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A Hundred Years Ago: A temporary appointment that determined the future of the Cambridge Psychological Laboratory

last modified Nov 21, 2014 11:35 AM

By November 1914, the University had recognised that the war was unlikely to be over by Christmas, and on the 21st the Senate passed the following Grace: 'That, on the recommendation of the Special Board for Moral Science, F. C. BARTLETT, M.A. (London) of St. John's College, Assistant in Experimental Psychology, be appointed to act, if necessary up to 30 September 1915, as interim Director of the Psychological Laboratory during the absence, on service connected with the war, of Dr. MYERS, Director of the Laboratory'. Bartlett was twenty-eight years old and only very lightly qualified for his new role. Indeed, the slenderness of his formal qualifications was remarkable.

Beset by ill health and uncertain of what he should do in life, he had remained at his parents' home in the Cotswolds during his early twenties. He took by correspondence an External Degree in Philosophy at London University, securing a First in his finals. The 'University Correspondence College', which had prepared him for the London examinations, was based in Cambridge; and Bartlett must have impressed its Principal, who in 1909 offered Bartlett a post as "Tutor in all philosophical subjects". In Cambridge, Bartlett made many friends and in Michaelmas Term 1912 he entered St John's College as an undergraduate, reading Moral Science under the direction of W. H. R. Rivers. In his first year, on the advice of Rivers, he did not attend the course in elementary psychology given by C. S. Myers but he did attend – as the solitary student – the lectures on 'Advanced Psychology' given by Dawes Hicks, lectures delivered to him in a large room in a loud voice. In his second year, Bartlett took, and enjoyed, the practical course in experimental psychology largely run by Myers' Assistant, Cyril Burt. He did get a little bored by psychophysical experiments on hefted weights, but by the end of the year was more drawn to the experimental than to the theoretical approach.

The young Bartlett was well regarded by the senior psychologists in Cambridge. After his Tripos Examination in 1914, he learnt from Rivers that Burt was leaving Cambridge and that Myers would probably offer Bartlett the vacant post of Assistant. This came about. So Bartlett became a professional experimental psychologist having by his own account 'attended one elementary practical course, listened to a few lectures on psychology, most of them highly theoretical, and read most of the classical general books on the subject'. He had expected to have plenty of guidance from Myers. But then came the War, and Myers left for France in October. Bartlett himself was rejected for Military Service on account of heart problems. And now in November 1914 his future – and the future of Cambridge Psychology – were determined. Bartlett retired as Professor of Experimental Psychology in 1952.

J. D. Mollon