Terman, Lewis M.

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Terman, Lewis M.



Lewis Madison Terman (1877-1956) was a pioneer in the American movement of mental testing and was especially interested in the measurement and growth of intelligence.

Quite early, Terman had been convinced that bright children are not queer misfits in society. His doctoral dissertation, written under G. Stanley Hall at Clark University in 1905, had been based on a comparison of seven bright children with seven dull ones, selected by tests of his own devising. The comparison seemed to confirm his thesis.

In 1908 the Binet-Simon scale of intelligence tests appeared, and Edmund B. Huey of Johns Hopkins University advised Terman to take up this French innovation and develop it for use in America. When Terman was called to Stanford University two years later, he adopted Huey’s suggestion and undertook to construct a comparable scale in the English language and to calibrate and adjust it. The result was the publication in 1916 of his The Measurement of Intelligence, a “guide for the use of the Stanford revision and extension of the Binet— Simon Intelligence Scale.” Its use and importance, which would have been great in any case, were enhanced almost immediately by the U.S. Army’s undertaking the testing of the intelligence of its recruits in World War i. The army also devised special group tests for assessing mental ability en masse, and Terman was called upon to help with this phase of the work.

Intelligence, as the scale measures it, increases during childhood, at first rapidly and then more slowly, leveling off on the average at an adult maximum a little before the age of 16. The scale is calibrated in terms of mental age, which is the average performance of children of a given chronological age; that is to say, children of 10 should have an average mental age of 10, although some ten-year-olds are much brighter and some much duller. To compare children of different ages, Terman used the intelligence quotient (IQ), a ratio originally suggested by the German psychologist William Stern. The IQ is the percentage that the mental age is of the chronological age. It is obtained by dividing the subject’s mental age by his actual age and multiplying the result by 100. A child of 10 with a mental age of 14 has an IQ of 140 and is at the threshold of what Terman was pleased to call “genius.” A child of 5 with a mental age of 7 also has an IQ of 140, whereas a retarded child aged 10 with a mental age of 7 has an IQ of only 70. With the assistance of others, Terman continued to keep the Binet-Stanford scale revised so that it presently became the standard for fixing the IQ’s of children and, to a lesser degree, of adults.

If the cultural background of the developing child is constant, as the conventional American background tends to be, the IQ tends to be invariant. This apparent invariance led Terman to believe (1916) that intelligence is fixed in the individual and thus presumably inherited. He weakened a little in this view in the last decades of his life, when scientific opinion had shifted from hereditarianism toward environmentalism. By that time, however, intelligence was being broken up conceptually into component primary abilities or downgraded by being given a more operational label, such as “scholastic aptitude,” a conception free of hereditarian implications.

Terman was principally interested in high intelligence—in bright children first and then in the bright adults they became. Four of the five volumes of the Genetic Studies of Genius (1925-1959) examine the psychological characteristics of 1,528 very bright schoolchildren. The existence of the Stanford scale made the Genetic Studies of Genius possible. In 1911 Terman had used the Binet-Simon scale to select for study 31 children with IQ’s in excess of 125, but now he was ready to go ahead on a grand scale. Since it was not practicable to test all of the 160,000 schoolchildren in California, Terman asked schoolteachers to pick out what they thought were the brightest among the youngest children in their classes, and he had these children tested, setting an IQ of 140 as the threshold for further study. His assistants undertook to describe all 1,528 children in terms of medical examinations, anthropological measurements, scholastic achievement, character tests, interests, books read, and games known. The results were reported in 1925, and Terman’s faith was confirmed. Allowing for the inevitable exceptions, these “gifted children” constituted a charming, eager band of youth, alert, interesting and interested, socially alive—not misfits, neurotics, or warped daydreamers.

For 35 years they remained to Terman his gifted “children,” and he to them a father figure—their spouses were included in the relationship when they married. Follow-up surveys appeared in 1930, 1947, and posthumously in 1959, when the “children” were about 17, 35, and 45 years of age, and the study, begun in 1921, may continue until the year 2010, when the last survivor might be expected to have died. They remained a personable, effective group. Some of the men and a few of the career-minded women attained eminence. The IQ’s, on the whole, stood up pretty well, and it turned out that bright young people usually select bright spouses.

The second volume of the Studies (1926) was designed as a control for the first. Catherine (Cox) Miles shared the principal authorship with Terman. They studied the biographical records of 300 great men in history, presumptively “geniuses,” and estimated their IQ’s from the accounts of their youth. These eventually great persons tended, as children, to compare well with Terman’s gifted children. The control validated the enterprise. It is interesting to note the magnitude of the assessed IQ’s of important leaders in the history of civilization: Goethe was at the top with an estimated IQ of 210, the youthful Descartes was rated at 180, and Darwin at 165, but at 145, Napoleon just barely emerged above Terman’s threshold for “genius.”

Terman was more of a descriptive scientist than a theorist. He devised measurements, often by inventing and standardizing tests, used the procedures in the problem of his immediate concern, and reported the facts clearly and interestingly but with little theoretical elaboration. He was forced, however, to conclude that Francis Galton’s belief that eminence is the mark of genius does not hold universally; women are the most common exceptions, because they may apply their genius to the achievement of private contentment rather than to the attainment of public prestige. Such private success shows that, in addition to intelligence, properly directed motivation is needed to project the gifted person into the pages of history. Gifted people, Terman further suggested, may also have an exceptional capacity for contentment.

At the same time that Terman was working with Maud A. Merrill on a revision of the Stanford revision of the Binet scale (1937), he enlisted the support of Catherine Cox Miles in a study of Sex and Personality (1936). They designed a scale of masculinity, which ran from zero to +200, and another of femininity, which ran from zero to —200. The average male was rated +52, and the average female —70. The spread for each sex was enormous, but the overlap of the two sexes was negligible. Women athletes emerged as just a shade more feminine than clergymen. On the average, masculinity increases for males up to about age 16 and then diminishes steadily to zero at age 80. Femininity in women decreases up to the college sophomore level and then increases a little up into old age, but of course at every age the difference between the average male and the average female is enormous. A little boy is much more masculine than a little girl, and so it is also for both male and female sophomores. This is the sort of factual measured knowledge that delighted Terman.

Terman’s other principal adventure into the measurement of important social characteristics was his study of marital happiness (1938). To obtain the requisite data he constructed, with the aid of his assistants, a scale of happiness and applied it to 792 married couples and 109 divorced couples —1,802 persons altogether. Most of the supposed causes of marital happiness and unhappiness turned out to be invalid. Sexual relations mattered much less than Terman had expected, nor were differences in age or education so very important. The general conclusion was that happy persons make up happy pairs. And what makes a person happy? It seems that one important factor that predisposes an individual to happiness is that he or she should have had happy parents. Hereditarian Terman was finding that happiness can be inherited, but not through the genes or in Mendelian fashion. One other finding was that happiness is not necessarily dispensed to pairs, for an unhappy person may have a happy spouse.

Terman was born on a farm in Johnson County, Indiana, on January 15, 1877. He was the twelfth of 14 children; none of the rest ever attained the eminence or intellectual prestige of Lewis or of his son, Frederick E. Terman. Lewis’ father, himself a farmer, was the son of a Virginia farmer of Scotch-Irish descent. Lewis never disliked farm work, but he was possessed of an insatiable desire for education, and he loved reading. From the age of ten on he read most of the two hundred books in his father’s library, which included an Encyclopaedia Britannica. Until he was 13 he attended a one-room rural school with about thirty pupils and one teacher. Then he worked for two years on his father’s farm.

When he was 15 his parents satisfied his appetite for education by sending him for two years to the Central Normal College at Danville, Indiana. After that he taught for a year in a one-room rural school to obtain the money to return to Danville to earn a B.S. degree. Again he taught school and then went back to Normal College for a B.PD. Next he borrowed money and kept on for the classical degree, an A.B. Altogether he spent 164 weeks out of six years studying at Danville. He was now 21, and he spent the next three years as principal of a high school in which he taught all the courses to about forty pupils. During this time he married Anna B. Minton, and soon their son Frederick was born. Meanwhile Terman was reading the right kind of books about psychology (at Danville he had had to read William James’s Principles of Psychology surreptitiously because his instructor disapproved of its literary flavor).

Next, Terman found himself looking to Indiana University, where he could get a better A.B. than at the Normal College and where he could prepare himself to teach pedagogy and psychology. Again he had to borrow money, but education was vital, and he went with his wife’s strong support. At Indiana he found three Clark University men, all with PH.D.’S from Stanley Hall: William L. Bryan, who shortly became president of the university and saw little of Terman; John A. Bergstrom, an experimental psychologist who failed to interest him in the “brass-instrument psychology”; and Ernest H. Lindley, who became his chief mentor. He learned to read German and French well enough so that psychological literature in those languages no longer was closed to him, and in two years he obtained not only the solid A.B. that he sought but also an A.M. Lindley persuaded him to go to Clark to try for a PH.D.

So to Clark he went, already in debt, now head of a family of four, and obliged to borrow more money. Clark turned out to be a wonderful place to this farmer’s boy, avid for knowledge. Each of the handful of professors lectured on whatever he pleased three or four times a week. The students went to the lectures they liked. There were no registrations, no class lists, no recitations, and no examinations until the final oral examination for the PH.D. There were, however, incentives for hard work. Hall’s seminar became the focus of Terman’s endeavor. There, sharp criticism of one’s paper was quite devastating to self-esteem. Terman kept pressing his thesis that bright children are not unstable and finally obtained his PH.D. in 1905, when he was 28 years old. For two years he had lived just over the frontier from European psychology, for during that period America looked abroad for learning, and Terman’s great psychologists were Binet in France, Galton in England, and, to a lesser extent, the men of the psychological laboratories in Germany.

Just as his new career was about to begin, Terman was struck by tuberculosis. The first attack was in the summer of 1904, after which he rested and then went back to work, guarding his health carefully. In those days Stanley Hall was the leader of the new faith that psychology would revolutionize education, and many of his students went gladly to important posts in high schools or normal schools. Terman looked for an appointment in a southern climate and presently chose one at San Bernardino, California. As he began his work he had another hemorrhage, but after resting briefly he returned to work. At the end of the year he accepted a better post at the Los Angeles State Normal School, where he remained for four years. Other psychologists were there, including two Clark PH.D.’S, Gesell and Huey, and they formed a stimulating group. In 1910 a position at Stanford University became vacant, and Terman was asked to fill it. He began as assistant professor in the department of education and became a full professor in 1916, the year the Stanford revision was published.

Terman spent the last 46 years of his life productively engaged at Stanford. In 1922, on the retirement of Frank Angell from the department of psychology, Terman was asked to become its executive head, and his title was changed to professor of psychology. His contributions to mental testing in World War i were making him well known, and he was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1923. He had begun the Genetic Studies of Genius in the 1920s. In 1928 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, an honor which pleased him greatly. The 1930s were an especially productive decade, for they included another volume of the Genetic Studies, the studies of sex and personality and of marital happiness. The Stanford Achievement Test, developed with the assistance of T. L. Kelley and G. M. Ruch, a widely used instrument that was standardized on almost 350,000 children, appeared in various revisions in 1919, 1940, and 1953. The revision of the Stanford-Binet scale with Maud Merrill became available in 1937.

The tests brought Terman a comfortable income, but his indef atigability was undiminished. The chief studies mentioned were completed against a background of constant publication which yielded Terman a lifetime bibliography of over 200 items, besides book reviews and introductions to the books of others. There was also his constant correspondence with his gifted children and his interest in their children and grandchildren. The department of psychology at Stanford, with its careful selection of appointees and its subsequent permissive democracy, was becoming famous. Three men from the department were elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and four more became presidents of the American Psychological Association. Terman’s department conferred 55 PH.D.’S during his incumbency.

In 1942 Terman retired at the age of 65. He continued his activities on a diminished scale. The fourth volume of the Genetic Studies came out, and the fifth was begun. Terman’s belief in the inheritance of intelligence was somewhat weakened, yet it was undoubtedly reinforced when in 1946 his son was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He himself was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1953, and in 1956 the American Psychological Foundation decided to make the second award of its gold medal to Ter-man in 1957. Unfortunately, however, the award came too late, for Terman died at Stanford on December 21, 1956.

Edwin G. Boring

[For the historical context of Termaris work, see the biographies of Binetand Hall. For discussion of the later development of his ideas, see Achievement Testing; Creativity, article OU Genius AND Ability; Intelligence AND Intelligence Testing; Psychometrics; and the biography of Kelley


1916 The Measurement of Intelligence: An Explanation of and a Complete Guide For the Use of the Stanford Revision and Extension of the Binet-Simon Intelligence Scale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

1925-1959 Genetic Studies of Genius. 5 vols. Stanford Univ. Press. → Volume 1: Mental and Physical Traits of a Thousand Gifted Children, 1925, by L. M. Terman et al. Volume 2: The Early Mental Traits of Three Hundred Geniuses, 1926, by C. M. Cox et al. Volume 3: The Promise of Youth: Follow-up Studies of a Thousand Gifted Children, 1930, by B. S. Burks et al. Volume 4: The Gifted Child Grows Up, 1947, by L. M. Terman and M. H. Oden. Volume 5: The Gifted Group at Mid-life: Thirty-five Years’ Follow-up of the Superior Child, 1959, by L. M. Terman and M. H. Oden.

1932 Trails to Psychology. Volume 2, pages 297-331 in A History of Psychology in Autobiography. Worcester, Mass.: Clark Univ. Press; Oxford Univ. Press.

1936 Terman, Lewis M.; and Miles, Catherine C. Sex and Personality: Studies in Masculinity and Femininity. New York: McGraw-Hill.

(1937) 1960 Terman, Lewis M.; and Merrill, Maud A. Measuring Intelligence: A Guide to the Administration of the New Revised Stanford-Bine* Tests of Intelligence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. → The forms are periodically revised and restandardized.

1938 Terman, Lewis M. et al. Psychological Factors in Marital Happiness. New York: McGraw-Hill.


Binet, Alfred; and Simon, Th. 1905 Méthodes nou-velles pour le diagnostic du niveau intellectuel des anormaux. Année psychologique 11:191-244. → The first revision of this test appeared in 1908.

Boring, Edwin G. 1959 Lewis Madison Terman: 1877-1956. Volume 33, pages 414-461 in National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs. Washington: Government Printing Office. → Contains a portrait of Terman and a bibliography.

Hilgard, E. R. 1957 Lewis Madison Terman: 1877-1956. American Journal of Psychology 70:472-479.

Lewis, William B. 1957 Professor Lewis M. Terman. British Journal of Statistical Psychology 10:65-68.

Miles, Walter R. 1957 Lewis Madison Terman (1877-1956). Yearbook of the American Philosophical Society [1957]:165-170.

Psychological Register 1932 Terman, Lewis Madison. Volume 3, pages 478-481 in Psychological Register. Worcester, Mass.: Clark Univ. Press; London: Oxford Univ. Press. → Contains a bibliography of 99 items, up to 1932.

Sears, Robert R. 1957 L. M. Terman: Pioneer In Mental Measurement. Science 125:978-979.

Yerkes, Robert M. (editor) 1921 Psychological Examining in the United States Army. Volume 15 of National Academy of Sciences, Memoirs. Washington: Government Printing Office. → The original military forms of the Army Alpha test can be found in Part 2, chapters 1-4.