served as a Presbyterian minister and as the president of Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, and Elizabeth McKeen had an inheritance, making the Cattell's a wealthy and well-known family. Cattell displayed talent in mathematics at a young age along with a love for English literature. In 1880, he graduated with honors from Lafayette College and later received his M.A. also from Lafayette College. Cattell then traveled to Germany and attended the University of Gottingen and then the University of Leipzig. It was at the University of Leipzig that Cattell met Wilhelm Wundt for the first time. In Leipzig, Cattell wrote an impressive paper on philosophy that won him a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University. During Cattell’s second year at Hopkins, he enrolled in G. Stanley Hall’s psychology course. Cattell’s interest in psychology flourished in him through experimentation with drugs. He was interested in and had tried morphine, hashish, opium, and other drugs. He recorded the effects that each had on him. It was his way of exploring and analyzing his own mind. After completion of this course, Cattell returned to Germany to study as an assistant under Wundt. Wundt and Cattell worked well together and created a study on human intelligence. Cattell, while working with Wundt, published the first dissertation in psychology entitled Psychometric Investigation. In his dissertation, Cattell researched individual differences in human intelligence. Cattell worked hard to establish psychology as a science. He felt psychology’s growth depended on the growth of quantitative methods. Cattell was the first American to instruct a statistical analysis course. He developed the order of merit ranking method. He shared an interest in Galton’s eugenics theory and supported the sterilization of less intelligent people. Cattell also felt that individuals of high intelligence should be paid to mate so much so that he promised his own children $1,000 to marry and mate with a professor’s child. Cattell's use of statistical methods and quantification of data helped in the development of American psychology as an experimental science. He was one of the first psychologists in America to stress the importance of quantification, ranking, and ratings. An outgrowth of this work, his experimentation with psychophysical testing, was influential in the popularization of mental testing within the psychological laboratory.

Current Trends in Psychology

One current focus of study in the field of psychology is the recent increasing rate of suicide deaths in America. The suicide rate increased 33 percent from 1999 through 2017, from 10.5 to 14 suicides per 100,000 people. Suicide ranks as the fourth leading cause of death for people ages 35 to 54, and the second for 10- to 34-year-olds. It remains the 10th leading cause of death overall (Weir, 2019). The most difficult aspect of understanding suicide for psychologists is the fact that there is never a certain and universal cause. Risk factors can include health factors (depression, substance use problems, serious mental illness, and serious physical health conditions including pain), environmental factors (access to lethal means and stressful life events including divorce, unemployment, relationship problems, or financial crisis), and historical factors (including previous suicide attempts, a family history of suicide and a history of childhood abuse or trauma). Suicide is an issue that nearly every subfield of psychology has extensive research on. Basic scientists are exploring brain changes and risk factors associated with suicidal ideation and behavior. Applied scientists are seeking new ways to identify those at risk. Clinical researchers are testing new therapeutic interventions, and clinicians on the front lines are helping deliver those treatments to people who are struggling. Meanwhile, psychologists working in advocacy roles are drawing from the latest research to educate the public and promote policies proven to reduce suicide rates. And many psychologists in the suicide field have skills that extend across other subfields of psychology, enabling them to act simultaneously as clinicians, researchers, and educators. As mental health professionals, their main goal is to influence a decline in the rising rate of suicides.

Another concerning issue in psychology is the shockingly rapid use of nicotine, specifically e-cigarettes, among young adults and teens in the U.S. The incidence of vaping among U.S teenagers has nearly doubled in the past year to more than one in five high school seniors, finds research in the New England Journal of Medicine. The researchers analyzed data from more than 13,000 participants in the “Monitoring the Future” study. Among 12th graders, the proportion who had vaped at least once in the past month jumped from 11 percent in 2017 to 20.9 percent in 2018. Among 10th graders, the proportion grew from 8.2 percent to 16.1 percent; among 8th graders, it grew from 3.5 percent to 6.1 percent. The researchers say it is the largest one-year increase for teenagers using any substance in the 44 years that the study has been conducted (Patrick et al., 2018). Further, recent research has indicated that--contrary to what experts had long assumed--teenagers can become dependent on tobacco even before they begin smoking on a daily basis, that most adolescent smokers continue smoking into adulthood, and that many want to quit but are unable to do so. One of the main factors that has led to this spike in adolescent nicotine addiction is the loose relationship between the FDA and Big Tobacco. Big Tobacco is a name used to refer to the 'big five' largest global tobacco industry companies which are Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, Imperial Brands, Japan Tobacco International, and China Tobacco. Because characterizing flavors increases the likelihood of underage use, such flavors should be prohibited in all tobacco products. However, it has been abundantly documented that menthol cigarettes have been advertised and marketed in a manner designed to increase the likelihood of youth initiation and progression to regular smoking. To reduce the prevalence of smoking, particularly among the young, FDA should prohibit the use of menthol as a characterizing flavor. While organizations like APA are working with the FDA to implement these restrictions, the biggest job for psychologists is direct communication and counseling with teens who are already affected by addiction and nicotine abuse. Often, practitioners may conduct a drug screening for children and adolescent patients who present with anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions. Addiction is an affliction that is special in that no medicine can automatically assist in diminishing the effects, unlike other mental health concerns. The fact of the matter is that the addict can only heal if they want to and if they actively make a change in their lifestyle. This can be especially hard to convey to young people who may not be mature enough to fully grasp the concept of addiction, yet they are affected by it. Psychologists are working carefully to stop this rising trend through both preventative measures such as awareness of society and restrictions on the industry, and through counseling and educational methods for those affected.

The discipline of psychology has been around for just a few centuries and already, we know more about the mind than the founders of psychology could have ever imagined. The astonishing rate at which the discipline has spread and established itself proves that it will be around for many more years to come. What started as the innate human tendency of curiosity eventually led to a field of study that has helped us understand ourselves and the world around us. The innate force of human curiosity is what will continue to drive the discipline of psychology into the future and psychologists today can’t even imagine what we will know about the mind in just a few centuries from now.


    1. Bachman J., Johnston L., Miech R., O’Malley P. (1928). Adolescent Vaping and Nicotine Use in 2017–2018 — U.S. National Estimates.  The New England Journal of Medicine, 198(1). 
    2. Bringmann, W., & Bringmann, M. (1992). G. Stanley Hall and the History of Psychology.  American Psychologist, 47(2).
    3. Conroy W.A., Chapman A.J., & Sheehy N. (Eds.). (2002) Cattell, James Mckeen. Biographical  Dictionary of Psychology (2nd ed.).
    4. Dwyer H. (2010) Curriculum connections psychology: History of psychology. London, UK:  Brown Bear Books Ltd. 
    5. Hall, G. S. (1912). Founders of modern psychology. New York: D. Appleton.
    6. Schultz, D., and Schultz, S. (2004). William James. A History of Modern Psychology, 8th ed. 
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