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Psychological & Brain Sciences Department History

Our History

Since 1924, many thousands of persons have come into contact with the department. The majority of them have been undergraduates at Washington University who have majored in psychology or taken one or more classes. Over 1100 others have been graduate students, whose careers and lives have been shaped by their experiences while in the department’s charge. About 140 others have been psychologists appointed to our faculty, many of whom spent a good portion, if not all, of their academic careers engaged in research, teaching, and service at Washington University.

Two themes are notable in this history. First is that Psychology has become a major enterprise among the academic departments at Washington University. This shows in the fact that psychology continues to be one of the most popular majors in Arts & Sciences. The second notable fact is that the department has developed and maintained a particular research ethos over the past 80 years that comes from an overarching commitment to the scientific method. This shows up in the research accomplishments of faculty and graduate students and the shared vision about how scientific progress is achieved in psychology. Even the clinical program is closely integrated with the rest of the department and shares its focus on scientific research.

Historical Milestones

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Department of Psychology is formed

During the 1924-25 academic year, Edgar James Swift petitioned Chancellor Herbert S. Hadley to split the Department of Psychology and Education into two departments. The Department of Education would connect to the local school systems and focus on training teachers, and the Department of Psychology would focus on basic laboratory research and graduate education. The chancellor agreed, and Swift chose to continue as first chair of the Department of Psychology, a position he held until he retired in 1931.

First Female PhD Student Graduates & First Female Faculty Hired

Winifred Magdsick was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in psychology from Washington University and, upon her appointment as instructor in 1934, became the first female faculty member in the Department of Psychology. Instruction in child psychology, the psychology of adolescence, and in psychological test and measurements became a standard part of the department’s curriculum with her hiring.

Psychology Moves to Eads Hall

In 1934, when the department moved to Eads Hall, there was a major increase in physical facilities allocated to research in the area of general experimental, physiological, animal work, human testing, and rooms for student and staff research including a relatively large sound-proof laboratory.

Clinical Training Program Receives Full Accreditation

The department's clinical training program was part of the first group of programs ever accredited for this purpose by the American Psychological Association. The designation ensured that the Veterans Administration and the US Public Health Serives would support the program.

Department Develops First Psychology of Aging PhD Program

In 1958, WashU's psychology department became the first in the country to develop a PhD program in the psychology of aging. Postdoctoral trainees were added in 1969. This grant is still going, and is the longest running training grant supported by National Institute of Aging.

First African-American Faculty Hired

Robert Williams was the first African American to receive a PhD in psychology from WashU in 1961, and he returned to join the faculty as a professor of psychology and black studies in 1970. Williams specialized in African-American psychology, cultural bias in testing, cultural diversity, race relations, black language, and program evaluation. He served as the president of the Association of Black Psychologists and oversaw WashU's Minority Mental Health Program from 1974-1986.

Psychology Moves to Psychology Building

Planning began in the early 1990s, and construction began in 1993 on a new $28 million, 104,000-square-foot building, which was completed in 1995. It went up quickly and along with the building came a major commitment from the administration to improve and upgrade the Psychology Department as a whole.

Department Receives Federal Training Grant for Cognitive, Computational, and Systems Neuroscience

The Cognitive, Computational, and Systems Neuroscience (CCSN) Program is a specialized curriculum available to graduate students in psychology, neuroscience, or neural engineering. It is supported by a prestigious grant from the National Science Foundation, which will help it expand and train the next generation of neuroscience

Department Establishes Training at Interface of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Genetics

A new PhD training program, Interface of Psychology, Neuroscience and Genetics, was funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the first of its kind to a Psychology Department. The goal of this proposed training program is to develop basic behavioral scientists with rigorous broad-based training in two biomedical sciences - neuroscience and genetics. This grant ended in 2018.

Department Changes Name to Psychological & Brain Sciences

In August 2015, the department officially changed its name from Department of Psychology to Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences to better capture both the epistemological approach and the breadth and nature of work being done by faculty and students.

Psychology Building Changes Name to Somers Family Hall

The new name is in honor of WashU alumni and longtime supporters Nick and Barrie Somers.