The Origins and Development of Scientific Psychology in New Zealand, 2005


Reprinted from Wedding, D., & Stevens, M. J. (Eds.). (2009). Psychology: IUPsyS Global Resource (Edition 2009) [CD-ROM]. International Journal of Psychology, 44(Suppl. 1), “Origins” section.


The origins and development of scientific psychology in New Zealand

Michael Corballis
University of Auckland, New Zealand

New Zealand


Although New Zealand universities did not establish departments of psychology until after World War II, the history of scientific psychology in the country goes back almost to the origins of experimental psychology itself. This was due to the endeavours of one of New Zealand’s most distinguished academics, Sir Thomas Alexander Hunter. Born in London, Hunter was raised from the age of four in Dunedin, a university town in the South Island of New Zealand. He gained his M.A. in mental and moral philosophy from the University of Otago in 1899, taught school for a while, and was then appointed lecturer in Mental Science and Political Economy at Victoria University College in Wellington, New Zealand, and in 1906 completed an M.Sc. there. He was interested in psychology, and in 1907 he went to the United States to study with Edward B. Titchener at Cornell University. Titchener, an Englishman, was at the time probably the most dominant figure in psychology in the United States. Hunter’s visit was brief, but he continued to correspond with Titchener for many years, and one wonders if he may have had any influence over Titchener’s textbook, published in 1910. He also corresponded with the English psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers, as well as with Titchener’s mentor, Wilhelm Wundt, who had established the first laboratory of experimental psychology in Leipzig in 1879.

On his return to New Zealand, Hunter was appointed to a combined Chair in Philosophy and Economics at Victoria University College, but in 1909 he took a new Chair in Mental and Moral Philosophy. He introduced a diploma in experimental psychology, and established the first psychological laboratory in either Australia or New Zealand. Although several generations of students were introduced to experimental studies of such topics as reaction time, visual acuity and hand-eye coordination, this laboratory seems to have functioned primarily for educational purposes. There appear to have been no original publications in basic experimental psychology arising from it, although Hunter himself wrote a number of articles with psychological themes in the 1920s (e.g., Hunter, 1924, 1927, 1928; see Taylor, 2003, for more details). Two of his legacies to New Zealand psychology are the Hunter Memorial Prize for the top student in psychology at Victoria University of Wellington, and the premier Hunter Award for psychological research offered annually by the New Zealand Psychological Society. In 1939 Hunter became the first academic in New Zealand to be awarded a knighthood. He was awarded an honorary Litt.D. by the University of New Zealand in 1949, and died in 1953.

This early momentum appears to have been lost, however, as Hunter devoted himself increasingly to broader and more practical social concerns, and less and less to scientific psychology. He was first president of the Wellington branch of the Workers’ Educational Institute, served as chairman of the New Zealand Council for Educational Research from its inception in 1938 until 1947, and was Vice-Chancellor of the University of New Zealand from 1929 until 1947. He worked for university reform, and was chairman of Massey Agricultural College (now Massey University) from 1936 to 1938. He took a stand against the eugenics movement that swept the western world, including New Zealand, in the 1930s, with horrific consequences in Nazi Germany. Later on, in the 1940s, he persuaded the Prime Minister and Minister of Education, Peter Fraser, to provide funds for a School of Social Science for the training of social workers.

Despite Hunter’s broadening interests, his Department of Mental and Moral Philosophy retained a connection with psychology with the appointment of Ernest Beaglehole as Senior Lecturer in 1937. Beaglehole had graduated from Victoria University College, and then proceeded to the London School of Economics and Yale University, where he gained his Ph.D. in psychology. He was a protégé and admirer of Hunter, but his field was closer to anthropology than to psychology, and his research focused on indigenous communities in both Arizona and the Pacific region. He edited the festschrift to Hunter, the first ever to a New Zealand academic (Beaglehole, 1946). Nevertheless, while paying tribute to Hunter’s immense contributions to academic, political, and social life in New Zealand, Beaglehole (1966, p. 124) remarked that “he was never a great or profound scholar in the professional sense”.


With the post-war expansion of universities, psychology began to break away from its home in philosophy, and not surprisingly Victoria University College led the way. Beaglehole was appointed to the newly created Chair of Psychology at Victoria University College in 1948, and proceeded to build the first autonomous department of psychology in the country. He continued his interest in ethnopsychology, and like Hunter began to play a role in public life, at one point chairing the International Labour Organisation’s Committee of Experts on Indigenous Labour. In 1947, he became the first psychologist to be elected a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, a scientific organization modeled on the Royal Society of London. His work on indigenous communities was continued and broadened by his daughter and son-in-law, Jane and James Ritchie, who were later appointed to the foundation Department of Psychology at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand. But Beaglehole did not create his department entirely in his own image. Among the early appointments was Cyril John Adcock, who had taken his Ph.D. at the University of London, and went on to establish a tradition of factor analysis at Victoria. David Quartermain joined the staff from Canterbury University College, and developed interests in learning theory and later in physiological psychology.

Following Victoria University College’s lead, independent Departments of Psychology continued to emerge in the other universities, albeit at a rather leisurely pace. A Chair in Psychology1 was approved at Canterbury University College in 1952, but it was not until 1957 that Professor Alan Crowther, a graduate of Cambridge University, was appointed. A Department of Psychology was established in 1957 at Auckland University College, headed initially by a Senior Lecturer, T. H. (Harry) Scott. Scott was tragically killed at the age of 41 in a climbing accident in 1960, and Professor Hubert (Barney) Sampson came from a lectureship at Canterbury University in 1961 to the newly established Chair at the University of Auckland. This was also the year in which the colleges of the University of New Zealand (Auckland, Victoria, and Canterbury) were established as separate universities. Otago University, New Zealand’s oldest university, had been established as a separate entity from the outset. Its first professor of psychology, Stephen Griew, was not appointed until 1963, although he moved to Australia just a few years later, to be replaced by Professor Peter McKellar.


By this time, the legacy of Titchener, as reflected in the early influence of Hunter, was well-buried in the past. While this may have been due in part to the more social and cultural agenda represented by Hunter in his later years and by Beaglehole, the dominant influence in psychology of the post-War period was behaviourism, which had much earlier been instrumental in the demise of the introspective psychology of Wundt and Titchener. The behaviourist revolution is often dated to the publication, in 1913, of J. B. Watson’s article “Psychology as a Behaviourist Views It” in the influential Psychological Review, but by the 1950s the dominant theorists were Clark Hull and Edward Chase Tolman, and a little later B. F. Skinner. New Zealand students in the departments of psychology of the late 1950s were as well-versed as their U.S. counterparts in Hull-Tolman controversies over which way rats might be expected to turn when confronted with choice points in a maze.

None of the inaugural professors could be described as a behaviourist, at least in the radical Skinnerian sense, but the departments they established could scarcely avoid the behaviourist philosophy of the time, and the growth of Skinner’s influence. The person who was to become New Zealand’s leading figure in behavioural psychology was Michael C. Davison, who came from Britain to complete his Ph.D. at the University of Otago. In 1969, he was appointed to a lectureship at Auckland, where he established a strong laboratory in the experimental analysis of behaviour, which continues to this day. This was the first psychological laboratory in New Zealand to establish an international reputation, with the radical behaviourism of B. F. Skinner as the dominant influence. But behavioural laboratories had also been established in other universities, with rats and then pigeons as the subjects of choice, although a more comparative approach was developed at the University of Canterbury by James Pollard and Robert N. Hughes. In the early 1960s, there was probably more psychological research on animals than on humans in the country’s departments of psychology.

Behaviourism took a more applied turn when Dr. Ron Kilgour, who completed his Ph.D. in animal behaviour at the University of Waikato in the 1960s, was appointed as a researcher at the Ruakura Agricultural Research Centre in Hamilton, New Zealand. His pioneering work on the behaviour of farm animals, beginning in the late 1960s, alerted researchers and regulatory authorities to the importance of having verifiably high standards of animal welfare for the sustainability of New Zealand’s livestock production systems. Following his untimely death in a car accident in 1988, a trust was set up with the aim of supporting activities that would be consistent with his vision for the promotion of animal behaviour and welfare research, and its application. Kilgour was listed posthumously among the authors of articles published through to 1994, six years after his death.


Meanwhile, in the United States and elsewhere, behaviourism began to give way to the so-called “cognitive revolution.” According to the American authorHoward Gardner (1985), the critical date for the “cognitive revolution” was 11 September,2 1956, when the speakers at a conference held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology included Noam Chomsky on syntactic structures, Herbert Simon (later to win the Nobel Prize in Economics) and Alan Newell on the first complete proof of a theorem by a computing machine, and George A. Miller on the magical number seven. It was Chomsky who was to provide the most direct challenge to Skinnerian behaviourism. It took some years, however, for the cognitive revolution to take hold in mainstream psychology.

British psychologists were perhaps earlier than their U.S. counterparts to embrace cognitive psychology, in part because behaviourism has less of a hold in the United Kingdom and Europe. It was also due in part to a strong interest in human performance, dating from Sir Frederic Bartlett’s (1932) studies of thinking, and subsequent work on performance assessment conducted during World War II, much of it at the Applied Psychology Unit (APU) at Cambridge. Among the important books of the period was the 1958 volume Perception and Communication, by the British psychologist Donald E. Broadbent, Director of the APU. This book was in many respects a forerunner to Ulric Neisser’s classic 1967 book Cognitive Psychology.

New Zealand was fortunate in that cognitive psychology was influenced equally by developments in Britain and the United States, thus combining both traditions. One of the main figures to emerge to give some coherence to these new developments was Barney Sampson. As a Canadian, Sampson managed to sit somewhere on a psychological fence between Britain and the United States. Before his appointments at Canterbury and Auckland, he had obtained his Ph.D. at McGill University in Montreal, where he befriended New Zealander Harry Scott, his predecessor as Head of the Department in Auckland. Scott himself was one of the more interesting characters in New Zealand psychology. He had been interned as a conscientious objector in New Zealand during World War II, and after the war went to McGill for his Ph.D. There, he was influenced by Hebb’s ideas, and in particular by Hebb’s view that the brain needed constant stimulation in order to function properly. While at McGill he co-authored a famous paper on the destabilizing effects of sensory deprivation on psychological function (Bexton, Heron, & Scott, 1954), a study that was later to lead to the controversial use of sensory deprivation as a “brain-washing” technique. Scott’s untimely death cut short any lasting effect on scientific psychology in New Zealand, but the McGill influence was carried on by Sampson.

After completing his Ph.D. at McGill in 1954, and before coming to the University of Canterbury, Sampson had worked for the Defence Research Board in Canada, where he developed an interest in human information processing. Graduate students who worked with Sampson in the late 1950s and early 1960s might well have had more influence had they not left to pursue further studies elsewhere, among them, Peter F. MacNeilage and myself to McGill University, and Paul Spong to UCLA. One early appointment at Auckland was William F. Anthony, a young British psychologist who introduced the work of Broadbent, the Oxford psychologist J. A. Deutsch, and other contemporary British psychologists, providing a useful foil to the rampant behaviourism of the time. Cognitive psychology appeared to have been fully recognized when the author of this article, with a Ph.D. from McGill, was appointed to a Chair of Psychology at the University of Auckland in 1978, with a mandate to develop cognitive psychology.


Sampson also brought from McGill an appreciation of physiological psychology, derived from the pioneering work of Donald O. Hebb, Peter M. Milner, and others. During the behaviourist era, in fact, there had been little interest in the brain, and it was Hebb’s Organization of Behaviour, published in 1949, that led to its revival. A number of Auckland graduates specializing in physiological psychology in the early 1960s also went on to posts overseas. One of these was David Quartermain, who came to a lectureship at Auckland from Victoria University College, completed his Ph.D. at Auckland, and went on to the United States to work with Neal Miller at the Rockefeller University in New York. He eventually became a Professor of Neurology at New York University. Keith Franklin was another Auckland graduate in physiological psychology who went on to complete his Ph.D. at the University of London, and subsequently obtained a professorship in Behavioural Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at McGill. With the expansion of universities throughout the world in the 1960s, a large number of the country’s most promising scientists, including psychologists, left to make careers elsewhere, lured by higher salaries and the more stimulating scientific culture offered in the intellectual centres of Europe and North America, and to a lesser extent in Australia.

Sampson’s most lasting influence was not on physiological psychology per se, but rather on the development of neuropsychology. This again may have resulted from his experiences at McGill, since neuropsychology itself was founded when Brenda Milner took up the first hospital post in neuropsychology at the Montreal Neurological Institute, which was affiliated with McGill and made famous by the neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield’s pioneering work on epilepsy. But Sampson’s involvement arose more directly, and somewhat unexpectedly, from his research on a paced serial adding task (PSAT), initially conceived as a vehicle for studying human information processing. Roger Ratcliff, a Ph.D. student with an undergraduate background in physics, developed a sophisticated mathematical model of performance on this task, and went on to a distinguished career as an experimental and mathematical psychologist in the United States. In many respects, though, the PSAT studies carried out by Sampson and graduate students (including the author) were in danger of becoming the kind of paradigm-driven research that all too often in experimental psychology becomes an end in itself-and a dead end at that. It was another doctoral student of Sampson’s, Dorothy Gronwall, who then saw that it was a sensitive index of information-processing deficits following closed-head injury. Gronwall and Sampson (1974) established the PSAT internationally as a neuropsychological test, and in 1981, with the collaboration of a neurosurgeon, Philip Wrightson, Gronwall set up the Concussion Unit at Auckland Hospital. Her books with Wrightson and another Auckland graduate, Peter Waddell, are widely used as practical guidelines for recognition and management of the effects of concussion (Gronwall, Wrightson & Waddell, 1990; Wrightson & Gronwall, 1999). Gronwall was created an Officer of the British Empire for services to clinical neuropsychology in 1994, and died suddenly, at the age of 70, in 2001. She was New Zealand’s first clinical neuropsychologist, and also helped establish a strong research-based culture in that field.

Gronwall also taught a now legendary master’s course in clinical neuropsychology in the Department of Psychology at Auckland. Some continuity with Gronwall’s work was maintained when Jennifer A. Ogden completed a Ph.D. on hemispatial neglect, based on patients at Auckland Hospital. In 1986, after a postdoctoral year working at Massachusetts Institute of Technology with Suzanne Corkin, a former student of Brenda Milner’s at McGill, Ogden was appointed Senior Lecturer in charge of the clinical psychology program at Auckland, which retains a strong emphasis in clinical neuropsychology.

Neuropsychology at Auckland later evolved into what is now known as cognitive neuroscience. From the mid-1990s, this was built around a high-density EEG laboratory, and since October 2004 the University has had a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) facility for both structural and functional brain imaging-the first of its kind in the country. The group also has a strong record of research with patients with commissurotomy, callosal agenesis, hemispatial neglect, agnosias, and disorders of memory.


In the meantime, the importance of physiological psychology at Auckland had diminished, but was installed with a flourish at the University of Otago with the appointment of Graham V. Goddard as Professor of Psychology there in 1981. Goddard was yet another graduate of McGill, having completed his Ph.D. there in 1963. He then went on to academic appointments at the University of Waterloo and then Dalhousie University in Canada, where he achieved some prominence in neuroscience from his discovery that low-level electrical stimulation of the limbic system in rats eventually leads to epilepsy-like seizures, a phenomenon known as “kindling.” This work laid the foundation for his subsequent work on long-term potentiation (LTP), in which trains of electrical stimulation to the brain, notably to the hippocampus, induce long-term changes in synaptic responsivity. This phenomenon is widely held to be the neural basis of memory.

Echoing the earlier death of Harry Scott, Goddard was tragically killed in 1987 while trying to cross a flooded stream in Arthurs Pass National Park. His work on LTP was carried on by others, notably Wickliffe C. Abraham, who had been a post-doctoral fellow with Goddard, and is now Professor and Head of the Department of Psychology at Otago. That Department is a world-class centre for research into memory at all levels, including the neurophysiological, the neuropsychological, the developmental, the behavioural, and (perforce) the cognitive.


This article has focused on psychological science at university departments of psychology, but psychology also features in other departments, such as the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Auckland and the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago. One researcher was Professor John S. Werry, who was yet another graduate of McGill, having received his Diploma of Psychiatry there and worked for some years in the Montreal Children’s Hospital. He was appointed in 1970 to the Chair of Psychiatry at the University of Auckland. His work on the use of psychoactive drugs for modifying behaviour in children and adolescents has been influential internationally in both psychology and psychiatry. The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit is also recognized for psychological research, especially for its longitudinal studies of a cohort of around 1,000 babies born between 1972 and 1973. This unit is part of the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine at the University of Otago, first established under the directorship of Dr. P. A. Silva. It has an international reputation for studies in psychosocial, behavioural medicine and biomedical aspects of development.

Research in educational and developmental psychology has also featured in Departments of Education in New Zealand Universities. From a psychological perspective, the dominant figure is Dame Marie Clay, who graduated with a Ph.D. in education from the University of Auckland in 1962, and was appointed as a lecturer there that same year. Her research on reading led to the Reading Recovery program for children at risk of reading difficulties. This program of early intervention was adopted in New Zealand in 1983, and more recently in Australia, Canada, Great Britain and the United States. Her book Reading Recovery: Guidelines for Teachers in Training has sold more than eight million copies worldwide, and in 1992 she was made Dame of the British Empire.


In more recent times, scientific psychology in New Zealand has been less dominated by individuals. Since the 1970s, each department has grown from a handful of members to some 30 or more regular academic staff, embracing all the major areas of psychology. Departments of psychology at the Universities of Auckland, Canterbury, Otago, and the Victoria University of Wellington carry out research in the mainstream areas of psychology, including behavioural and cognitive neuroscience, clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, sensation and perception, and social and cultural psychology. These departments are more or less indistinguishable from mainstream departments in Australia, Canada, Britain, or the United States. The two newer universities, Massey University, established in 1963, and the University of Waikato, established in 1964, have tended to lean more to applied aspects of psychology, although they too offer mainstream programmes. Research based on Maori perspectives is a distinctive component in some departments, notably those at Waikato and Massey. Critical psychology and discourse theory have developed strongly in some departments, especially those at Auckland and Massey, and health psychology is now well established at Auckland and Massey. Psychology remains popular among students, although probably less for its science than for its perceived practical and clinical applications.

The future of psychological science nevertheless seems assured. In 2003, the New Zealand government undertook the first evaluation of research in the country’s universities and other tertiary institutions, somewhat along the lines of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in the United Kingdom, which will enter its sixth phase in 2008. In New Zealand the evaluation is linked to a special fund known as the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF), created to supplement university funding on a competitive basis. Out of 41 subject areas, psychology ranked seventh, just behind chemistry and ahead of such established disciplines as physics and mathematics. This is a remarkable tribute to its founders, especially given that departments of psychology have as much to do with professional training as with psychological science. That said, though, funding for research, and especially basic research, is low by international standards, and psychological research does not seem to be well-recognized by funding agencies.

New Zealand is a small country, largely dependent on agriculture, and far from the intellectual and industrial centres of Europe and North America. It is therefore always in danger of losing its most talented scientists to positions overseas. New Zealand boasts three winners of the Nobel Prize and one winner of the Fields medal (the top award in mathematics), but all four accomplished their work overseas—two in the United Kingdom and two in the United States. Nevertheless, there are some reverse attractions that have kept the university system reasonably competitive. New Zealand has the reputation of having escaped the worst excesses of industrialization, and has an equable climate, a clean environment, a well-educated population, and stable government. In the literal sense, at least, the grass may be greener here than in many other countries. In the 1960s and 1970s, a number of scientists and academics migrated here to escape the threat of nuclear holocaust, and there are signs of another wave as many see the country as relatively immune from global terrorism. For a small country, it is important to attract scientists to visit and work here, and perhaps to lure some of those earlier emigrants back home. With the advance of electronic communications and the increasing accessibility of global travel, the prospects for international science in New Zealand seem reasonably good.

The particular challenge faced by psychological science in New Zealand is to persuade granting agencies and the general public that it is a respectable and vibrant discipline, ill-represented by the pop psychology that too often pervades the media and popular press. Although this is a universal problem, it may be especially acute in New Zealand because psychological science is a comparatively recent development, having really taken hold only since the 1960s. But now that psychology has come of age, the prognosis for its secure adulthood seems promising.


1 Up until the 1960s, New Zealand universities followed British tradition in establishing a single professorial Chair in each department. The person appointed to that Chair was the sole professor and department head. Later, this system was relaxed in large departments with the establishment of other Chairs, and in rare cases individuals could be promoted through the ranks to so-called “Personal Chairs.” Headship was then rotated among professors, and sometimes extended to those at lower ranks. In comparison with the North American system, the rank of lecturer corresponds to assistant professor, and senior lecturer to associate professor. Associate professor is effectively an extra step, perhaps closer to full professor in the North American system, and promotion to professor is now much more common than it was in the past.

2 This was to prove a fateful date, since the attack on the Twin Towers in New York took place 45 years later, on 11 September, 2001.


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© 2005 International Union of Psychological Science


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