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Our history

Psychology at Birkbeck has its roots in the beginnings of the scientific study of the subject in the UK over a century ago. The department was established in the difficult period of the Second World War, but its origin can be traced to King's College London in the early days of psychological science towards the end of the 19th Century.

Choose a link from the list below to explore bonds that link the present Department of Psychological Sciences with the smaller, but influential, department established in 1944, and further back to the early days of modern psychology in the 19th century:

1890 to 1930

  • 1898: James Sully plays an important role in establishing a laboratory at University College London.
  • 1900: Dr Smith is appointed as the first lecturer in Experimental Psychology at King's College London.
  • 1902-03: Occasional students attend courses on Experimental Psychology at King's (Hearnshaw).
  • 1903: Dr C S Myers is appointed lecturer in Experimental Psychology at King's.
  • 1906: Dr C S Myers is awarded the Chair in Experimental Psychology and a Department of Psychology is established. Up till then he was a member of the Department of Physiology. Myers made a substantial contribution to the development of psychological science, particularly in the area of fatigue, and industrial psychology generally.
  • 1909: Dr C S Myers moves to Cambridge and publishes The Text-Book of Experimental Psychology which can be seen as the first real text book on experimental psychology with a manual for laboratory experiments. While at Cambridge he co-founds the National Institute of Industrial Psychology and the British Journal of Psychology.
  • 1922: Dr William Brown, whose interests are mainly in psychotherapy, succeeds Myers as Head of Department until Dr Francis Aveling is appointed Reader.
  • 1922: Francis Aveling is appointed as Reader. R B Cattell describes conditions in the laboratory:
    • 'The laboratory was at first a couple of cellars, two flights below the level of the Strand and smelling faintly of Thames River Water. These cells had been dungeons for the least popular lodgers when Somerset House accommodated Elizabethan political prisoners.'
  • 1926: Birkbeck College is incorporated into the University of London, meaning that students are awarded University of London degrees and benefit from collaboration in teaching and research with other members of the University.

1930 to 1940

  • 1932-41: Aveling occupies the Chair in Psychology. His interests include conceptualisation of consciousness, theories of knowledge, thinking, perception of briefly exposed materials, emotion and fear in warfare, and the status of psychology as an empirical science. During his tenure the department acquires more equipment and more favourable accommodation, and the emphasis on applied psychology is developed.
  • 1939: With the declaration of hostilities, London Colleges, including King’s, move as many students and resources as possible out of London to Bristol. Birkbeck College, with its unique mission of educating only part-time undergraduates, remains in London under the most difficult circumstances.
  • 1939: King's College Academic Council decides that intercollegiate evening courses in General Psychology and Experimental Psychology should be provided at Birkbeck, by King's College staff, for students registered there and remaining in London.
  • 1939-45: Professor E H Warmington on the decision to remain in London:
    • 'During the years 1939-1945 Birkbeck College could have gone from its place in London to some other near abode in Britain: It could have closed its doors altogether. It remained in London, and was closed down for a very short time only; so that its record over those years is part of London in action. Again, at any time the College's cramped, crowded and shabby buildings might have been wholly destroyed, its inmates mutilated or killed, its busy life brought to a stop; but none of these things happened. Studious work was indeed hindered and the drab structures with their contents were partly wrecked and ruined; but the theme of all that follows in this history is the manner in which a college of London’s University, having chosen for well considered reason to face in its own home a period of stress and strain, passed through all its dangers, and survived.'

1940 to 1960

  • The department's achievements in the early years up to 1951 are all the more remarkable given the prevailing conditions brought about by the Second World War. Academically, the years to Mace’s retirement in 1961 are marked by extensive research, particularly applied, and successful teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.
  • 1941: With the death of Professor Aveling in 1941 the University decides to transfer the teaching of Psychology from King's and establish a Chair in Psychology at Birkbeck.
  • 1944: Dr C A Mace, Reader in Psychology at Bedford College (then housed at Cambridge), is appointed to the Chair. R J Bartlett joins him from King's together with part-time lecturers Dr J Hadfield, Dr May Smith and Adele Frankenstein. Dr A Caws, L Cooper, G Adcock and Dr Grace Claver are appointed demonstrators.
  • More about research in the department's early years: Francis Aveling’s extensive work at King’s provided a good antecedent to Mace’s own research which embraced, for example, psychology of skill, thinking and creativity, psychology of aesthetics, the structure of organisations and philosophy of mind. Crucially for the development of Psychology at Birkbeck, much of the research was applied. For example, R J Bartlett had early interests in the psychology of advertising and measurement in psychology. Dr Hadfield’s work included psychological welfare of young children, psychopathology, war neurosis and the clinical use of hypnosis. May Smith’s interests were principally in industrial psychology, especially fatigue at work under wartime pressures. Other wartime applications included skills involved in operating range-finding equipment.
  • 1944: The Psychology building in Greystoke Place (the main College accommodation was Breams Buildings in Holborn) was severely damaged by a V1 'flying bomb' and the department moved to temporary accommodation in nearby Field House.
  • 1944: Sidney Thurlow is appointed Departmental Steward, being transferred from Bedford College 'as soon as he… has the Ministry of Labour's permission', together with equipment loaned until purchase of Birkbeck's own equipment is approved (such is the need for permission in wartime!). Affectionately known to generations of students, 'Sid' retired in 1968.
  • 1945: The first Birkbeck PhD is awarded to Rev. G Stephen Spinks for his thesis entitled 'Archetypes and Apocalyptic Literature' along with the MA awarded to Phyllis Freeston for her work on 'Children's conceptions of adult life'. A steady stream of PhDs and Master's awards follows.
  • 1946: The department moves to a large hut built on a site adjoining Greystoke Place.
  • 1947: Alec Rodger is appointed as lecturer, in a move that is to emerge as important for later developments, thus providing continuity to existing interests in occupational psychology.
  • 1940s: The department offers undergraduate courses leading to the University's BA and BSc General and Honours degrees together with a Postgraduate Academic Diploma in Psychology which provides instruction in certain branches of applied psychology including social, educational and industrial psychology.
  • 1951: The College enters its present building in Malet Street with Psychology situated on the fourth floor, which had been added to the original pre-war plan.
  • 1951-55: The department makes new appointments including Brian Foss, Thelma Veness, Harry Hurwitz, John Brown, Peter Cavanagh and Peter Dodwell. Research includes occupational psychology, psychophysics, memory, animal learning and discrimination (by octopus, rat and mynah bird), educational psychology and childhood cognition, some of it with the aid of substantial external funding.
  • 1951-60: There is a steady flow of PhDs, and increasing numbers of MAs in occupational psychology.
  • 1958: The Birkbeck Vocational Guidance Centre opens at Dartford in the 1958/09 session and 1959 sees the introduction of a Master's course in Occupational Psychology.

1960 to 1980

  • After Arthur Summerfield is appointed Head of Department in 1961, the number of undergraduates increases and the emphasis on teaching excellence is maintained. Over the period of Arthur Summerfield's headship the introduction of several prizes for examination performance add to the overall motivation of undergraduate students.
  • 1961: Building on the long-standing interests stretching back to the King's College period, the Department of Occupational Psychology (now the Department of Organizational Psychology) is established as the first of its kind in the United Kingdom, with Alec Rodger moving from the Department of Psychology to his appointment as Professor and Head.
  • 1961: Arthur Summerfield is appointed to the Chair in Psychology and Head of the Department of Psychology.
  • 1961-68: The two departments share the fourth floor of the Malet Street building, collaborating on teaching and both participating in the University's MSc Ergonomics course which ran from 1970 until 2000. Despite the limited space, there was expansion in both research and teaching. Funding from the MRC and US sources to Arthur Summerfield, Daphne Joyce and Harry Hurwitz facilitated the introduction of psychopharmacological research using animals.
  • 1963: The first Elaine Gladston prize for the best performance by an undergraduate student in the final-year examinations is awarded.
  • 1964: Peter Venables is appointed as Reader (and, shortly after, Professor), introducing research into psychophysiology and schizophrenia.
  • 1966: The first Henrietta Mary Whitehead Exhibition is awarded to give financial assistance for women Psychology students. This was established in memory of Henrietta Mary Whitehead who had been a student at King’s College.
  • 1967: The Department of Occupational Psychology vacates the fourth floor thus enabling new research laboratories to be built, all connected to the new LINC-8 computer and marking the introduction of the new technology that was to have such profound consequences generally.
  • 1965-70: Full-time undergraduates are admitted for the session 1965/68 in response to various national policies for higher education. But difficulties coping with the new demands in parallel with the part-time students leads to termination of the arrangement in1970. The department is then able to devote itself fully, again, to Birkbeck's mission of providing 'for persons who are engaged in earning their livelihood during the daytime and other persons, education, instruction, and the means for research' (Charter and Statutes, Article 3).
  • 1969-70: Important changes are made to the degree regulations, the most fundamental being the transfer of responsibility for setting and marking of examinations from the University to individual Colleges, and the introduction of course units in 1970. Up to that point students sat all their University examinations in their final year under the regulation that, if candidates failed, or were absent from any paper, they had to take all the papers again!
  • 1971: Professor Mace dies. The Times obituary describes him as 'perhaps the last in line of eminent philosophers such as William James, James Ward and G F Stout who helped established psychology as an empirical science'.
  • 1975: Max Coltheart is appointed and quickly establishes his work in cognitive neuropsychology.
  • 1978: The department takes possession of the basement in the North Block of Senate House, significantly alleviating pressure for research space brought about by increasing research activity. That space, originally occupied by the Institute of Education, had lain idle long enough for questions to be asked in Parliament about the University’s use of prime space in central London. As a result, a small committee assisted by Brian Aviss, the Departmental Superintendent, set about designing a suite of laboratories under considerable time pressure. Their task was not helped by discrepancies between the architectural plans and the building, which made their result all the more impressive!

1980 to 2000

  • 1988: Psychology in the University of London's Extra-Mural Department is incorporated into Birkbeck.
  • 1988: Arthur Summerfield retires, handing on a department that has increased substantially in size and is successful in both teaching and research. Expansion and success continues under the Headships of Paul Barber (1987-91), William Marslen-Wilson (1991-95) and Simon Green (1995-2005) (see Heads of Department).
  • The chair occupied by Arthur Summerfield goes to William Marslen-Wilson with a new chair being established for Loraine Tyler, both coming from Cambridge with a strong team researching the psychology of language.
  • Their need for research space is met by the house at 32 Torrington Place but at the cost of surrendering an equivalent amount of space in Senate House. The house in Torrington Place is at present occupied by the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development and the BabyLab.
  • 1991: The Arthur Summerfield Prize for the most promising performance in first-year examinations is established. Professor Charles Dicken of the State University of California, San Diego introduced the Visitors in Psychology Prize for the best final-year project in 1992.
  • 1999: In accordance with a general policy, the department is reclassified as a School of the College.

2000 to present

  • There is, of course a dramatic contrast in the conditions of research, teaching and learning now compared to the initial years of Psychology at Birkbeck. Much was achieved under the unfavourable conditions of the 1940s and much has been achieved under the present more favourable conditions. There is every reason to be optimistic for the future, and grateful for the foundations laid by Professor Mace and his colleagues in the difficult years of the 1940s.
  • 2001: The large and important National Evaluation for Sure Start programme begins, conducted by members of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues (running until 2012).
  • 2005: The Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development adds to its successes by being awarded the Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education 2005. It attracts funds for PhD students by its status as a Marie Curie Centre for Excellence doctoral training site which has placed it in the top 5% of life science research groups in Europe.
  • 2006: The CBCD moves into the new Woburn Link Building, adjacent to the Clore Building, equipped with an fMRI scanner.
  • 2008: Recognising the dynamic development of the School in both teaching and research activities, the Centre for Psychosocial Studies is transferred to the new School of Psychosocial Studies (now the Department of Psychosocial Studies), having established a range of clinically and socially oriented taught Master's courses in collaboration with external bodies, for example, the Institute of Family Therapy, the Institute for Group Analysis, and the British Association for Psychotherapy.
  • 2008: The year 2008 is notable for the department’s success in the Research Assessment Exercise, being ranked fifth amongst UK Psychology departments and second only to Cambridge amongst medium-sized departments. Research activity has responded dynamically to internal and external pressures and opportunities, and is currently organised under five research groupings.

Birkbeck's Mentoring Pathways scheme opens up opportunities for students from Psychological Sciences.

ESRC DTP funded research will investigate how infant and caregiver interaction influences social development.

The department will be leading the psychology pathway under this six year ESRC programme.