The History of Psychology At Southwestern University

By Charles W. Ellison

Psychology is a relatively new school of thought for the American audience. It’s generally thought to be a science of the mind, yet modern psychology was born out of the interesting intersections between physiology and philosophy throughout the mid to late 19th century. Since its origin, psychology has sought to uncover what relation —  if any — the psyche has with the material world. According to psychology historian Ernest Keen, psychology in the United States can be divided into three phases. The first phase, the mind-body dualism, was spearheaded by early psychologists around the 1870s. In America, the most prominent figure in this era was Dr. William James. The second phase saw a simplification of psychology to a purely scientific view; the main subjects and players of this phase included behaviorist psychologist James Watson. The third phase is where we find ourselves today, with a multitude of psychology theories and methods which deploy different epistemological approaches and methodologies.

Despite being a small school, Southwestern University’s history with psychology is rich. Although Southwestern was late to adopt psychology as a defined field, it was influenced by the novel developments of psychology as a whole. The history of psychology at Southwestern University also comprises three stages. The first takes place when Southwestern offers its first psychology classes in 1913. This included psychology courses taught by Dr. Frank Seay, originally a professor of theology, Hebrew and New Testament Greek, and later, philosophy. The next stage is the psychology department led by Dr. William Davidson. At this stage, psychology was a joint major with philosophy, and a crucial resource for experimental research — a psychology lab — wasn’t at Southwestern. The final stage is the psychology department under Dr. Oscar Ullrich. At this stage, psychology had its own major and a psychology lab was in use.  This final phase Southwestern offered a large variety of psychology courses, contrasting the humble beginnings of psychology at SU.

 The first available record of a Southwestern psychology class is from 1913. These summer classes, Philosophy I: Psychology and Education I: Educational Psychology, was offered by Dr. Frank Seay. Not only was Dr. Seay the first to offer a psychology course at Southwestern, he was also the only philosophy professor at the institution. Philosophy and psychology being taught by a professor of theology might sound strange, but religion has long influenced how we think about consciousness. In this regard, I challenge the notion that psychology begins at the turn of the 20th century. If one looks at the questions psychology is concerned with — inquiries into the way the mind works and how it is connected to the body — it’s apparent that humankind has concerned itself with these questions for a very long time. 

Psychology in a broader sense, is not a science at all. In fact, science is merely the chosen method of exploring psychological questions today. Before science took the stage as the main method, psychology was explored through philosophy and spirituality. Ancient Greek scholars discussed the nature of the mind as a philosophical endeavor, and many of the words we use in psychology are Greek words. Later, Christianity and Islam would develop their own ideas of psychology, which their scholars would study. In addition to psychology explored through philosophy or spirituality, there are schools of psychology, such as comparative mythology and Jungian, where myths are seen as psychologically significant. With this historical context, a psychology class taught by a theologian is quite normal. This is not to say that Dr. Seay would teach psychology solely according to Christian philosophy and text, but rather that these resources were valid forms of psychology at the time.

Seay’s time teaching psychology was short-lived. The same year Seay offered his first psychology course at Southwestern, behaviorist psychologist John Watson published his article, Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It. Behaviorism declared psychology as a science: Its movement and popularization came quickly, ushering out psychology based on philosophical inquiry and moving toward scientific empiricism. Keen notes that Watson’s biggest achievement was that by the 1930s, the majority of American psychologists were behaviorist. Dr. Seay would teach the philosophy department at Southwestern until 1916, when Dr. William Davidson would replace him. Davidson studied psychology for his doctorate at the University of Chicago and went to Southwestern to teach philosophy. There, he started as an assistant professor in philosophy and climbed his way up the ladder until he became head of the department of philosophy and psychology in 1923.

As an assistant professor of philosophy, Professor Davidson taught two purely psychology courses for philosophy credits. By 1921, serious talk of a psychology lab at Southwestern was in the works. Davidson and the philosophy students weren’t the only ones interested in a lab — education professor Dr. Oscar Ullrich and sociology, economics, and political science professor Dr. John Granberry also had interest and use for a psychology lab. Although this laboratory was highly desired (and perhaps even needed) for a department of psychology, it wouldn’t come to fruition for many years. Despite this, Davidson might have already been teaching a more scientific view of the mind, as he was trying to establish a psychology laboratory.

 By 1923, Davidson founded the department of philosophy and psychology. The new department offered two new psychology courses: Introduction to Psychology and Applied Psychology as well as a philosophy course covering radical political ideologies. It doesn’t seem like much had changed with the different departments, but it appears that philosophy and psychology might have been more connected. It’s unknown what these psychology courses taught and covered in classes, but we do know of one specific psychology book which Davidson reviewed (and perhaps used) in his classes.

Back in 1921, The Megaphone ran an article covering a faculty club meeting that included a lecture on “Indian Hero Tales.” At the beginning of the meeting, Davidson (who also led the faculty club) presented his scholarly review of John Watson's Psychology From the Standpoint of a Behaviorist, to which Dr. Ullrich and Dr. Granberry demonstrated their department's interest. This small article could indicate that Davidson would later go on to teach behaviorism in his psychology courses.

Behaviorism was gaining popularity, as most psychologists in the United States favored a scientific approach to their craft. Davidson was no different — he advocated for an exclusive space for psychology experiments and had read John Watson. A psychology lab would be necessary for the department of psychology to conduct experiments, yet psychology at Southwestern had not yet distanced itself from the subjective philosophy department. Nevertheless, this moment was a catalyst toward a more objective approach to teaching psychology at Southwestern: A vision that Davidson would begin but Dr. Ullrich would usher in.

In 1934, Dr. Ullrich, dean of faculty as well as the professor of education, took over the philosophy and psychology department.  The following year, professor Granberry became the professor of philosophy and education. Now, two professors who had wanted to create a psychology lab for so long could carry out the task. The psychology lab was built in 1937, and Ullrich even wrote a paper on building and equipping a psychology lab in a small liberal arts college. In 1938, Dr. Ullrich became head of the departments of education and psychology. This was the first instance of psychology being its own department at Southwestern. Now equipped with a full psychology department, Dr. Ullrich developed a menu of psychology classes and provided his students with the opportunity to visit psychology lectures in Austin.

From the time Southwestern offered its first psychology class, there was no mention of psychology classes offered for women. When Ullrich created the psychology department in 1937, however, there was an article in The Megaphone about a one-credit personality development class for girls instructed by Miss Bristol. This class was a prerequisite for Psychology 301 for the next semester. Miss Bristol, an instructor of psychology, was an interesting figure in Southwestern’s history. She would give public lectures (on topics such as personality and religion) during Sunday service at the local Methodist church. Her course allowed women to participate in the psychology department through studying behavior.

Now with an established psychology program, Southwestern offered many psychology classes to their majors. In the 1946 course catalog, offerings included General Psychology, Child Psychology, Psychology of Adolescence, General Psychology (for pre-med), Psychology of Adjustment, Differential Psychology, Statistics, Applied Psychology, Psychology of Measurement, Introduction to Experimental Psychology, Modern Problems of Psychology, Abnormal Psychology, History of Psychology, Social Psychology, Psychology of Public Opinion, Psychology of the Thought Process, Graduate Experimental Psychology and a Psychology Thesis Course. As you can see, there was no shortage of courses and themes to study. It’s fair to say that psychology gained much popularity due to the new lab and diverse course offerings.

With psychology classes at Southwestern,  teaching styles also grew with the novel developments of psychology in the United States. Seay instructed psychology with a philosophical and spiritual methodology and laid the groundwork for the future department. Once Davidson took over, psychology became a  joint department with philosophy. And due to his interest in Behaviorism, he spearheaded a more scientific approach to teaching psychology. In the third phase, Dr. Ullrich would take psychology to become its own department and major. Now, psychology classes might have emphasized scientific empiricism due to Southwestern’s dedicated laboratory. Ullrich would also offer psychology courses demonstrating a variety of methodologies beyond scientific empiricism. As Southwestern’s courses developed alongside novel changes in psychology, we can see how the knowledge of the masters — as well as the ambition and interests of Southwestern’s psychology professors — changed the way psychology was taught.

The History of Psychology At Southwestern University