Ballantyne, P.F. (1999). Walter B. Pillsbury. American National Biography. Vol. 17, pp. 524-525. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pillsbury, Walter Bowers (21 July 1872-3 June 1960) psychologist, was born in Burlington, Iowa, the eldest son of William Henry Harrison a Methodist minister, and Eliza Crabtree Bowers. His initial contact with psychology was through a book in his father's library (William Carpenter's Principles of Mental Physiology [1874]). The various editions that this book underwent reflect the transition then happening between an older commonsense mental philosophy tradition and the "new" application of physiological measurement to psychological subject matter. Pillsbury's early career would be largely concerned with this transition.

After attending Pen College in Oskaloosa, Nebraska, from 1888 to 1890, Pillsbury received a B.A. from the University of Nebraska in 1892. At Nebraska he was taught introspective laboratory methods by H. K. Wolfe, formerly one of Wundt's assistants in the world's first laboratory, in Leipzig, Germany. At this time the teaching of psychology classes in the United States was done predominantly by moral philosophers, but Wolfe was confident that the new (experimental) psychology would prosper and urged young Pillsbury to accept a graduate scholarship to Cornell University where a fellow former student of Wundt, Edward B. Titchener, was currently the chair.

Pillsbury received his doctorate from Cornell in 1896. His thesis topic was selected after misreading the handwritten word "MAIL" on a local postbox, which he mistook as a street address. Under Titchener's supervision, this commonplace observation was transformed into Pillsbury's doctoral research: "The Reading of Words; a Study of Apperception." Fellow graduate student "observers" were exposed to various slightly modified words projected for one-fifth of a second onto a ground-glass screen. Pillsbury's great faith in the generalizability of this experiment to most "mental processes in reading" is indicative of his subsequent career as a successful, thought uncritical and politically conservative, popularizer of orthodox psychological doctrine.

After a postdoctoral year at Cornell, Pillsbury accepted an instructorship at the University Michigan and began reorganizing the laboratory founded by physiologist J. H. Tufts (c.1890). He remained active in the laboratory only until 1912. Thereafter it was overseen in all but name by Pillsbury's junior colleague John F. Shepard [Pillsbury's first doctoral student]. Pillsbury continued teaching graduate-level history of psychology but his ongoing career energies turned toward textbook writing and editorships on several journals, including the American Journal of Psychology (1897-1959), the Psychological Review (1910-1929), and the Journal of Social Psychology (from its founding in 1930 to his death). He married Margaret May Milbank in 1905; they had two children.

Pillsbury's lasting impact on psychology has been in the way mainstream psychology continues to define its subject matter. Before Pillsbury, psychology was defined as either the science of conscious processes (Wundt, Principles of Physiological Psychology [1873]), or of conscious mental life (William James, Principles of Psychology [1890]). Pillsbury's Essentials of Psychology (1911) was first to defined psychology as the "study of behavior" (p. 1). In 1913, the young John B. Watson attempted to use this new definition to bolster his own call for a "behaviorist" system of psychology. Watson argued that behaviorism might utilize both physiological measurement and behavioral description in order to "objectify" the older so-called Wundtian and functional systems of psychology. Pillsbury's Fundamentals of Psychology (1916), however, openly rejected behaviorism as too limiting. "Certain...questions which interest the psychologist concern mental states, and these have been answered by the older [introspective] methods" (p. 6). This more inclusive definition (i.e., individual mental states plus observable behavior) echoed the position of most other contemporary American psychologists and continues to dominate today under the modernized labels of "cognition" and behavior.

During World War I, Pillsbury who was both over fourty and who had been subject to petit mal seizures throughout his life, remained at Michigan to assume extra teaching duties during the absence of his younger colleagues. During this period, he co-edited a commemorative anthology in honor of Titchener, Studies in Psychology (1917), and authored The Psychology of Nationality and Internationalism (1919). In the latter book, Pillsbury suggested that an individual's assumed nationality has more to do with their particular psychological and sociological background than with their actual family descent. This issue held personal significance for Pillsbury because Wolfe and others at Nebraska had recently been subjected to loyalty trials for alleged German sympathies. Pillsbury adopts the "new unit" of internationalism to describe the motives of American citizens who do aid or join internally localized wars in their family's homeland. He also supported the popular, but conservative, call for the establishment of a League of Nations as a "curb upon [such unlawful] international action" (p. 302).

This personal brush with political prejudice did not change Pillsbury's official scientific stance on race and mental degeneracy. His Education as the Psychologist Sees It (1920), for instance, was part of a successful nationwide postwar marketing campaign advocating the use of new group "mental testing" techniques in American schools. Here, Pillsbury uncritically combined past eugenic twin-studies with the new "Army Alpha and Beta" intelligence testing data. Surprisingly, his personal conclusion after thirty-three years of teaching is "that one can never produce intelligence by education, that one must begin much farther back in actually insuring the birth of intelligent people" (p. 46). [p. 525] At this time, however, Pillsbury was just one of many psychologists who accepted such notions (e.g., R. M. Yerkes, Psychological Examination in the United States Army [1921]; W. S. Hunter, General Psychology [1919]; R. S. Woodworth, Psychology [1921]).

By 1925, Pillsbury was elected into the prestigious National Academy of Science. He also assumed the chairmanship of the psychology department when it split from philosophy in 1929. His Elementary Psychology of the Abnormal (1932) was an account of neurological and so-called hereditary intellectual maladies. While "explaining" the familial and societal dangers of feeble-mindedness, Pillsbury includes an unsupported claim for "fewer cases of nervous and mental diseases among the relatives of epileptics than among the relatives of normal individuals" (p. 309). Ironically, having inoculated his own family members against guilt by association, Pillsbury's previous views regarding the hereditary origins and proper societal station of "true degenerates" (including so-called high-functioning "morons") remained unrepealed.

The minority of opposing raised against such hereditarian views (especially from black churchmen and academics such as Gordon Allport) were not lent much disciplinary weight until the systematic extermination of "undesirable" civilians in Nazi-occupied Europe became public knowledge. Pillsbury's final work, A Handbook of General Psychology (with his last doctoral student L. A. Pennington, 1942), which came out before these revelations, was a brief account of mainstream psychology that compares unfavorably with Woodworth's Psychology on the issue of heredity and environment. Pillsbury's total scholarly output amounts to at least sixty-nine articles and eleven books. His sixty-three years of service on the editorial board of American Journal of Psychology, twenty years on Psychological Review, and a thirty-year associate editorship of the Journal of Social Psychology indicate the length of his influence on the shape of modern psychology. Pillsbury's stature in the discipline enabled him to retain his chairmanship and title, director of the Psychological Laboratory, until his retirement in 1942 at age seventy-two. By then, however, Pillsbury's psychology was outdated and his departmental faculty highly inbred. Pillsbury's role in blocking the permanent appointment of German émigré and progressively-minded developmental psychologist Heinz Werner to the Michigan faculty is just one example of this fact.


Pillsbury's papers are in the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. A list of his articles before 1932, is in Carl Murchison The Psychological Register, vol. 3 (1932), pp. 381-82. An autobiographical chapter is in Murchison ed., History of psychology in Autobiography , vol. 2, (1932), pp. 265-95. An obituary, by fellow Titchener student Karl Dallenbach in American Journal of Psychology, 74, (1961, 165-171) does not mention Pillsbury's eugenics nor question his conservative view of experimental method. Erwin Esper's article in Murchison, ed., Handbook of Social Psychology (1935), pp. 417-23, however, portrays Pillsbury as one barrier to change. Alfred C. Raphelson provides an evaluative assessment of Pillsbury's administrative career at Michigan in "Psychology at Michigan: The Pillsbury Years, 1897-1947," Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 16 (1980): 301-12. Ludy Benjamin, Harry Kirke Wolfe (1991), portrays the conservative academic climate at Nebraska. Dale Dagenbach and Thomas Carr, eds., Inhibitory Processes in Attention, Memory, and Language (1994), shows that Pillsbury's approach to "attention" has been reinvented by largely ahistorical experimental psychologists.

Paul F. Ballantyne,

York University

Paul F. Ballantyne, Ph.D.