Robert Yerkes

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Robert Yerkes
BornMay 26, 1876 (1876-05-26)
DiedFebruary 3, 1956(1956-02-03) (aged 79)
Known forintelligence testing
Scientific career

Robert Mearns Yerkes (/ˈjɜːrkz/; May 26, 1876 – February 3, 1956) was an American psychologist, ethologist, eugenicist and primatologist best known for his work in intelligence testing and in the field of comparative psychology.

Yerkes was a pioneer in the study both of human and primate intelligence and of the social behavior of gorillas and chimpanzees. Along with John D. Dodson, Yerkes developed the Yerkes–Dodson law relating arousal to performance.

As time went on, Yerkes began to propagate his support for eugenics in the 1910s and 1920s. His works are largely considered biased toward outmoded racialist theories by modern academics.[1][2]

He also served on the board of trustees of Science Service, now known as Society for Science & the Public, from 1921 to 1925. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1915,[3] the United States National Academy of Sciences in 1923,[4] and the American Philosophical Society in 1936.[5]

Education and early career[edit]

Robert Yerkes was born in Breadysville, Pennsylvania (near Ivyland, Pennsylvania). Growing up on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, Robert Yerkes wanted to leave the hard life of the rural farmer and become a physician. With the financial help of an uncle, Yerkes attended Ursinus College from 1892 to 1897. Upon graduating he received an offer from Harvard University to do graduate work in Biology. Faced with a choice of Harvard or medical training in Philadelphia, he chose to go to Harvard.

At Harvard, Yerkes became interested in animal behavior, so much so that he put off further medical training to study comparative psychology. He earned his Ph.D. in the Psychology Department in 1902.

His early career was strongly influenced by the debts Yerkes incurred paying for school. Upon his graduation from Harvard, he took up a position with the school as an instructor and assistant professor in comparative psychology. He had to supplement his income during the summer for several years by teaching general psychology at Radcliffe College. Another part-time job he took on was being the director of psychological research at the Boston Psychopathic Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts.

In 1907, Yerkes published his first book, The Dancing Mouse. Among his friends during this time was future behaviorist John Watson, with whom he exchanged ideas and collaborated. He was also a member of the Wicht Club (1903–1911).

Intelligence testing and eugenics[edit]

In 1917, Yerkes served as president of the American Psychological Association (APA). Under his influence, the APA began several programs devoted to the war effort in World War I. As chairman of the Committee on the Psychological Examination of Recruits, he developed the Army's Alpha and Beta Intelligence Tests, the first nonverbal group tests, which were given to over 1 million United States soldiers during the war.

Although Yerkes claimed that the tests measured native intelligence, and not education or training, this claim is difficult to sustain in the face of the questions themselves. Question 18 of Alpha Test 8 reads: "Velvet Joe appears in advertisements of ... (tooth powder)(dry goods)(tobacco)(soap)."[6]

Yerkes used the results of tests such as these to argue that recent immigrants (especially those from Southern and Eastern Europe) scored considerably lower than older waves of immigration (from Northern Europe.) The results would later be criticized as very clearly only measuring acculturation, as the test scores correlated nearly exactly with the number of years spent living in the US. Nonetheless, the effects of Yerkes work would have a lasting effect on American xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. His work was used as one of the eugenic motivations for harsh and racist immigration restrictions.[7]

He was appointed as an "Expert Eugenic Agent" to The House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, where his work would contribute to the creation of the discriminatory National Origins Formula.[7] In his introduction to Carl C. Brigham's A Study of American Intelligence (which helped popularize eugenics in the U.S.), Yerkes stated that "no one of us as a citizen can afford to ignore the menace of race deterioration."[8]

Along with Edward L. Thorndike, Yerkes was a member and Chairman of the Committee on Inheritance of Mental Traits, part of the Eugenics Record Office, which was founded by Charles Benedict Davenport, a former teacher of Yerkes at Harvard.[9]

National Research Council[edit]

Immediately after World War I, Yerkes worked as a paid officer for the United States National Research Council (NRC) and took the helm of the NRC Committee for Research in Problems of Sex. The Committee for Research in Problems of Sex helped Yerkes establish close relationships with officers from Rockefeller philanthropic foundations. These relationships later helped him to solicit substantial funds for his chimpanzee projects.


Yerkes had a long and storied fascination with the study of chimpanzees. He began by purchasing two chimpanzees, Chim (a male bonobo) and Panzee (a female common chimpanzee), from a zoo. He brought them home and kept them in a bedroom where they could eat with a fork at a miniature table. Chim was a particular delight for Yerkes, and the summer that chimp and psychologist spent together is memorialized in Almost Human (1924). He had spent time in 1924 hosted by Rosalía Abreu at her large primate colony in Cuba. She was the first person to succeed in breeding chimpanzees in captivity. He was accompanied by Harold C. Bingham, Josephine Ball and Chim, the bonobo. Chim unfortunately died during the visit.[10] Yerkes returned from this visit with advice from Abreu to help in raising and observing chimps on his own.[11]

In 1924, Yerkes was hired as a professor of psychobiology, a field he pioneered, at Yale University. He founded the Yale University Laboratories of Primate Biology in New Haven, followed by his Anthropoid Breeding and Experiment Station in Orange Park, Florida, with funds from the Rockefeller Foundation. The primate language Yerkish was developed at Yerkes Laboratories of Primate Biology. Yerkes retired from his position as Director in 1942, where he was replaced by Karl Lashley.[12] After his death, the lab was moved to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and was then called the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.[13]

Asked how to say his name, he told The Literary Digest it was YER-keez.[14]


In April 2022, Emory University removed Yerkes’ name from the National Primate Research Center, after a review by Emory's Committee on Naming Honors recommended that the name be changed due to Yerkes' past support for eugenics.[15] The Yerkes National Primate Research Center will be known as the Emory National Primate Research Center, effective June 1, 2022.[16][17]


  • 1907, The Dancing Mouse, A Study in Animal Behavior
  • 1911, Introduction to Psychology
  • 1911, Methods of Studying Vision in Animals (with John B. Watson)
  • 1914, Outline of a Study of the Self
  • 1915, A Point Scale for Measuring Mental Ability (with co-authors)
  • 1916, The mental life of monkeys and apes
  • 1920, Army Mental Tests (by Clarence S. Yoakum and Robert M. Yerkes)
  • 1925, Almost Human
  • 1929, The Great Apes (with Ada W. Yerkes)
  • 1943, Chimpanzees; a laboratory colony

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "Bio Robert Yerkes" Archived March 10, 2011, at the Wayback Machine. Facing History. Retrieved February 17, 2010.
  2. ^ Spencer, Department of Anthropology Queens College Frank (1997). History of Physical Anthropology. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-8153-0490-6.
  3. ^ "Robert Mearns Yerkes". American Academy of Arts & Sciences. February 9, 2023. Retrieved May 30, 2023.
  4. ^ "Robert Yerkes". Retrieved May 30, 2023.
  5. ^ "APS Member History". Retrieved May 30, 2023.
  6. ^ Black, Edwin (2012). War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race. Dialog Press. ISBN 978-0914153306.
  7. ^ a b Connell, W.; Gardaphé, F. (2010). Anti-Italianism: Essays on a Prejudice. Springer. p. 48. ISBN 9780230115323.
  8. ^ Brigham 1923, 80-86; Yerkes 1921, 785
  9. ^ "Testing For Order And Control In The Corporate Liberal State", Clarence J. Karier, pages 108-137, Roots of Crisis: American Education in the Twentieth Century, ed. C. J. Karier, P. Violas, J. Spring. Page 112 here. See also below, Autobiography of Robert Mearns Yerkes, 1930.
  10. ^ Dewsbury, Donald A. (2006). Monkey Farm: A History of the Yerkes Laboratories of Primate Biology, Orange Park, Florida, 1930–1965. Bucknell University Press. pp. 34–35, 89. ISBN 978-0-8387-5593-8.
  11. ^ Almost Human, 1924.
  12. ^ Gregory A. Kimble, C. Alan Boneau, Michael Wertheimer. 1996. Portraits of pioneers in psychology, Volume 2. Routledge. ISBN 1-55798-345-3.
  13. ^ "Yerkes National Primate Research Center".
  14. ^ Charles Earle Funk, What's the Name, Please?, Funk & Wagnalls, 1936.
  15. ^ "Naming Decisions".
  16. ^ Diamond, Laura (April 21, 2022). "Emory to rename campus spaces and professorships honoring Robert Yerkes and L.Q.C. Lamar". Emory University (Press release). Atlanta GA. Retrieved May 7, 2022.
  17. ^ Moody, Josh (April 25, 2022). "Emory Drops Names of Eugenicist and Slavery Defender". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved May 7, 2022.

General references[edit]

  • Yerkes, R M (2000), "Creating a chimpanzee community. 1963", The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, vol. 73, no. 1–6, pp. 221–34, PMID 11765942
  • Yerkes, R M (1961), A History of Psychology in Autobiography, vol. 2, pp. 381–407
  • Stark, B P (1985), "The Robert Mearns Yerkes papers", The Yale University Library Gazette. Yale University. Library, vol. 59, no. 3–4, pp. 162–7, PMID 11618320
  • Haraway, D (1979), "The biological enterprise: sex, mind, and profit from human engineering to sociobiology", Radical History Review, vol. Spec, no. 20, pp. 206–37, doi:10.1215/01636545-1979-20-206, PMID 11615095
  • Burnham, J C (1972), "Thorndike's puzzle boxes", Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences (published April 1972), vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 159–67, doi:10.1002/1520-6696(197204)8:2<159::AID-JHBS2300080202>3.0.CO;2-P, PMID 11609710
  • ROOFE, P G (1965), "Significant Segments of the Herrick-Yerkes Correspondence Relative to Psychobiology and Their Personal Philosophies", Perspect. Biol. Med., vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 196–209, doi:10.1353/pbm.1965.0007, PMID 14277643, S2CID 296350
  • Hilgard, E R (1965), "Robert Mearns Yerkes, May 26, 1876--February 3, 1956", Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 38, pp. 385–425, PMID 11615455
  • CARMICHAEL, L (1957), "R. M. Yerkes, psychobiologist", Science (published September 13, 1957), vol. 126, no. 3272, p. 498, Bibcode:1957Sci...126..498C, doi:10.1126/science.126.3272.498, PMID 13467232
  • CARMICHAEL, L (1957), "Robert Mearns Yerkes, 1876-1956", Psychological Review (published January 1957), vol. 64, no. 1, pp. 1–7, doi:10.1037/h0049362, PMID 13408389
  • ELLIOTT, R M (1956), "Robert Mearns Yerkes: 1876-1956", The American Journal of Psychology (published September 1956), vol. 69, no. 3, pp. 487–94, PMID 13354820

Further reading[edit]

  • Spiro, Jonathan P. (2009), Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant, Univ. of Vermont Press, ISBN 978-1-58465-715-6

External links[edit]

  • Robert Mearns Yerkes papers (MS 569). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library. [1]