James McKeen Cattell


Compiled by Becky Parrott (May 1997)


Time Line

James McKeen Cattell was very influential in psychology as an organizer, executive, and administrator of psychological science and practice, and as a vocal link between psychology and the larger scientific community. He studied under William Wundt, and was a leading American Psychologist.

Cattell was born in Easton, Pennsylvania in 1860. He attended Lafayette College and upon graduation left for Europe to travel. He earned a fellowship to Johns Hopkins University in 1882. Here he became interested in psychology with his own experimentation with drugs. Cattell used a wide variety of drugs from hashish and morphine to caffeine and chocolate. The results of these were of both personal and professional interest. He also began work measuring simple mental processes; such as, the time it took subjects to perform simple mental acts, such as naming objects or colors.

Cattell's Fellowship was not renewed and he returned to Leipzig to work under Wundt. Cattell often wrote letters home criticizing Wundt and how he was not respected as he should be. Wundt described him as a "typical American." While at Leipzig he continued his work on reaction time. He carried out classic reaction time studies to study individual differences. While here he published several articles, including his dissertation on "Psychometric Investigation." He was the first American student in Wundt's lab to have a dissertation published. He also built "gravity chronometer" which allowed material to be presented for controlled periods of time. Cattell received his Ph.D. from Wundt in 1886.

Cattell returned to the United States where he was a Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Here he founded the psychology lab. While at Pennsylvania he began to administer tests to students, and he introduced the term "mental tests." He left for the University of Columbia in 1891, where he became a Professor of Psychology and the Head of the Department.

Cattell was at Columbia for 26 years. At first he continued his work on administering "mental tests" to entering freshmen. His test was proven not reliable and replaced by Alfred Binet's Intelligence Tests. He soon abandoned this work and began work on administration, science editing, and publishing, and the development of a method for ranking according to merit.

Using his order of merit of ranking method, Cattell compiled a "Biographical Directory of American Men of Science." He edited it through the first six editions. Now it is the "American Men of Science," and is still published today. In 1917, Cattell was dismissed from Columbia for writing letters to Congress against the practice of sending draftees into combat in WWI. He was dismissed because he wrote these letters on college stationery. He sued the college, and was awarded compensation.

Cattell began working on publishing and editing. He edited Psychological Review, Science, Scientific Monthly, American Naturalist, School and Society, and American Men of Science. With James Mark Baldwin he founded Psychological Review and in 1900 he bought a failing Popular Science Monthly from Alexander Graham Bell, and turned it into one of the leading science magazines, Science.

Cattell was very confident in his abilities. His biggest influence on his students was more through his ability to inspire versus his teaching skills. Many prominent psychologists studied under Cattell including: F.L. Wells, Thorndike, Woodworth, S.I. Franz, E.K. Strong, and Margaret Washburn who was the first major American female experimental psychologist.

Cattell was one of the APA's founding members and the fourth President. He organized the Psychological Corporation with a mission to promote applied science. Many organizations and journals were started with the help of Cattell. He became an ambassador of psychology : delivering lectures, editing journals, and promoting the practical application of the field.

Overview of his Work

The functionalist spirit of American Psychology was well represented by Cattell, but he was not a functionalist. He influenced movement toward a practical, test-oriented approach to the study of mental processes. Cattell was concerned with human abilities. Cattell studied simple mental processes; such as the time it took subjects to perform acts as naming objects or colors. His early work also studied the affect of drugs on simple mental processes.

Cattell became one of the first American psychologists to stress quantification, ranking, and ratings. He also developed the merit method. This method was first done by arranging 200 shades of gray by brightness. The method was soon extended to value judgements. From this he developed the "Biographical Directory of American Men Of Science."

Cattell's work with "mental tests" and reaction times were a good start, but his tests were proven unreliable and later Binet made more acceptable tests. Most of Cattell's contributions came from his publishing and editing, which are evident in examples of his work.

Cattell's work in publishing and editing were his most influential aspects. He helped found the APA. He served as both secretary and president of this association at one time. He joined the New York Academy of Sciences, and through his membership helped to persuade them to establish a section of Anthropology and Psychology. He was then elected President of the NYAS in 1902, for his great strides in furthering the sciences.

For a half of a century Cattell was the editor of Science, and through this he was able to promote psychology's image as a science. He also helped found the American Association of University Professors. Here he hoped to allow the professors to have more decision making abilities.

His organization, The Psychological Corporation, published the Wechsler Intelligence Tests. And, much of its profits were returned to psychologists to support further research. He also contributed to the development of the reference works, American Men of Science and Leaders in Education.

Cattell's most important contribution was as his influence as a organizer, executive, and editor. Many of the journals and associations he helped found and edit are still around today.

Time Line of Cattell's Life

1860 Born in Easton, Pennsylvania
1880 Earned Bachelor's degree at Lafayette College
1880 Left for Europe
1882 Fellowship, John Hopkins University
1883 Returned to Leipzig to work under Wundt
1886 Ph.D. under Wundt
1888-91 Professor of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania
1890 Coined term "mental tests"
1891 Professor of Psychology and Head of Department, Columbia University
1894 Secretary, APA
1895 President, APA
1895 Purchased Science from Alexander Graham Bell
1897 Founded Psychological Review with James Mark Baldwin
1900 Science became official publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
1900 Purchased Popular Science Monthly
1901 First Psychologist to be admitted to the National Academy of Sciences
1902 President, New York Academy of Sciences
1903 Did ranking of Psychologists
1903 Baldwin bought Cattell out of Psychological Review
1906 Began reference works, American Men of Science & Leaders in Education
1915 Established School and Society weekly
1917 Dismissed from Columbia
1921 Organized the Psychological Corporation
1924 President, American Association for the Advancement of Sciences
1929 Address as President of the Ninth International Congress of Psychology
1944 Died


Cattell, J.M. (1886). The time it takes to see and name objects. Mind,11,63-65.
Cattell, J.M. (1890). Mental tests and measurements. Mind,15,373-381.
Cattell, J.M. (1895). Measurements of the accuracy of recollection. Science,2,761-766.
Cattell, J.Mck. (1896). Address of the president before the American Psychological Association, 1895. Psychological Review3,134-148.
Cattell, J.M. (1903). Statistics of American psychologists. American Journal of Psychology,14,310- 328.
Cattell, J.Mck. (1904). The conceptions and methods of psychology. Popular Science Monthly,66,176- 186.
Cattell, J.M. (1909). The school and the family. Popular Science Monthly,74,84-95.
Cattell, J.M. (1929). Psychology in America [Address of the president of the Ninth International Congress of Psychology]. Science,70,335-347.
Cattell, J.M. (1943). The founding of the Association. Psychological Review,50,61-64.
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Thorne, M. B. & Henley, T. B. (1997). Connections in the History and Systems of Psychology. Houghton Mifflin Co.

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