Biography of Psychologist William James

Ashley Livesay


The Famous William James

Many people know about psychology whether it is just some information or a lot of information. Psychology has been around for a long time and many people enjoy studying it. The people who study psychology no doubt know about a very famous man who has contributed substantially to the study of psychology and how it is now taught and understood; that man is William James, one of the most influential people in psychology.

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William James was a very famous psychologist in the nineteenth century. He was born on January 11, 1842 in the Aster house in New York city. He is the oldest of his five siblings, born to Henry and Marry James. Both his parents were quite religious, his father was a religious writer and philosopher. His father was one of thirteen children from an Irish immigrant that moved to New York and became one of the richest men in New York State by extracting salt in the Erie Canal. His brother, Henry James Jr., was a very famous fictional writer who was born only a year and three months after James. His sister, Alice, was later born in 1848. His family was well-off due to an inheritance his father had received, thus causing James to attend private school in New York along with having personal tutors. The family moved from America to Europe in 1855 for a vacation of sorts.

His father, while encouraging and doting of his five children, wanted them to have the best education. Throughout James’ life he was put in prestigious schools, had numerous tutors, and was moved throughout Europe and America. His siblings, for the

most part, also became famous like James. His brother, Both James’ brother and sister were famous for their published works among other things. While his other two brothers, Garth Whikinson and Robert, joined the American Civil War in the Union Army.

James had only found a way not to join the Civil War due to his fluctuating mental health. James suffered from severe depression his whole life, along with panic attacks and even hallucinations. Though he continued to act as though it didn’t bother him and only ever showed his disorder when he was deep in depression. Though the depression lessened by the time James’ family moved to Europe.

While in Europe James studied at a school in Geneva, Paris where he first became interested in painting and science. His family’s wealth allowed him to indulge in his interest in both painting and science. In the last year the family was in Europe James got to study painting with William Hunt in Rhode Island. His father doted on all his children, wanting them to have what he did not while growing up. It was with much encouragement from his father that he decided to pursue his passion of drawing and science.

His family moved around from Europe to America quite often, giving James the chance to study both painting and science. However, he stopped his study of painting and instead studied science at Geneva Academy in 1860 for a brief time before the family moved back to Rhode Island where he continued to study painting. Despite his

loving parents and wealth, he struggled with his ultimate life goal. He decided not to pursue his passion in painting, deeming himself not good enough. He often visited museums, lectures, and he read many books including Darwin’s Origin of Species that urged him to continue his study in science.

At the age of nineteen, James got accepted to Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University where he studied chemistry. He also attended many of Louis Agassiz’s, who was a zoologist and geologist, lectures while at the University. He later

decided to study comparative anatomy but left the university to enter Harvard Medical School. After leaving Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard University, he entered Harvard Medical School where he studied evolutionism. In April of 1865 He studied abroad in Brazil where he helped gather evidence of evolutionism in the Amazon. While in Brazil he contracted small pox that effected his vision to the point that he could only read a few hours at a time, which affected his studies substantially. James also suffered from severe depression, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, and even hallucinations but with his many health problems, James managed to graduate Harvard Medical School and received his M.D in 1869.

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James was offered a job to teach physiology at Harvard Medical School in 1872 by one of his old professors. By mid-1870’s he switched to teach psychology, using a physiological approach to teach the subject and made American history by establishing the very first psychology laboratory. He later met a school teacher by the name of Alice

Howe Gibbens who he later married in 1878. Later after he married Alice, James was

asked to write a psychology textbook. In 1878, the same year he married Alice, he was asked to write a psychology book; however it was around this time he began to become uninterested in psychology, much like he did with his painting. They had five children, naming the two of them William and Henry. The two had a good marriage, Alice was quite adapt to handle James’ obsessions and fluctuating mental state.

He published his first textbook, Principles of Psychology, in 1890 after taking him

twelve years to finish. Despite his textbook becoming one of the most important, and most used, of any other psychology textbook he was unhappy with it. He later published another textbook about psychology yet again was unhappy with it even though it too is quite popular and well-used. While he continued to publish his amazing works he was never quite satisfied with any of them, and unfortunately he died before he could publish anything that he was satisfied with. He died on August 26, 1910 in Chocorua, Quebec with his wife and son at his bedside.

In the year 1850 the American Civil War was raging, men fighting to abolish slavery in remaining slave states. Many man, young and old, fought in the disastrous war but one man was absent from this war. William James did not fight in this war but rather was walking a path that would make American history. The study of psychology goes back ages but James revolutionized it with all his published works. Throughout the Civil War many people looked to science to help cure their illness whether it be physical or mental, and James used science to educate people about the study of the mind in the field of psychology.

James’ published works about psychology improved many people’s understanding of the human mind and how the brain works. James’ published textbook, The Principles of Psychology, was a revolutionary textbook that helped many people better understand psychology. Numerous doctors used James’ textbook during the Civil War to help many soldiers get help with their mental disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. His textbook was also used by many teachers, in many classes, and is still being used today to teach the intricate science of psychology.

The Civil War was not the only age James lived through, however; James also lived during the Gilded Age. The Gilded Age was a time of technological improvement, a time when immigration was most abundant, and a lot of political disputes. The Gilded Age was also the age of great literature, gorgeous music, and beautiful art. James also participated in this time when he published another of his amazing works, The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. This particular work is not as popular as his textbook however it provides more understanding of philosophy. Though he did publish quite a lot of works over the years of his life along with teaching he did struggle a bit financially.

During the Civil War a large amount of money was used for the war, leaving the country and citizens poor. James also felt this economic hardship though not quite so terribly as he did have a steady income while he was working at the Harvard University. His lack of money did make it hard to get his works popular as most people would use whatever money they did have on more important items rather then books. He did somehow manage to continue living well and providing for his five children as if the economic hardships did not effect him. Though while all this is quite interesting and helped influence James’ work, what really influenced him to peruse psychology was physiology, and had he not been interested in this psychology may never have been thought of the way it is now.

Psychology, surprisingly, didn’t become separate from physiology until the mid 1800’s when James started the first psychology lab in America, experimenting with a physiological approach to psychology. Though psychology is mostly associated and accredited to William James, the study of the human mind is traceable to Aristotle. Aristotle was the first to suggest that the mind controlled the body rather then other theories, and from then on the study of the mind continued to evolve. A man named Franz Gall wrote about phrenology, a theory that states the bumps in human skulls are able to reveal the individual’s personality, and though this was an absurd theory it also helped psychology evolve to what it is today. Though, William James still remains known as the father of psychology.


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