History and philosophy

Looking Back: Walter Miles and his grand tour

C. James Goodwin recounts the 1920 visit of an American psychologist to Great Britain

18 August 2012

‘I was impressed that there are many things, both great and small, that the Americans can learn with profit from the Europeans.’ This is not a sentiment that most Europeans expect to hear from most Americans these days, but it was the final sentence of a long report (nearly 300 pages) written by an American experimental psychologist, Walter Miles, in 1920. The report detailed the events of a frenetic tour of no fewer than 57 laboratories and institutes of physiology and psychology in Great Britain and continental Europe, completed by Miles in the spring and summer of that year. So who was Walter Miles, why did he undertake this anything but leisurely trip, and what did he learn on his grand tour?

Walter Miles (1885–1978) had a long and distinguished career. He made important contributions in a number of different research areas – his interests ranged from maze learning in rats, to cognitive ageing in humans, to the psychological and physiological effects of alcohol. He was especially adept as the inventor of research apparatus (Goodwin, 2003). His career included 10 years at Stanford (1922–1932) and a 20-year stay at Yale (1932–1952). In 1920, the year of his European trip, he was nearing the end of an eight-year stint as a researcher at the Carnegie Nutrition Laboratory in Boston. Miles was a prototypical psychological scientist, happiest when fully immersed in the day-to-day life of the laboratory.

A colleague wrote that he was ‘one of the few psychologists who started out as an experimentalist and continued his interest in scientific problems all during his career, stopping neither to become a philosopher or a stamp collector or a huckster of psychological wares’ (Helson, 1953).

After finishing his doctorate at Iowa in 1913 (directed by Carl Seashore), Miles spent a year as a visiting professor at Wesleyan College in Connecticut before being lured to Boston by Francis Benedict, director of the Carnegie Nutrition Laboratory. It had been founded in 1908, to conduct basic research into the physiology of nutrition. Benedict quickly came to value the skills he saw in Miles, and Miles soon became Benedict’s chief researcher among the 25 scientists and support staff working there by 1915.

One of Benedict’s firm beliefs was that the experimental study of physiology was an international endeavour and, in that spirit, he and others at Carnegie made regular visits to Europe, visiting colleagues and their laboratories. Benedict believed that it was not sufficient just to read about research occurring elsewhere – it was necessary to examine the operation firsthand. As Miles said in his report: ‘Only such occasions allow for the extended discussion of problems of mutual interest with apparatus and results at hand for observation and demonstration [and] one discovers a good many useful details of laboratory equipment and management never shown in any way in publications’ (this, and all quotes henceforth, from Goodwin & Royer, 2010).

These Carnegie visits to foreign laboratories ended abruptly in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I. By the spring of 1920, the war had been over for about 18 months; for Benedict, it was time to return to Europe, reconnect with colleagues, and determine the state of physiological science in the immediate post-war era. Benedict asked his best scientist, Miles, to make the trip. Although the pre-war tours dealt exclusively with physiology laboratories (even three trips by Benedict to Pavlov’s laboratory were considered visits to physiology labs), the Miles schedule was different. As an experimental psychologist, Miles wished to include psychology laboratories on his itinerary, in addition to the stops at physiology labs. So, while most of his report concerns the state of experimental physiology in Europe during the immediate post-war era, Miles also included fascinating accounts of his visits to psychologists. In continental Europe, he toured psychology laboratories in Groningen, Copenhagen and Leipzig. In Great Britain, he dropped in on psychologists in London, Cambridge, Oxford, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, and he gave a paper on his latest apparatus creations at a meeting of the British Psychological Society.

So what did Miles learn on his grand tour? First, it was clear that the war had a profound effect on the scientists he encountered. In Britain, for instance, researchers at several universities reported that their lab space was being converted to teaching space because large numbers of former students, whose education had been interrupted by the war, were now returning. In continental Europe, Miles quickly learned that animosity remained strong among former colleagues. French physiologists, for instance, refused to have anything to do with German physiologists, and the feeling was mutual. Miles attended an ‘international’ conference of physiology in Paris in July, but German and Austrian scientists were not invited. Knowing they were to be left out, German physiologists had held their own conference in June. When Miles asked two German physiologists how they felt about the future of truly international cooperation, this was the reply: ‘With the Americans, of course, we can meet and (there was a little hesitation) also with the English, but with the French, never!’ (p.164). In Belgium, which had been overrun and occupied early in the war, Miles reported that laboratories were just beginning to resume operations and that bitterness toward German scientists remained high – one Belgian physiologist ‘seemed to feel that the German scientific men during the war carried on such… propaganda of absolute misrepresentation with the objective of breaking the moral [sic] of the Belgian people that he never again could really believe statements made by these scientists’ (p.170).

The war also shaped the nature of the research conducted during the war years. In both physiology and psychology labs, Miles learned of a number of research efforts designed to aid the war effort.
For example, at University College in London, Charles Spearman studied depth perception as it would affect pilot training, and he developed an apparatus to measure ‘gun pointing ability’ (p.19); visual perception and camouflage was a topic at the meeting of the British Psychological Society; at Guy’s Hospital Medical School in London, Marcus Pembrey examined soldiers’ stamina under varying conditions; at Oxford, H.C. Bazett studied ‘the cardio-vascular reactions of pilots’ (p.111) and Georges Dreyer developed an apparatus to deliver measured amounts of oxygen to pilots flying at different altitudes; in Paris, Lucien Bull (Marey Institute) used reaction time and auditory localisation procedures to identify artillery positions, and Louis Lapique (Sorbonne) conducted war-related nutrition research.

Miles was impressed by the strength of the anti-vivisection movement in England. During a visit to the physiology laboratory of W.M. Bayliss at University College London, he met Sir George Thane, who was the general supervisor and inspector for the Anti-vivisection Act. Thane described the strict procedures required to gain approval for animal research and reported to Miles that it was ‘particularly difficult to get a permit to use dogs in such an arrangement as employed by Pavlov’ (p.12). Bayliss had been trying to get a permit for G.V. Anrep, a former student and assistant to Pavlov, then at University College. Upon meeting Anrep, Miles learned of the difficult post-war conditions Pavlov was facing – at one point in early 1918, Pavlov was not well (slowly healing broken leg), research was ‘practically at a standstill’ (p.13), and the dogs were dying ‘for lack of food’ (p.13).

Miles formed distinctly different impressions of Spearman and Pearson. Despite his busy schedule, Spearman (‘a very charming fellow’ – p.16) welcomed Miles into his lab on three occasions, where they had long discussions about research and, especially, apparatus (e.g. for investigating the psycho-galvanic reflex). The experience for Miles was quite different with Pearson. Miles thought he had made arrangements to visit Pearson at the Galton Eugenics Lab, but Pearson had unyielding rules about visits; when Miles showed up, he was not allowed in! Later, Pearson wrote a detailed explanation – no visitors allowed unless Pearson received a written letter beforehand that included a convincing argument ‘that the object of the visit will repay the loss of time involved’ (p.23), and a written introduction from someone known by Pearson. Ever the diplomat, Miles wrote in his report that he was sure ‘professor Pearson’s rule saved him much time and is partly accountable for the great volume of his publications’ (p.22).

At the University of Edinburgh’s psychology laboratory, Miles met the eminent Scottish psychologist James Drever. Miles was impressed with the laboratory, ‘the best equipped of any that I saw in England [sic], I mean so far as quantity of nice equipment is concerned. It seemed to have everything that Spindler and Hoyer have made’ (p.80). The laboratory had been funded generously by the famous Scottish phrenologist George Combe.

At the University of Glasgow, Miles met with H.J. Watt, a Scottish psychologist who had studied briefly with Wundt at Leipzig and then earned his doctorate with Külpe at Würzburg. Watt had fond memories of Külpe, but the Leipzig experience had not been good – he thought it ‘absolutely suicidal for an outside student to debate the point of view of the man in charge…[but he found that] Professor Külpe was of a very different kind and gave his students much freedom’ (p.85).
At Cambridge, Miles met Sir Frederick Bartlett and was impressed with the laboratory, although ‘they have not as large an amount of stock pieces as I found in…Edinburgh’ (p.96). Bartlett, Miles reported, was working on an ‘anthropological problem involving the accuracy of report and quotations. He…was tracing the history of certain legends and stories as handed from tribe and people to another noting the changes which were made as the story was passed on’ (p.97). Perhaps because this research was qualitative in nature and did not involve apparatus, Miles gave it little mention. But this, of course, was the constructive memory research (e.g. ‘War of the Ghosts’) that would make Bartlett famous when he published it 12 years later (Bartlett, 1932).

At Oxford, Miles toured Charles Sherrington’s physiology lab and met briefly with William McDougall. Sherrington at the time shared a research interest with Miles – the effects of alcohol. Miles seemed awestruck by the legendary scientist, flattered that he knew about Miles’s research – ‘One cannot help but be impressed with the genuineness and kind eagerness of Sherrington. He is the very antithesis of self-assertion and so ready to point out things of interest in your own work than discussing the importance of his own’ (p.109). The bulk of a brief meeting with McDougall concerned (a) questions posed to Miles about living in the United States – McDougall was just a few months away from the start of his new life as professor of psychology at Harvard; and (b) McDougall extolling the virtues of imbibing moderate amounts of alcohol, which ‘relieved tension and enabled the individual to proceed with his work with much greater comfort’ (p.125). Miles didn’t report whether McDougall knew that Prohibition had just begun in the United States.

This is just a small sampling of the observations made by Miles during his grand tour of Great Britain and Europe. Although the Miles report has a great deal of technical detail, especially concerning apparatus, it is mainly a story about scientists passionately dedicated to their work, focused on restarting their professional lives, and determined to return to some semblance of normalcy following the catastrophic events of the just concluded war.

C. James Goodwin is Professor Emeritus at Western Carolina University
[email protected]


Bartlett, F.C. (1932). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Goodwin, C.J. (2003). An insider’s look at experimental psychology in America: The diaries of Walter Miles. In D. B. Baker (Ed.) Thick description and fine texture: Archival research in the history of psychology (pp.57–75).  Akron, OH: University of Akron Press.
Goodwin, C.J. & Royer, L. (Eds.) (2010). Walter Miles and his 1920 grand tour of European physiology and psychology laboratories. Akron, OH: University of Akron Press.
Helson, H. (1953, 3 March). Letter to Neal Miller. Walter R. Miles papers, Box 1199.3, Folders 2 & 3, H (‘General Correspondence 1929–37’). Archives of the History of American Psychology, University of Akron, Akron, OH.