“A Science Concerned with Human Well-being”: 120 Years of Psychology at Oxford
2018 marks the 120th anniversary of the founding of the Wilde Readership in Mental Philosophy – which can be considered the beginning of the official study of psychology at Oxford. This post was established in 1898 by Henry Wilde, a successful electrical engineer who also endowed scholarships and posts in philosophy, religion and astronomy. However, Wilde explicitly forbade the Reader in Mental Philosophy from using experimental methods. As historian Jack Morrell comments:
"Wilde had firm views about his readership in mental philosophy. He intended that it be securely based in the faculty of literae humaniores and that it should promote Lockian methods among undergraduates. He insisted, therefore, that his reader should study the human mind by observation and reflection on experience, while excluding any form of experiment" (1)
While the first holder of the post, G F Stout, managed to pursue his research within these restrictions, the second post-holder William McDougall attempted to work around them. He established a laboratory in the Department of Physiology, where he pursued his research interests in colour vision and fluctuations of perception. Although Wilde attempted to persuade the University authorities to put a stop to McDougall’s experimentation, McDougall’s research was instead curtailed by the outbreak of World War I. He left Oxford to serve as a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps from 1915 to 1919, where he specialised in treating soldiers with ‘shell shock’, what would now be called PTSD. On his return in 1919 he found that his laboratory space had been re-occupied, leaving him with nowhere to conduct his research. Becoming increasingly frustrated, McDougall left Oxford to take up the William James Chair of Psychology at Harvard University in the summer of 1920.
In 1921 William Brown succeeded McDougall to the Wilde Readership. Brown, who treated patients at King’s College Hospital in London, was interested in both mental measurement and psychotherapy. He also struggled with the constraints of the Readership, writing in the British Medical Journal that
Oxford has been singular among great universities in possessing no laboratory of experimental psychology… After having worked for twelve years in the well-appointed psychological laboratory at King’s College, London, it was a disappointment to the new reader to have no facilities of accommodation or apparatus for experimental work on his subject (2).
However, things were about to change. Following widespread interest from students in lectures in experimental psychology, sometimes in such numbers that “no lecture room at Christ Church could accommodate them, and an adjournment... had to be made to the hall” (3), a proposal was put forward to create a new Institute of Experimental Psychology. The Institute, which would include a laboratory, lecture room and equipment, was to be founded on the site of the former St Giles School at 34 Banbury Rd. The University approved the proposal, and financial support was secured from the Rockefeller Benefaction for Research in the Social Sciences and a private donor named Anna Watts, a friend and former patient of Brown’s.
Anna Watts, who was known as “Mrs Hugh Watts” in official correspondence, made her gift of £10,000 very modestly - as former Head of Experimental Psychology Larry Weiskrantz commented, “her letter and cheque arrived without any embellishment or legal instructions, bearing simply the return address of a London hotel” (4). Yet it provided psychologists who had previously had little access to laboratory space with room to conduct empirical studies, and paved the way for the future of the department.
World War II interrupted early plans to provide teaching for undergraduates, but in 1947 the first Professor of Psychology, George Humphrey, was appointed to preside over the new Honour School of PPP (Psychology, Philosophy and Physiology).
Ten years later the Institute had grown substantially: as Weiskrantz recalled, by the late 1950s
The Banbury Rd building was tiny and ill-equipped, even with the motley cluster of small temporary huts behind it. The first Professor’s office was a converted outside lavatory. Being summoned to a meeting with him was an ordeal… (5)
The Institute moved next to a large Victorian house at 1 South Parks Rd, with further outbuildings placed in the garden and on Keble Rd. In the late 1960s Experimental Psychology was established as a stand-alone single-subject honours school, bringing Oxford Psychology in line with provision at other British universities, and a second chair was created – the Watts Professorship of Psychology. In order to name the chair after Anna Watts it was necessary for the department to advertise for surviving members of her family in the Times – who came forward to give their blessing. In 1971,the department’s modernisation was complete with another move into the purpose-built Tinbergen Building, shared with Zoology.
The 1970s and 80s also saw the rise of new avenues of investigation including greater focus on developmental psychology. The 1990s were marked by the growth of neuroscience as an area of research, including work on transcranial magnetic stimulation, electroencephalography, magnetic resonance imaging and other forms of neuroimaging.
1997 also marked the first year of both the MSc in Neuroscience and the FMRIB Centre. Interest in this area continued to grow throughout the first two decades of the 21st century. In 2001 the department officially became part of the Medical Sciences Division (one of the four divisions of the University) while maintaining strong links in the areas of Philosophy, Linguistics and Social Sciences.
The department now contains approximately 40 research groups and more than 230 researchers and graduate students: in 2017 a total of 73 EP and PPL undergraduate students and more than 30 graduate students completed their programmes with us. Research undertaken within the department has major impacts in the clinical, educational, social-policy and commercial fields.
Looking forward from his position as the Wilde Reader in 1936, Brown commented that it was “a great satisfaction” that there would one day be “a complete department of psychology where Oxford students and graduates from other universities… will be able to study every aspect of a science which is concerned on so many sides, and so fundamentally, with human well-being” (6). It is clear that this concern is still being carried forward by the department and its researchers in 2018.
With special thanks to Professor Oliver Braddick and Karine Barker for much of the information and many of the images included above.
- Jack Morrell, Science at Oxford, 1914-1939:Transforming an Arts University (Clarendon, 1997) p.86.
- William Brown, ”Psychology At Oxford”, The British Medical Journal 1:3934 (May 30, 1936), p. 1121.
- Brown, p.1122.
- Larry Weiskrantz, ”‘Illusions and Delusions’ and Beyond: Fifty Years of Experimental Psychology at Oxford”, The Oxford Magazine, Fourth Week, Michaelmas Term 1986, p.6.
- Weiskrantz, p.6.
- Brown, p.1122.
114 Years of Experimental Psychology in Oxford
Henry Wide establishes the Wilde Readership in Mental Philosophy
G.F Stout is the 1st Wilde Reader
W McDougall, 2nd Wilde Reader
William Brown, 3rd Wilde Reader
Donation from Mrs Hugh Watts to the University for the foundation of an Institute
First Institute 34 Banbury Road with W. Brown as Director
Establishment of a Diploma Course
Establishment of the Final Honour School of Psychology, Physiology and Philosophy
Professor George Humphrey first holder of the Chair of Psychology
Brian Farrell-Wilde Reader
Michael Argyle appointed Lecturer in Social Psychology
Bernard Babington Smith appointed Lecturer
The Institute of Experimental Psychology opens in 1 South Parks Road
Carolus Oldfield Head of the Institute and of the Psycholinguistics Unit
Appointment of 3 Lecturers: Brian Foss, Oliver Zangwill, David Vowles
Jeffrey Gray appointed Lecturer
Larry Weiskrantz appointed head of the Institute
Anne Treisman & Patrick Rabbitt appointed Lecturers
The Insitute acquires its first computer
Richard Dennet, first administrator appointed.
Establishment of a New Chair: The Watts Professorship of Psychology Jerome Bruner 1st Watts Professor
Completion of laboratories & seminar room. B.F Skinner and Noam Chomsky are among the first speakers.
The institute moved to 9 South Parks Road and becomes the Department of Experimental Psychology
Start of the Final Honour School of Experimental Psychology
Professor Donald Broadbent joins the Deparment
Peter Bryant 2nd Watts Professor
50th Anniversary of the founding of the Institute
Between 1967 and 1986 the Department expanded with appointments of new teaching and research staff including: Gordon Claridge, Alan Cowey, Ruben Conrad, Dick Passingham, Nancy Waugh, Kim Plunkett, Maryanne Martin, Edmund Rolls, Nick Rawlins, Peter Mcleod, Michel Triesman, Bruce Henning, Jos Jaspers, Alan Allport, Paul Harris, Brian Rogers, Ruth Campbell, Nick Emler, Jane Mellanby, Lynden Eaves, Burt Rosner, Susanna Millar, Kathy Parks
Establishment of the McDonnell-Pew Cognitive Neuroscience & MRC Brain & Behaviour Centres, appointment of Alan Cowey as Director of the MRC IRC in Brain & Behaviour
Establishment of the Oxford BabyLab, K. Plunkett appointed as director
Sue Iversen is appointed Professor of Psychology & Head of Department
First TMS lab established by Alan Cowey and Vincent Walsh
Establishment of the Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain (FMRIB) established by Alan Cowey, John Newsom-Davies & George Radda with state of the arts MRI facilities.
Msc in Neuroscience introduced with the Welcome Trust 4-year graduate programme, a joint programme between EP and other Departments
Dorothy Bishop joins as a Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow
Oliver Raddick appointed Professor of Psychology and Head of Department
Visual Development Unit establishes in Oxford.
The Department joins new Medical Sciences Division
Miles Hestone joins the Department and establishes the Centre for the Study of Intergroup Conflict
MSc in Psychological Research established
Nick Rawlings 3rd Watts Professor
Research Assessment Exercise with 80% of work considered “world leading” and “international excellent”.
Opening of the Centre for Developmental Science
Establishment of the Oxford Centre for Human Brain Activity (OHBA) with new MEG facility
Kia Nobre appointed director.
Opening of the Bio-Medical Services Building
New Biomedical Sciences degree
Glyn Humpreys appointed 4th Watts Professor & Head of Department
Establishment of the Oxford Cognitive Neuropsychology Centre (Oxford CNC)
Masud Husain, appointed Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow
Establishment of the Oxford Centre for Anxiety Disorders and Trauma (OXCADAT)
David Clark incoming Professor of Psychology
Anke Ehlers Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow