Self-taught Psychologist and pioneer
Dr Ingeborg Lasser on the life and influence of Albert W. Wolters.
13 July 2021
Albert William Wolters (1883-1961) described himself as an adamant reader as well as a communicative and compassionate teacher, who deeply enjoyed debate. As Professor of Psychology, one of the first of his kind worldwide, his influence reached far beyond the University of Reading campus. Not shy to share his beliefs – for instance on the contents of course syllabi or on societal issues, especially when concerning the younger generation – his opinions and recommended practices have impacted the organisation of psychology departments to this day.
At the turn to the 20th century, 14-year-old schoolboy Albert Wolters began teaching the ‘slightly younger’ during the afternoon whilst himself still being taught in the mornings. Exposed to Latin, French, algebra, elementary mechanics, physics and chemistry (the last of which he claims to have loathed), Wolters also read up on history, literature, philosophy and ethics, both on his own and together with friends and mentors inside and outside of the academic world. The scientific methods of Biology interested him greatly, but the subject wasn’t enough about ‘men and their problems’ for Wolters. ‘I was groping unsteadily towards psychology, and no-one around me had ever heard of it,’ he writes in his 10-page autobiographic piece (Wolters, 1948; all self-descriptions and quotes are taken from this, unless otherwise noted). The first part of his text illuminates the life of a young man hungry for knowledge, in search of a career that is both fulfilling and serving society at the same time.
‘A very foul attic’
At University College Reading, Wolters was to meet W.M. Childs, the founder-to-be of Reading University, and W.G. de Burgh, whom he called his greatest teacher. The long-lasting friendship with Childs he deemed the greatest single influence on his life. Wolters’ first presidency is that of the Student Union which he founded at the college. On leaving the college, Wolters returned to London to teach in the precarious neighborhood of Goswell Road, where he managed to become accepted among the rowdy groups of young males by first bonding with the ten ‘ring leaders’ in a class of 70 pupils, a typical size for a class at the time.
In 1908, Wolters was called back to Reading to help with the training of teachers in the Philosophy department, in which the subject of Psychology was embedded. For years he lectured on Leibnitz and the English philosophers, on Comparative Ethics and Social Institutions. Wolters called himself ‘an entirely self-taught psychologist, and probably the last of that kind’. While ‘not being at all visual minded’, Wolters was interested in the research topic of vision. He found that psychological teaching needs to be backed by experimental work, so he hand-built a tachistoscope and requested space for carrying out experimental psychology. Before computers, tachistoscopes were used extensively in psychological research to present visual stimuli for controlled durations.
In 1910, Wolters received ‘a very foul attic’, £ 25 for initial expenses (likely the equivalent of about £ 2,500 in today’s currency), and an annual grant of £10 (worth £ 1000 today). The lab was under construction for a long time and not actually used until January 1942, but it was considered the first laboratory outside Cambridge to be specially designed and constructed for the purpose (cf. Vernon 1961).
Magdalen Vernon, founder of the Experimental Psychological society, international expert on visual perception, and a lecturer and professor at Reading University alongside Wolters from 1946 onwards, ascribes the foundation of the department of Psychology at the University of Reading in 1921 entirely to his work. Ironically, Wolters himself states that when psychology became an independent department he served as head, staff and attendant all in one. But when the university received the power to grant its own degrees in 1926 (by royal charter from King George V), he did not delay in creating an Honours Degree in Psychology in the same year, which shows how he was able to combine vision and enthusiasm into action when the time was ripe.
Wolters demonstrated foresight yet again when he offered service to the government ‘in the case of emergency’ in 1938. Wolters deplored in his autobiography that it wasn’t until the war was fully on in 1942 that psychologists were actually called on by the government, and not necessarily the correct lot in his opinion. In the obituary published by the British Psychological Society Alec Rodger writes that ‘In the Second World War [Wolters] and Sir Frederic Bartlett were the two "outside" representatives of psychology on the War Cabinet Expert Committee on the Work of Psychologists and Psychiatrists in the Services. This formidable-sounding body was set up because Churchill and Bevin were terrified that the war was going to be lost through personnel selection and psycho-analysis.’
Wolters remained on the committee, even though he felt continual misunderstanding and friction, and was disappointed about missed opportunities. The report from the committee (‘Report of an Expert Committee on the Work of Psychologists and Psychiatrists in the Services’, HSMO 1947), was deemed flat and colourless by Wolters; but one positive end result was ‘that the case for psychological selection was now established.’
Indebted to the BPS
Wolters joined the British Psychological Society in November 1914 and remained a member of the Council for 19 years, then served as its Deputy President from 1936 until 1938 and its President from 1939 until 1941. He became an honorary fellow in 1955. Wolters embraced his involvement with the BPS with deep gratitude, stating that as a self-taught psychologist, the society saved him from being a self-made one as well. During his term he took on the task of incorporating the society, partially by falling back on relevant experiences that he had gained while helping to establish the new university in Reading.
With all the time-consuming committee duties, the strategic thinking and representation activities at the University of Reading, the British Psychological Society, and in the borough of Reading, Wolters didn’t get out of touch with the youngest on campus: ‘[…] Of all psychologists, made or in the making, I have liked my students best. Had the rest of my environment been as dim as it has been sunny, they would have made my life happy.’ When confronted with an outbreak of panic before the first Honours degree final examinations, Wolters resorted to a rather unusual remedy: He had the laboratory decorated with roses, which remained an unbroken tradition at least until 1960.
The trail left at the University of Reading
At Reading, Wolters left marks that are clearly visible today. Early on he started and continued to develop a collection of books on anthropology, something he was proud of and hoped to be remembered for, if for nothing else. He started a Child Guidance Clinic and the Mental Health Service was put under the auspices of his department. Today at the University of Reading’s School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, the AnDY Clinic offers assessments, treatment and research to children and young people suffering with anxiety and/or depression.
In 1943 Wolters was made Professor of Psychology and in 1947 Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading. After 40 years as a lecturer and professor in psychology, he saw the ‘next phase as one of team-work with other disciplines’. He would be happy to see how that vision has materialised at Reading today. One wonders in which of the different strands of Psychology he would place himself… would he be working with state-of-the-art imaging technologies like electro-encephalography, eye trackers or the 3-Tesla magnetic-resonance scanner?
The School of Psychology has been remembering and celebrating Albert Wolters with the establishment of the Visiting Distinguished Professorship named after him. This prestigious honorary title is awarded annually to an internationally distinguished scholar in recognition of their world-class contribution to psychology, language sciences or neuroscience. Holders of the Wolters professorship to date are Ellen Bialystok, Noam Chomsky, Dan Dennett, Elisabeth Loftus and Steven Pinker, and Alison Gopnik.
In a 1950 contribution to the Higher Education Quarterly, Wolters states, with relief, ‘at last, then, psychology has been accepted as a full member of the university team’. He also describes how both philosophers and scientists viewed experimental psychology with great skepticism at the time. He flags, with some concern, that psychology tends to mean ‘applied psychology’ – applied to industry, education, medicine and the Services. Instead he endorses the fruitful and necessary coexistence of ‘applied psychology’ and ‘pure (theoretical) psychology’ alongside each other. It is clear from the existing reports that Wolters played a formative role in establishing experimental psychology at Reading and beyond, and he has contributed to positioning psychology at the interface of natural sciences and the humanities, the term ‘social science’ not yet having been invented.
For me, Albert W. Wolters was without question a progressive thinker – for what he did for psychology (experiments, theorising about the subject, a syllabus) and what becomes apparent in his general views about using psychology to help children and the military. He explored new things which we take for granted today. He had an interdisciplinary mindset, and his writings suggest that he was sensitive to diversity issues of all sorts, in an age when women’s rights and children’s rights were not yet in place, education methods were often cruel, and discourse between pure and applied sciences didn’t exist.
He also clearly knew something about motivation, as he ‘was firmly against all compulsory subjects’. He held that ‘real dispute can only arise when there is a considerable amount of agreement and taking for granted’. In his view, Psychologists should ‘remain true scientists whether they are engaged in pure research or in application, and […] they should not be provoked in giving premature answers to any and every question the world may address to them […].’ Albert Wolters knew that progress moves at a snail’s pace but that with perseverance and patience, things will move in a good direction from time to time.
- Ingeborg Lasser was a member of staff in the department of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading from 2016 to 2020. She is now Coordinator for Core Facilities at the Berlin University Alliance, Germany. [email protected]
Davis, Roy (1992). In Mermoriam of Magdalen Vernon (1902-1991). The Psychologist. February 1992, 85.
HSMO – His Majesty’s Stationary Office (1947). Report of the Expert Committee on the Work of Psychologists and Psychiatrists in the Services. Digital version available via sign-in to OpenAthens | Shibboleth and from https://dspace.gipe.ac.in/xmlui/handle/10973/36912. Accessed 4 July 2021.
Measuringworth (2021). A non-profit service for calculating relative worth over time. Accessed 4 July 2021.
Rodger, A. (1961). Obituary: Albert William Phillips Wolters. Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, September, p.39-40.
Vernon, Magdalen (1961). Obituary Notice. Albert William Wolters 1983-1961. British Journal of Psychology 52.4, 309-310.
Wolters, Albert W. P. (1933). The Evidence of our Senses. London: Methuen.
Wolters, Albert W. P. (1948). An Autobiography. Occupational Psychology, 22, 180-189.
Wolters, Albert W. P. (1950). Psychology in the University. Higher Education Quarterly Volume Issue 4.2, 131-136.
Wikipedia contributors. Margaret Dorothea Vernon. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 31 October 2020, 16:59 UTC. Accessed July 4, 2021.
Wikipedia contributors. Tachistoscope. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 8 July 2020, 03:02 UTC. Accessed 4 July 2021.