Coghill, George Ellett

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Coghill, George Ellett

(b Beaucoup, Illinois, 17 March 1872; d. Gainesville, Florida, 12 July 1941),

embryology, anatomy, psychobiology.

Coghill was the fifth of seven children born to John Waller Coghill and the former Elizabeth Tucker. Since he had a rural Baptist background, he found his attempt to understand the nature of man’s mind a formidable task. After receiving an A. B. from Brown University in 1896, he became an instructor at the University of New Mexico, where he was greatly influenced by its president, Clarence L. Herrick, under whom he received a master’s degree in biology. In order to decide his future course in life, Coghill spent three months in the Mesa Verde area, thinking things over. He decided that to understand the mind he must fathom its mechanisms, especially their origin and development. He received the Ph.D. from Brown University in 1902.

After teaching at three universities, Coghill became an associate professor of anatomy at the University of Kansas (Lawrence) Medical School in 1913, attaining the department chairmanship and becoming secretary to the faculty in 1918. In 1925 he was elected professor of comparative anatomy at the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology, Philadelphia, a post that he held until 1935. The University of Pittsburgh conferred an honorary Sc. D. on him in 1931, as did Brown University in 1935, the year he was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Coghill’s analysis of the developing nervous system of Ambystoma permitted him to formulate a universal law which states that the total pattern of development of the central nervous system and behavior (integrative action) dominates the partial patterns (reflex or analytical). This single idea was best formulated in his three lectures on anatomy and the problem of behavior, delivered at University College, London, in 1928 and published as Anatomy and the Problem of Behavior in 1929. This concept was enthusiastically accepted by psychologists and psychiatrists and formed the basis for much of C. Judson Herrick’s thinking on the nature and origins of human mentation. The American school of psychobiology was founded by Clarence L. Herrick, C. Judson Herrick, and Coghill.


All Coghill’s works are listed and commented upon by C. Judson Herrick in his biography of Coghill (below). A similar but abbreviated list of publications appears in Herrick’s biographical memoir of Coghill (below).

C. Judson Herrick’s biography of Coghill is George Ellett Coghill, Naturalist and Philosopher (Chicago, 1949). Herrick also wrote the biographical memoir of Coghill in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 22 (1942), memoir 12.

Paul G. Roofe