Lightner Witmer

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Lightner Witmer (June 28, 1867 – July 19, 1956) was an American psychologist who is credited with the introduction of the term and the founding of "Clinical Psychology." Witmer also founded the world's first "Psychological Clinic" in the United States at the University of Pennsylvania in 1896, as well as the first journal of clinic psychology and first clinical hospital school in 1907.

Witmer contributed greatly to numerous branches of psychology including school psychology and clinical psychology. He also contributed to the development of the field of special education. However, despite all of his contributions to psychology Witmer is one of the least well-known figures in the entire discipline.

Little is known about Witmer's life. He is described as being an introverted person who limited the information he shared about his personal life.

Witmer's early years and family[edit]

Lightner Witmer was born in Philadelphia on June 28, 1867. He was born David L. Witmer Jr. but at the age of 50, he changed his name to Lightner. Witmer was born to a devout Catholic mother and father, David Lightner was a Germantown pharmacist who graduated from a Philadelphia College in 1862, and Katherine Huchel, about whom little is known. Lightner Witmer was the eldest of four children, being followed by Albert Ferree, Lilly Evelyn (the third, only girl), and the last child named Paul DeLancey. Later in life, Lightner Witmer was a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania. His siblings also did well for themselves, Ferree his brother obtained his physiology doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, his sister Lilly Evelyn received her bacteriology medical degree in Berlin, and the youngest sibling obtained a doctoral degree in Pharmacy.[1] By the end of 1905, Lightner Witmer and all his siblings had become doctors in a range of science careers. There is no doubt that their father influenced his children, he instilled in them a value of higher education, and the drive to continue on to obtain doctorates..


Lightner Witmer was born two years after the Civil War had ended. As a young man, Witmer wanted a better future and a better world after the social problems he saw as a result of the Civil War. Perhaps, this experience influenced his decision to develop a theory of applied psychology which focused on helping people, mainly children and those who most needed it. In 1880, Lightner Witmer and his brother Ferree enrolled the prestigious Prep School “Episcopal Academy of Philadelphia”, one of the best schools in America at the time. Witmer and all his siblings attended only top and outstanding private schools. An interesting anecdote where Witmer showed his intelligence and ability to reason was when he was attending his Prep School. Here, Witmer and two other boys were told to build a canoe. Each one had everything they needed to complete their assigned task, the two other kids were arguing over who would build the canoe first, but Lightner Witmer thought and told the other kids, "I wish to finish last as I will learn from others' mistakes and build the best canoe."[2] By saying this, Witmer showed his ability to reason, and eventually he graduated with high honors at the age of seventeen years.

First years at the University of Pennsylvania[edit]

In 1884, Witmer enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania to study Art, but then after a couple of years studying, he decided to change his Art major, and transferred to The Finance and Economy department where he obtained a BA degree at the age of twenty years.[2] During his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, he was chosen as the president of the class and earned a reputation as an outstanding student. He obtained his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Pennsylvania in 1888. After a stint as a teacher Witmer decided to return to the University of Pennsylvania for his graduate studies in political science.[3]

Teaching at Rugby Academy[edit]

During the fall of 1888, Witmer was offered a job as an instructor at Rugby Academy, a male secondary school. Here, he taught two different subjects, history and English. While he was teaching at the academy, Witmer noticed that a 14-year-old student who wished to go to college, had extreme difficulties in differentiating sounds, and also had other speech problems which might today be called dyslexia. Witmer decided to help him to correct his verbal problem; the child progressed satisfactorily and was able to continue studying and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania[4] This success made Witmer believe that children with problems could satisfactorily engage in education with support, dedication and special education. In the following year in 1889, Witmer finally decided to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and got into the Philosophy department with the intention of studying law and start working towards an advanced degree in political science. While he was there he was introduced to James McKeen Cattell who inspired him to begin studying in the emerging field of psychology. This is when Witmer finally made his decision to join the experimental psychology department.

James McKeen Cattell's influence[edit]

George Fullerton, a member of the The University of Pennsylvania brought the well known experimental psychologist James McKeen Cattell to join the faculty of the University. At this time, Cattell was known as one of the best-trained psychologist of the world who had been educated by one of the most influential psychologists, Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt. Witmer was asked by George Fullerton to become Cattell's assistant and, Witmer accepted this great offer, eventually, He decided to resign his teaching position at the Rugby Academy and attend the graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania as a full-time student.

The Experimental Psychological Lab[edit]

After he decided to become Cattell's assistant, Witmer and Cattell decided to work together and found the experimental psychology lab with the purpose of studying individual differences by using a wide range of subjects.[2] Witmer's main tasks at the lab were to gather data on individual differences in reaction times, and through these he gained a lot of knowledge in the area of psychological experiments. While he was working at the lab, Witmer published a manual which explained how experimental psychology should be properly conducted. Witmer intended to get his doctoral degree under Cattell's supervision, However Cattell suddenly left the University of Pennsylvania, effectively abandoning his students, and laboratory. Cattell intended to obtain a higher paying position at Columbia University in New York. As a result, Witmer also decided to leave. There was no psychologist besides Cattell at that time, who could have taught psychology to Witmer and his classmates at the University of Pennsylvania, so Witmer was in search of a new teacher.

Journey to Germany[edit]

After Cattell left Witmer and his other experimental psychology students, he helped Witmer to get a job as Wundt's assistant in Leipzig, Germany.[3] Witmer knew that Cattell's offer was a good opportunity, and without hesitation he travelled to the University of Leipzig to become Wundt's assistant.

Witmer under Wundt's supervision[edit]

In 1891, Witmer decided to travel to Germany for a year and work as Wundt's assistant, He also took classes with Oswald Kulpe, and Ludwig Strumpel. There are no records of what exactly Witmer did while he was working as Wundt's assistant, this is probably because Witmer was a very private person who did not like to share personal information of himself with others, moreover, historians have not found letters written by him sent to other colleagues while he was under Wundt's supervision. However, it is often said that while Witmer was Wundt’s assistant, they both had disagreements. One of those disputes was that Witmer desired to continue working on the work he had previously started with James Cattell, the study of reaction times, but Wundt insisted that they both should study the aesthetic value of different visual forms, and other different branches of psychology such as educational psychology and developmental psychology. Naturally, Witmer accepted. Witmer obtained his doctoral diploma in the year 1892 from Wundt.[3]

Return to the University of Pennsylvania[edit]

In 1892, Witmer left Germany and decided to go back to the University of Pennsylvania. On his return, he became the Director of The Laboratory of Psychology, effectively filling the shoes left by his old advisor, James McKeen Cattell. He was interested in teaching Child Psychology and taught several different courses. He also began conducting research on individual differences in sensory-perceptual variables and presented different papers in experimental psychology.In 1896, he became involved in teaching a special series of courses that were being offered to public school teachers at the University. Sometime during March of that year a special case was brought before him of a 14-year-old student who was having extreme difficulties learning to spell yet was quite able, and even excelled, in other subjects. This case offered a special challenge to Witmer and was in line with his developing view that psychology should be of practical benefit, and he soon began remedial work with the youth. Out of a direct necessity for a space in which to work with his new client Witmer established the first psychological clinic, which operated out of the University of Pennsylvania.[5] Also during 1896 he presented a plan of organization for practical work in psychology to the American Psychological Association, in which he used and explained the term "Clinical Psychology" for the first time.[2] In 1902, he started advising graduate students, and published a laboratory manual. He married Emma Repplier in 1904, a prominent Philadelphian student graduated of the exclusive Agnes Irwin School. She was an excellent writer who worked for the American Philosophical Society, which is most likely the place that she and Witmer met, since both belonged to the society.[5] In 1908, he established and staffed a small private residential school near Wallingford, Pennsylvania, an institution dedicated to care and treat retarded and troubled children. Later, he established a similar, but larger facility in Devon, Pennsylvania. He also founded the first speech clinic in the world in 1914.

The American Psychological Association[edit]

By 1896, Witmer, Stanley Hall, William James and James McKeen Cattell decided to become members of a new association for psychology professionals, during a meeting in the American Psychological Association (APA). Witmer and other experimental colleagues proposed that the APA should accept only psychological papers, be separated from the American Philosophical Association, and have a better selection process for choosing new members. These proposals caused disagreements among the members of the American Psychological Association because many of the current members did not want the field to separate from philosophy. Their proposals were ignored so Witmer decided to start a new society with Stanley Hall exclusively for experimental Psychologists, but Stanley Hall refused. In 1904 however, Titchener accepted Witmer's proposal to separate Psychology from Philosophy and decided to abandon the APA society and help Witmer create a society solely for experimental psychologists. Witmer told Titchener that the association should be only for men and women should be excluded because they were too emotional when talking about scientific issues.[6] A reason to it could have been that women had not yet been recognized as scientists. But then, he changed his attitude and decided to teach female students and women became accepted to work at his clinic. Moreover, Witmer appointed a woman to become the manager of his clinic. Witmer also wrote and published articles to the APA, one article titled: “The Organization of Practical Work in Psychology,” where he described his desire to apply his knowledge to study humans, and help kids in an academic manner. After he presented his proposal he started developing his plan concerning education. Here, he proposed that schools should become more involved with their students' classes and grades, and that schools should have better educational equipment and the faculty members should receive teaching reflecting psychological findings. However, his proposal was not completely accepted by many.[7]

First Psychological Clinic[edit]

Witmer opened the first Psychological Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania in 1896, with the purpose of studying children who had either learning or behavior problems. Witmer’s main participants were children who attended public schools from Philadelphia and surrounding areas who were brought to the Psychological Clinic by their own teachers, or parents. Witmer‘s clinic was appreciated by many because it proactively employed psychology as a means of assisting these children who were struggling in school. In the clinic Witmer regularly dealt with speech problems, sleep disturbances, behavioral problems, hyperactivity, refusal to stay in school, as well as other issues. Every child who entered was given a complete examination of mind and body, which often ruled out physiological symptoms. His method of improving children with psychological problems involved breaking down information to a level that they could understand. He would focus on particular problems and work with the child in that area, often improving several areas at once.[4]

In 1907 Witmer founded the journal The Psychological Clinic. In its first issue he published the article "Clinical Psychology" which explained its definition, describing it the following way:

"Although clinical psychology is clearly related to medicine, it is quite as closely related to sociology and pedagogy... An abundance of material for scientific study fails to be utilized, because the interest of psychologists is elsewhere engaged, and those in constant touch with the actual phenomena do not possess the training necessary to make the experience and observation of scientific value…I have borrowed the word "clinical" from medicine, because it is the term I can find to indicate the character of the method which I deem necessary for this work."[4]

Witmer's "Clinical Psychology" was published and got a lot of attention, because it dealt with the study of children individually. In his article, Witmer presented the idea that all kinds of children (smart or mentally retarded) could reach their full potential with help. He included a definition of retardation using two different terms: "physiological retardation" referred to individuals who did not acquired a normal development for their chronological ages, whereas the other term was called "pedagogical retardation" referred to children who did not develop their full capacities when they reached adulthood.[4]

In the first issue of The Psychological Clinic, he also criticized some of his colleagues and their departments because they had refused his ideas proposed to the American Psychological Association.[8] In 1908, in a later issue of his journal, he criticized William James for what he felt was his unscientific attitude, calling James "the spoiled child of American Psychology".[5] There was no doubt Witmer always defended his own ideas and beliefs even though it seemed that he did not care about other psychologists point of views. This and other disagreements caused Witmer to lose most of their colleagues' friendships, who decided not to attend any more of Witmer's meetings.[citation needed]

Lightner Witmer also attacked Harvard University for using the theory of introspection and teaching psychology incorrectly since Witmer also refused the idea theory introspection and did not care much for pure experimental psychology. He also criticized "Intelligence Tests" and encouraged his students not to trust them, because he thought those tests only gave a measure of the individual's efficiency, nothing else. He thought that people should not be referred as normal or abnormal due to the results of such tests. As one could then say that an individual was "normal" or "abnormal" depending on if, for example, he or she knew or not how write and read properly.[citation needed]

Another type of study performed by Witmer was the use of apes and compared them with children and taught them how to articulate some elements of spoken language, but their efforts to learn were not successful, however, one day Witmer attended a performance and noticed that a monkey was able to do some things human beings could do such as reading and writing, after being instructed to do such things. As mentioned before, Witmer also studied people's behavior and changed his mind by starting to study gifted children instead of mentally retarded children. In 1900, his book called "The Restoration of Children of the Slums" described Witmer's beliefs that criminal behavior was not caused hereditarily, instead he thought criminal behavior was caused due to environmental facts.[citation needed]

It is known that Witmer supported children tremendously, however, one day in 1911, Witmer supported a bill in the state of Pennsylvania in order to sterilize severely retarded people, with the purpose to minimize their spread in the nation. It is known that years ago, Witmer had defended the rights of all children, no matter if some were gifted or retarded children. But in 1912, he decided to go to Italy and learn how to study pedagogical methods with special children.[citation needed]

Witmer's Clinical Psychology[edit]

In the paper he presented to the American Psychological Association in 1896, cited to be the first instance of his use and explanation of the term” Clinical Psychology,” Witmer also outlined the four main goals for his new discipline.[9] Firstly, it was to focus on the investigation of mental and moral retardation by means of statistical and clinical methods. Secondly, Clinical psychology as a discipline was to work to establish more psychological clinics and hospitals specifically for children suffering from retardation or physical defects that inhibit academic progress. The discipline was also to focus on the creation of opportunities for those in other disciplines such as teaching, medicine, and social work to come in, observe, and work with retarded and normal children. Witmer's final goal for Clinical psychology was that it would focus on the training of more psychologist to become experts in working with mentally and/or morally retarded clients. Also in this same paper Witmer outlined the main concern of clinical psychology: that the discipline would be focused on active clinical intervention for the purpose of the restoration and treatment of mentally or morally disabled individuals. According to Witmer, for Clinical Psychology to actually be on any worth it needed to actually be able to help and improve clients mental health and well-being.

As Clinical Psychology was the first discipline in psychology that attempted to apply the principles of scientific psychology to diagnostic and remedial work it required its own unique set of techniques and procedures. Clinical psychology's original methodologies were highly practical and problem-oriented, and were developed from the ground up solely by Witmer.[5] Witmer's early clinical psychology used a hands-on approach to observation and interviews, emphasizing a one-on-one interaction between the client and clinician.[10] Additionally, great emphasis was placed on the ability of the clinician to be able to work with their clients in a professional, yet personal way. Witmer also highlighted the concept of treating each client as an individual person, and not simply as a physical manifestation of their problem or a phenomenon to be observed and explained. To Witmer, each client was to be seen as a human being, and nothing less. He also emphasized researching each client's personal background history, as he held that it would allow clinicians to better and more fully understand their situation. He was also one of the first psychologists to accept that a client's problems could have environmental factors as well as hereditary factors and because of this he emphasized the importance that treatment should not end with the client being placed back into the environment from which their physical, mental, or moral problem originated unless something had been done to change it.

The treatment programs Witmer created for Clinical Psychology were systematic, constantly being changed, revised, and implementing new treatment methods as either the client improved or problems were encountered. Treatment involved continual weekly visits to the clinic which would continue until either the client's problem was solved (at least as best as was possible) or the client, or the parent/guardian, decided to end it. However, Witmer's treatment programs were not just limited to the clinic in which they took place. Witmer emphasized the importance of remediation that was continued by the client and their caregivers both in between treatment sessions and after treatment had officially ended. To this end Witmer made a point to provide direct advice and consultation to both the client and their caregivers on what was needed to be done with the client, their living environment, and the other aspects of their lives in order to improve their problems or disabilities. Interestingly enough many of Witmer's original methodologies for Clinical Psychology have been carried forward and still exist in modern-day Clinical Psychology in some way, shape, or form.

Witmer's Other Contribution[edit]

Beyond his obvious contributions to clinical psychologyy Witmer was also responsible for several major advancements in the field of school psychology, and has even been cited as the founder of this discipline.[10] Witmer was the first psychologist to undertake and focus, not only on the study of school aged children, but the treatment of those with mental, physical or moral handicaps with the goal of improving their deficits. He also ensured that the treatment of school aged children suffering from any sort of deficit impairing their academic success would be a major focus of Clinical Psychology when he outline one of the discipline's main goals to be the creation of psychological clinics and hospitals to treat children with mental or physical impairments that were interfering with their academic progress. Witmer was also the first psychologist to realize the integral role played by the teacher and began offering special class, taught out of his clinic, specifically for teachers to help train them to better evaluate and teach handicapped children. However, he went one step further and opened up his clinic to not only those in teaching, but those in medicine and social work as well, and gave them the opportunity to observe and work with both normal and handicapped children. What this did is allowed the groups of people who interacted with handicapped children the most a chance to work with them in a controlled non-work related environment. Additionally, by having both normal and handicapped children together Witmer gave these professionals the chance to directly observe the differences between the two groups for themselves. Finally, offered these same professionals another set of courses which demonstrated how to practically apply his clinical methods in their respective fields. Not only did this increase the number of trained professionals able to work with handicapped children but it also helped the other disciplines see the importance of working with disabled children in order to help them.

Witmer's final days[edit]

By 1917, Witmer joined the Red Cross during World War I. His main tasks were to help to rehabilitate homeless people who were victims of the war, but in 1918, decided to go back to the United States. When he came back, in 1920 his mother died, followed a few years later by Titchener. He decided not to publish any more. By 1930, the University of Pennsylvania presented him with a volume called “ Clinical Psychology: Studies in honor of Lightner Witmer." On July 19, 1956 when he was 89 years old he died at the hospital in “Bryn Mawr”, in Pennsylvania from a heart failure, being the last founding member of the American Psychological Association who died[5]

Witmer's Erasure from the History of Psychology[edit]

Despite being a figure in psychology who was incredibly influential, Witmer never actually gained much recognition outside of Clinical Psychology and today is one of the least talked about and least known psychologists. This, however, is not a complete coincidence and there have been several factors put forward that are believed to have contributed to this phenomenon.[1]

The first factor had to do with Witmer's personality. Though he was known to be a generally kind person, as a psychologist he was incredibly vicious, argumentative, and blunt, to the point of impoliteness. He had no limits to who, what, or how harshly he would criticize his target and over the course of his career was reported to have attacked numerous different, and often important, people and organizations. Witmer's targets included the American Psychological Association; Non-experimentalists ; Psychology as a discipline; and even his own colleagues. In short Witmer's willingness to harshly lash out, seemingly against anything, no doubt made him an unpopular member of the discipline which in part could explain why he is mentioned so little

The second factor contributing to Witmer's lack of coverage was due to his ideas. Firstly, many of his theories were not empirically testable. Secondly, though Witmer was a major advocate for scientific procedures in psychology, he often did not follow them in that he presented many of this theories as facts, instead of as hypotheses. This problem was made even worse as he did not provided methods of testing his theories. However it is also possible that his ideas were just too ahead of their time. Many of his principles, methods, and ideas are easily seen as congruent with the psychology of today but were far less in line with the psychology of the late 1800s and early 1900s. In fact at his official address in 1897, where he presented his ideas for clinical psychology, the only reaction he got from the entire group of psychologists gathered there was a few raised eyebrows.[1] It is likely that most members of psychology at the time either dismissed or were uninterested in Witmer's work which is what likely caused it to never get much recognition outside of the Clinical Psychology community.

Witmer was also highly critical of many popular trends in psychology and society during his career.[1] For instance he was directly opposed to the popular education methods being used by schools at the time which focus on the mass instruction of students. Witmer argued that education should work from a more personal level and take an interest in students as individuals. He also was highly critical of intelligence and IQ tests, which he saw as being problematic. He believed these tests actually only measured the individual's efficiency not intelligence, that such tests erased its participant's individuality, and that they were of little use as they did not provide insight into actual performance and ability, which is what he saw as the true defining feature of intelligence. Additionally he saw intelligence as being determined not just by heredity, but as having an environmental component as well, which was not the general view at the time. The problem with his beliefs here is that they were criticizing programs, methods, instruments and beliefs that were widely held, accepted and popular within mainstream society of the time. The fact that his beliefs ran directly against the existing paradigm did nothing to help him gain acceptance or notoriety within mainstream society.

In summary his lack of coverage in psychology today is due to his personality, and ideas being unaccepted by his colleagues, by psychology as a whole, and by society at the time when he was active.


  • ''The Association Value of Three-Place Consonant Syllables. Journal of Genetic Psychology 47 (1935): 337-360.
  • ''Are We Educating the Rising Generation?” Education Review. 37 (1909): 456-467.
  • ''Children with mental Defects Distinguished from Mentally Defective Children.” Psychological Clinic. 7 (1913): 173-181.
  • ''Clinical Psychology.” Psychological Clinic. 1 (1907): 1-9.
  • ''Courses in Psychology for Normal Schools. Education Review 13 (1897): 45-57, 146-162.
  • ''The Exceptional Child and the Training of Teachers for Exceptional Children. School & Society. 2 (1915): 217-229.
  • ''Experimental Psychology and the Psych-physical Laboratory. University Extension (1894): 230-238.
  • ''Intelligence—A Definition.” Psychological Clinic. 14 (1922): 65-67.
  • ''Performance and Success: An Outline of Psychology for Diagnostic Testing and Teaching. Psychological Clinic 12 (1919): 145-170.
  • ''The Problem of Educability. Psychological Clinic 12 (1919): 174-178.
  • ''The raining of Very Bright Children. Psychological Clinic 13 (1919): 88-96.
  • ''What Is Intelligence, and Who Has It? Scientific Monthly 15 (1922): 57-67.


  1. ^ a b c d Thomas (2009)
  2. ^ a b c d Grassetti, Stevie (2007). "Biography for Lightner Witmer". The Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved 8 May 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c McReynolds (1996)
  4. ^ a b c d Witmer (1907)
  5. ^ a b c d e McReynolds (1987)
  6. ^ Thomas (2009), p. 7
  7. ^ Routh (1996)
  8. ^ Thomas (2009), p. 8
  9. ^ Baker (1988)
  10. ^ a b Fagan (1996)


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