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The Mental Scientist

What did the gods of Middle College think when our first psychologist arrived?

Published in Beloit Magazine/March 1991
By Lawrence T. White


     In the late summer of 1897 a young man stepped off the train in Beloit, eager to find the College and begin his career as a professor. Although his appointment was in the department of mental science and philosophy, Guy Allan Tawney was a psychologist - Beloit's first psychologist.

     Born in Ohio in 1870, Guy Tawney earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree at Princeton University. He then traveled to the University of Leipzig in Germany, where he studied with Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of modern psychology. Wundt trained the first generation of psychologists in Europe and America, infusing in each of them a belief that psychology was a science and that psychology eventually would be as precise and exact as physics or chemistry.

     After receiving his Ph.D. under Wundt in 1896, Tawney accepted an invitation from Beloit to succeed the recently deceased Professor James J. Blaisdell. Tawney initially lived in the Blaisdell home at 647 College St. (the recently renovated guest house at the corner of College and Chapin). His office was in Middle College, next door to Joseph Emerson (professor of Greek) and just down the hall from William Porter (professor of Latin), the Reverend Henry M. Whitney (professor of rhetoric and English literature), and Theodore Lyman Wright (professor of Greek literature and art). These gentlemen undoubtedly were a bit skeptical of their new colleague because he claimed to study mental processes scientifically -- a radical proposition at the turn of the century.

     Professor Tawney taught eight courses that year, including three psychology courses. According to the College's catalog, the introductory course, called simply "Psychology," considered "the elements of knowledge, feeling and the motor of consciousness." The second course, "Experimental Psychology," considered "the experimental study of attention, association, and the perception of time and space relations." The third "Genetic Psychology," considered "the laws and phenomena of mental growth in the child and in the race, with special reference to sociological and ethical problems, and to the theory of teaching."

     In 1899 Tawney was promoted to Squier Professor of Mental Science and Philosophy, the chair previously occupied by Professor Blaisdell, at an annual salary of $1,500. Such rapid advancement surely attests to Tawney's abilities. Indeed, in 1906, the Round Table reported that Tawney "has had many calls to university professorships but has refused them."

     In September 1900, Professor Tawney taught a new course called "Physiological and Abnormal Psychology." The catalog describes the course as "a study of the best known histology and physiology of the central nervous system, accompanied by the laboratory dissection of the sheep's brain . . . followed by a brief consideration of some forms of abnormal mentality such as hypnotism, aphasia, amnesia, illustrations of mania and some of the causes of dementia."

     Barney Thompson, '03, a student in the course, recalled that, while describing the physical stigmata of the abnormal, Tawney "warned his students not to heart too much the physical signs they might discover in the mirror. If they did, they'd find every indication that they too were abnormal." To this day, teachers of abnormal psychology warn their students about contracting the "disease of the day."

     In the College's 1905 catalog, the description of the physiology course mentions that "the College enjoys the use of considerable apparatus for psychological research." This statement refers to an experimental laboratory established in the fall of 1903. The College had received a grant of $350 from William Hale, a trustee, for equipment to be used "in experimental work in Psychology at Beloit."

     The laboratory was established in Pearsons Hall in the physics laboratory of Professor T. A. Smith, who was on leave in Europe. Although no record exists of the equipment purchased, a photograph and written descriptions suggest that the lab contained devices for presenting stimuli under controlled conditions and for measuring reaction time, blood pressure and heart rate.

     A writer for the Round Table reported: "The room was filled with new and strange-looking machines, marvelous in their delicacy and precision. . . . Every action is made replete with psychological significance. Not only are your bodily movements subject to mechanical observation, but your emotions as well. Think a thought, entertain an idea, receive a sensation, and you are a marked man in every sense of the word." Then, as now, the practice of psychology was imbued with an unwarranted sense of mystery and mastery.

     What little we know about the personal side of the man comes to us through the reminiscences of former students. One of Tawney's first students was Walter VanDyke Bingham, '01. Bingham was a leading industrial psychologist who, according to his wife, gained inspiration for his life's work while at Beloit. In his autobiography, Bingham recounts, "in psychology we had a brilliant young teacher, Guy Allen Tawney, who had earned his doctorate under Wundt with a dissertation on tactile discrimination of two points. He was equally at home in the history of philosophy from Thales to Herbert Spencer, a mind-stretching route that we traced with him throughout the senior year. He almost won our adherence to each philosophical system he described before taking up its successor."

     Barney Thompson described his former teacher as both brilliant and absent-minded. According to Thompson, Tawney once traveled to the University of Chicago, where he was scheduled to appear as the featured speaker at a special dinner. Tawney arrived in formal attire, a week early. On another occasion, Thompson asked his teacher to speak at a campus forum. "He smiled wryly and said he would be there, if he didn't forget the date. It was suggested that he put it down in his engagement book. He thought that wouldn't help much, for he was sure to forget where he had put the book."

     Tawney spent his summers at Princeton, assisting James Mark Baldwin in his preparation of The Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology. This three-volume tome, published in 1901, was hailed as "a notable event in the history of philosophical studies" by The Philosophical Review. Beloit was the only small college represented on the list of prominent contributors.

     Tawney was a popular member of the faculty. Thompson described him as "a delightful companion on the campus and stimulating in the classroom." In March 1904 the Round Table listed an unusual (and flattering) ad: "Wanted -- another Abnormal Psychology class, just like the last."

     In the spring of 1906, Tawney took a leave of absence from Beloit so that he might take charge of Columbia University's psychological laboratory. Tawney sent word to the Round Table that he was enjoying his new duties at Columbia and that "the bleak part of New York was not as black as he had anticipated." Tawney never returned to Beloit and officially resigned from the College in January 1907.


     Professor White is chair of the psychology department. Last year, his students constructed a history of psychology at Beloit College, and White's contribution was a biography of Professor Tawney. He credits archivist Frederick Burwell, '87, for his assistance.