Lois Barclay Murphy

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Lois Barclay Murphy
Born(1902-03-23)March 23, 1902
Died(2003-12-24)December 24, 2003
OccupationDevelopmental Psychologist
Spouse(s)Gardner Murphy
Awards{{G. Stanley Hall Award, Dolly Madison Award}}

Lois Barclay Murphy (March 23, 1902 – December 24, 2003) was an American developmental psychologist who had an important impact on the study of normal child development.[1] Murphy was instrumental in changing the ways in which children were viewed in psychology—previous work tended to focus on pathology, while Murphy emphasized more positive and social elements, including normal development and the development of empathy and ethics in children.[1] She collaborated on 16 works with her husband, Gardner Murphy, published a book about his work after his death as well as several on her own work.[2] She founded the Early Childhood Center (EEC), a college laboratory school focused on child development, at St Lawrence College in 1937 which is still in operation today.[3] l Murphy was given the G. Stanley Hall Award in developmental psychology in recognition of her contributions to the field.[2]


Murphy was born to May (Hartley), a teacher and Wade Barclay Barclay, a pastor. Her parents expected all of their children to make significant contributions to the world, which was an unusual expectation of women at the time.[4] As the oldest of five children, she played a big role in caring for her younger siblings. Due to her parents' careers, the family moved frequently and by her 16th birthday they had moved 13 times. During this time she was struck by how different lives were for rural and urban children and noted how some were neglected and thought of poorly. She married Garner Murphy in 1924 and they had two children together. Murphy's partnership was helpful academically; it allowed her to make great strides in her field. Murphy disliked the behaviorist approach to child psychology that was popular at the time, specifically Watson's ideas about the discipline of children, so it wasn't until she was introduced to her future husband, Gardner Murphy, and other psychologists with less strict views that she kindled a serious interest in developmental psychology. She died of congestive heart failure at the age of 101 on December 24, 2003.

Career Focus[edit]

Murphy graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a major in economics and minors in religion and psychology from Vassar in 1923. Her honors thesis investigated life at a girls' reform school; the investigation exposed her to a bitter, almost prison-like environment. The school did not reform girls, but Murphy’s investigative thesis helped reform the institution.[5] She went on to obtain her masters from Union Theological Seminary in 1928, and became a founding faculty member at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, where she taught Comparative Religions.

She stayed only a year, and in 1929 enrolled in Columbia College in the graduate psychology program. She earned her doctorate in 1937 and her dissertation was published in a book, Social behavior and child personality (1937).[6] Murphy's research cut against the behaviorist perspectives of John B. Watson, which were dominant at the time. Watson's ideas on children were widely respected, but Murphy stood her ground with her research since she thought Watson didn't really understand children.

In order to explore her ideas on child psychology further, she went back to Sarah Lawrence College in 1937 and founded The Nursery School, a laboratory where she could research children's personality development. Murphy also looked at the positive aspects of social development, such as the origin of sympathy.[5] In 1941 she was The Nursery School's first director. The same year she became director, she published Methods for the Study of Personality in Young Children, which was based on the research done at The Nursery School. "Theories of free-play, Rorschach analysis of children, and the application of the Miniature Life Toy Technique were all explored during her time at the school."[6] Later she combined many sources of data in a single case, a case study of one child at The Nursery School, Colin: A Normal Child (1956).[5] While she was at Sarah Lawrence College she also published, Emotional Factors in Learning (1944) and Achievement in the College Years (1960).

In 1952 Murphy and her husband both accepted positions in Topeka Kansas at the Menninger Foundation, which was a clinic, sanatorium, and a school of psychiatry. Murphy was the coordinator of the Coping Project for the foundation. The project was research on how children deal with the stress of growing up, and got its funding from the National Institute of Mental Health. In 1976 she published her findings as Vulnerability, Coping and Growth from Infancy to Adolescence.[6] While she was in Topeka she also was a consultant on the new Head Start program and was the chair of the Governor's Preschool Committee.

Murphy only stayed in Topeka until 1968, when she and her husband obtained positions in Washington D.C. Murphy took a position as a research consultant at the Children's Hospital in D.C. during her stay in Washington, until her husband passed in 1979.[5] While in Washington D.C., she was also a guest scientist at the National Institutes of Health.[6]

In 1981, she received the G. Stanley Hall Award from the American Psychological Association for her work in developmental psychology. Not only that, but she was a member in a number of other organizations, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, American Orthopsychiatry Association, and the New York Academy of Sciences.[6]


Murphy thought research on children focused too much on aggression and conflict in the years following WWI, and so she went against the common current of those studying child development by exploring sympathy and other positive aspects of child social development.[1] As part of her research, Murphy developed a preschool at Sarah Lawrence College, where she and her research team utilized projective, open-ended and even unstructured tasks to assess children's personalities, instead of using traditional laboratory tests that were more likely to frustrate the children.[1] While this approach was criticized by some, Murphy's methods widened the boundaries of what were considered appropriate methods for studying child development.[1]

Following the deaths of Henry Ladd, Eugene Lerner, and Anna Hartoch, three of Murphy's close friends, she expanded her research and founded the study of coping, which wasn't an area of study until after her work. She published a collected volume of her work on coping in 1976, titled Vulnerability, Coping and Growth. [1]

In addition to her work within the field of psychology, Murphy was active in work related to other social programs. In 1950, Murphy helped found the B.M. Institute of Child Development and Mental Health in Ahmedabad, India, and in the 1960s she was instrumental in developing the Head Start program as part of Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty.[7]

Murphy left behind a lot for the developmental psychology field to build off of. Throughout her years as a researcher, Murphy successfully published 16 books, many of which have a deep focus on developmental properties of infants and young children.[8] Murphy is recognized as one of the first to document feelings of sympathy in preschoolers.[9] Because of her contributions to the field of psychology, and child care and development, Murphy received multiple awards, including the G. Stanley Hall Award and the Dolly Madison Award of the National Center of Clinical Infant programs.

While Murphy had a widely varied career, she is best known for expanding the study of child development to include more positive social aspects. As she said herself: "I hope that insofar as I am remembered, it would be as a person who tried to conceptualize and communicate positive aspects of children's development in integrated terms."[10]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Johnston, E. (2012). Lois Barclay Murphy: A pioneer of positivity. In Wade E. Pickren, Donald A. Dewsbury & Michael Wertheimer (Eds.) Portraits of pioneers in developmental psychology (135-149). New York: Psychology Press.
  2. ^ a b Sullivan, P. (January 1, 2004). Child Psychologist Lois Barclay Murphy. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/2004/01/01/child-psychologist-lois-barclay-murphy/fd3fc28d-85c2-4771-9c77-8a2d5cb00648/
  3. ^ https://www.sarahlawrence.edu/ecc/philosophy/lab-school.html
  4. ^ http://www.feministvoices.com/lois-barclay-murphy/
  5. ^ a b c d Sommer, Robert. "Lois Barclay Murphy (1902-2003)". American Psychologist. 59 (4): 261–261. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.59.4.261.
  6. ^ a b c d e Young, Jacy. "Lois Barclay Murphy - Psychology's Feminist Voices". www.feministvoices.com. Retrieved 2016-09-28.
  7. ^ Magai, C. and McFadden, S. H. (1995). The Role of Emotions in Social and Personality Development: History, Theory, and Research. New York: Plenum Press.
  8. ^ Sullivan, Patricia (1 January 2004). "Child Psychologist Lois Barclay Murphy". The Washington Post.
  9. ^ SQUIRES, SALLY (13 December 1989). "From Mouths of Babes, Insights : Psychology: Lois Barclay Murphy has been a star in exploring the emotional life of infants and children. Now 87, she is still hard at work". Los Angeles Times.
  10. ^ Murphy, L.B. (1978). Roots of an approach to studying child development. In T.S. Krawiec (Ed.) The psychologists: Vol. 3. (pp.166-180). New York: Oxford University Press