Boring, Edwin G.

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Boring, Edwin G.



Edwin Garrigues Boring, psychologist, historian, teacher, author, and editor, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 23, 1886, the youngest of four children and only son of Edwin McCurdy and Elizabeth Garrigues (Truman) Boring. Other than his father, he was the only male in a household consisting of three older sisters, his mother, a maiden aunt, and a grandmother. Religion was of importance in his family, but the affiliations were varied: his father was a member of the Moravian church; the women were either Orthodox or Hicksite Quakers.

Regarded by the members of this matriarchal family as a delicate child, Boring was not permitted to play with the children of the neighborhood. He was tutored at home and grew up without playmates of his own age, except for an imaginary one—a girl whom he called “Mamie.” When he was nine years old, he entered the Friends Select School and remained there until he was ready for college.

He went to Cornell University in the fall of 1904 to study electrical engineering, magnetism and electricity having interested him since childhood. In his sophomore year he chose E. B. Titchener’s course in elementary psychology as an elective. It made a lasting impression on him and eventually changed the entire course of his life. He received an m.e. degree in 1908 and spent the following year as a student apprentice at the Bethlehem Steel Company. He was offered a foremanship at the end of his training there, but he had discovered during his apprenticeship that he did not like the practice of engineering and accepted instead a position teaching science and physical geography at the Moravian Parochial School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

To prepare himself for this new position, he returned to Cornell during the summer of 1909 to study physical geography. Recalling the excitement aroused in him by the course in elementary psychology he had taken four years before, he chose to take also the laboratory course in experimental psychology offered by Madison Bentley, which further increased his interest in psychology.

When he realized, during the following year, that his career as a teacher would be handicapped without an arts degree, he again resigned a secure position and returned to Cornell. His dilemma of whether to work in physics, for which his engineering training had prepared him, or in psychology, for which he had a firm inclination but poor preparation, was finally resolved in favor of psychology because the physicists, whom he did not know, gave him less encouragement than did Bentley, with whom he had worked the previous summer.

Among the courses in psychology that he elected during that fall was Bentley’s laboratory course in comparative psychology; the subject so captivated him that he published a research work on planarians. His interest and proficiency in this course led to his appointment in February 1911 to an assistantship in the department. Since he could live comfortably on an assistant’s salary, he decided to go forward to a ph.d.

He obtained his m.a. degree under Bentley in 1912, was appointed to an instructorship in 1913, and won his ph.d. under Titchener in 1914. He continued as an instructor at Cornell until February of 1918, when he was commissioned into the armed forces as a captain in the newly created Psychological Service in the Sanitary Corps of the Medical Department. He remained in the service until the fall of 1919, assisting its head, Major R. M. Yerkes, in the preparation of the service’s final reports.

When he was returned to civilian life, Boring went to Clark University as professor of experimental psychology, filling the vacancy created by the death, in February 1919, of J. W. Baird. In 1923 he became involved in a controversy at Clark over freedom of speech. This controversy arose when the president of the university interrupted a lecture given under the auspices of the students’ Liberal Club by a man reputed to be a communist. Though neither a member of the club nor of the audience, Boring, as a matter of principle, defended the student’s right “to hear all sides.” For his efforts he acquired a stomach ulcer, from which he suffered for many years. In the midst of the controversy, Boring was invited to Harvard; he went there that fall and has since remained there.

Boring’s years at Cornell and Clark were highly productive experimentally. His researches on the sensation of the alimentary tract and the cutaneous sensations after nerve section are classics. After he transferred to Harvard, his administrative duties, his writing, his editorial responsibilities, and his wide participation in the psychological profession—he was president of the American Psychological Association in 1928 and secretary of the International Congress of Psychology held at Yale University in 1929—took him away more and more from the laboratory. He continued his research through his students, whose work he directed and prepared for publication. Eventually, however, even that contact with the laboratory was turned over to colleagues who had once been his students.

In 1925, when Titchener retired from the editorship of the American Journal of Psychology, Boring, with three others from the cooperating board, took over that responsibility. In addition he also accepted the sole responsibility of the necrological department. Boring has always had an abiding interest in people, in discovering what in their heredity, environment, training, and experience made them the kind and manner of men they were. This interest, together with the paucity of biographical material about psychologists, led him in 1928, when he was writing his History of Experimental Psychology (1929), to initiate the publication of a series of autobiographies, under the title A History of Psychology in Autobiography, which was patterned after the German series Die Philosophic der Gegenwart in Selbstdarstellungen. He served on the committee selecting the authors for the series, which was published by the Clark University Press. Four volumes of autobiographies have appeared: the first in 1930; the most recent, in which Boring’s abridged autobiography is published, in 1952.

In addition to numerous articles on psychology, Boring is the author of four books. His first, A History of Experimental Psychology—the first of a contemplated historical triad—was published in 1929. It is his magnum opus, the book for which he will longest be remembered; a second revised and enlarged edition appeared in 1950. His second book, The Physical Dimensions of Consciousness, was published in 1933; his third, Sensation and Perception in the History of Experimental Psychology, in 1942; and his fourth, Psychologist at Large, published in the year 1961, brings his autobiography up to date and presents selections from his more important articles and his bibliography. He abandoned the final volume of the contemplated triad on feeling, emotion, learning, attention, action, and thought in 1955, when he accepted the editorship of the newly established review journal Contemporary Psychology.

A collection of his papers on history, psychology, and science, selected and edited by Robert I. Watson and Donald T. Campbell, was published in 1963.

Boring was a coeditor with H. S. Langfeld and H. P. Weld of three textbooks in elementary psychology (1935; 1939; 1948). He was chairman of the subcommittee on a textbook of military psychology, established in 1941 by the National Research Council’s Emergency Committee in Psychology, which produced three books: Psychology for the Fighting Man (1943); Psychology for the Returning Serviceman (1945); and Psychology for the Armed Services (1945). Each succeeded in its purpose, but the first, coedited by Boring and Marjorie Van de Water, of Science News Service, enjoyed the greatest success: approximately half a million copies of it were sold in post exchanges in the United States and abroad.

Boring was also a member of the emergency committee’s Subcommittee on Survey and Planning, which initiated, among many other proposals for the parent committee’s consideration, the suggestion that an intersociety constitutional convention of psychologists be held to unite in a single association the various organizations represented on the emergency committee. At the subsequent convention, held under Boring’s chairmanship in May 1943, the American Association for Applied Psychology was merged with the American Psychological Association. Other instances of his academic statesmanship were his effecting of the separation of psychology from philosophy at Harvard in 1934 and of the experimental and physiological branches of psychology from the social and clinical in 1945.

In 1934, when threatened with a nervous breakdown from overwork and anxiety over the resurgence of his stomach ulcer, Boring turned to psychoanalysis, both for aid and to gain firsthand knowledge of the therapy. In the course of 168 sessions extending over a period of two years, he obtained the latter but not the former.

Among his numerous honors are the presidency of the American Psychological Association in 1928; honorary presidency of the 17th International Congress of Psychology held in Washington, D.C., August 1963; degrees awarded by the University of Pennsylvania in 1946 and by Clark University in 1956; the Gold Medal of the American Psychological Foundation in 1959; and memberships in the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

He was coeditor of the American Journal of Psychology, 1926–1946 (cooperating editor, 1921–1925, 1947— ), and editor of Contemporary Psychology, 1956–1961.

Karl M. Dallenbach

[For the historical context of Boring’s work, see the biography ofTitchener. For discussion of other relevant material, seeSenses; Skin senses and kinesthesis.]


(1929) 1950 A History of Experimental Psychology. 2d ed. New York: Appleton.

1933 The Physical Dimensions of Consciousness. New York: Appleton.

1935 Boring, Edwin G.; Langfeld, Herbert S.; and Weld, Harry P. (editors). Psychology: A Factual Textbook. New York: Wiley.

1939 Boring, Edwin G.; Langfeld, Herbert S.; and Weld, Harry P. (editors). Introduction to Psychology. New York: Wiley.

1942 Sensation and Perception in the History of Experimental Psychology. New York: Appleton.

1948 Boring, Edwin G.; Langfeld, Herbert S.; and Weld, Harry P. (editors). Foundations of Psychology. New York: Wiley.

1961 Psychologist at Large. New York: Basic Books. 1963 History, Psychology and Science: Selected Papers. Edited by Robert I. Watson and Donald T. Campbell. New York: Wiley.

1965 Hernstein, Richard; and Boring, Edwin G. (editors). A Sourcebook in the History of Psychology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.


National Research Council 1943 Psychology for the Fighting Man. Washington: The Infantry Journal.

National Research Council 1945 Psychology for the Returning Service Man. Washington: The Infantry Journal.

National Research Council, Committee on a Textbook of Military Psychology 1945 Psychology for the Armed Services. Washington: The Infantry Journal.