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Lightner Witmer: biography of this American psychologist

Lightner Witmer: biography of this American psychologist

January 22, 2021

Lightner Witmer (1867-1956) was an American psychologist, recognized to this day as the father of clinical psychology. This is the case since he founded the first child psychology clinic in the United States, which began as a derivative of the psychology laboratory of the University of Pennsylvania and which especially provided child care.

In this article we will see a biography of Lightner Witmer , as well as some of his main contributions to clinical psychology.

  • Related article: "History of Psychology: authors and main theories"

Lightner Witmer: biography of this clinical psychologist

Lightner Witmer, formerly David L. Witmer Jr., was born on June 28, 1867 in Philadelphia, United States. Son of David Lightner and Katherine Huchel, and the eldest of four brothers, Witmer earned a Ph.D. in psychology and soon developed as a member of the University of Pennsylvania. Also, he had training in arts, finance and economics, and political science.


As with other scientists and psychologists of the time, Witmer it grew in the context of the American Civil War , around an emotional atmosphere strongly charged with worry and at the same time fears and hopes.

In addition, Witmer was born in Philadelphia, which in the same context had been characterized by different events that marked the history of the country, such as the Battle of Gettysburg and the various struggles for the prohibition of slavery. All of the above led Witmer to develop a special concern for using psychology as a tool for social improvement.

Training and academic career

After having graduated in political science, and trying to continue studying law, Witmer he met experimental psychologist James McKeen Cattell, who was one of the most influential intellectuals of the time.


This last reason to Witmer to begin their studies in psychology. Witmer soon became interested in this discipline, partly because he had previously served as a history and English teacher with children of different ages, and he had noticed that many of them had various difficulties, for example, to distinguish sounds or letters. Far from staying on the sidelines, Witmer had worked closely with these children, and his help had been instrumental in increasing their learning.

After meeting Cattell (who had also trained with another of the parents of psychology, Wilhelm Wundt) and after having accepted to work as his assistant, Witmer and Cattell founded an experimental laboratory where the main objective was to study the differences in reaction times between different individuals.

Cattell soon leaves the university, and the laboratory, and Witmer begins to work like assistant of Wundt in the University of Leipzig, in Germany. After obtaining his doctorate, Witmer returned to the University of Pennsylvania as director of the psychology laboratory, and specialized in research and teaching in child psychology.


The first psychology clinic in the United States

As part of his work in the psychology laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, Witmer founded the first US child care psychologist clinic .

Among other things he was in charge of working with different children, with the aim of helping them overcome what he called "defects" for learning and socialization. Witmer maintained that these defects were not diseases, nor were they necessarily the result of a brain defect, but rather a mental state proper to the child's development.

In fact, he said that these children should not be considered as "abnormal", because if they deviate from the average, this happened because their development was at a stage before the majority. But, through adequate clinical support, supplemented by a training school that functions as a hospital-school, their difficulties could be compensated.

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Witmer and the beginnings of clinical psychology

In the debate over the hereditary or environmental determination of behavior, which dominated much of the psychology of the moment, Witmer was initially positioned as one of the defenders of hereditary factors. However, after beginning the interventions as a clinical psychologist, Weimer He argued that the child's development and capabilities were strongly conditioned by environmental elements and for the socioeconomic role.

From there, his clinic focused on expanding the study of educational psychology and what was previously called special education. In addition, he is credited with being the father of clinical psychology because he was the first to use the term "Clinical Psychology" in the year 1896, during a working session of the American Psychological Association (APA).

In the same context, Witmer defended the separation of psychology and philosophy He especially advocated dividing the APA of the American Philosophy Association. Since this last one generated different controversies, Witner and Edward Titchener founded an alternative society only for experimental psychologists.

Witmer defended strongly that the investigations carried out in psychology, in the laboratories, as well as the theories developed by the great intellectuals, could have a practical and direct use to improve the quality of life of the people. Likewise, the basis of the development of clinical psychology is the premise that practice and research are indissociable elements for this discipline.

Bibliographic references:

  • Lightner, Witmer (2018). Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 30, 2018. Available at //en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lightner_Witmer.
  • Ju├írez, A. R. (2016). Lightner Witmer and the first psychological clinic for children in the United States. VIII International Congress of Research and Professional Practice in Psychology XXIII Research Conference XII Meeting of Researchers in Psychology of MERCOSUR. Faculty of Psychology - University of Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires.
  • Thomas, H. (2009). Discovering Lightner Witmer: A Forgotten Hero of Psychology. Journal of Scientific Psychology. pp. 3- 13. Recovered August 30, 2018. Available at //www.psyencelab.com/uploads/5/4/6/5/54658091/discovering_lightner_witmer.pdf.

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