McDougall, William, 1871-1938

Alternative names
Birth 1871-06-22
Death 1938-11-28

Biographical notes:

William McDougall (1871-1938), an early twentieth century psychologist, taught at Duke University from 1927 to 1938. McDougall espoused a hormic theory of psychology, emphasizing genetics and instinct over nurture. McDougall was also a strong proponent of parapsychology.

From the description of William McDougall papers, 1892-1982. (Duke University Library). WorldCat record id: 57225797

William McDougall, a noted psychologist, was born in Lancashire, England, in 1871. He was educated at the University of Manchester (1886-1890); St. John's College, Cambridge (M.B., 1894), St. Thomas Hospital in London; and at Oxford (M.A., 1908). He also studied at Gottingen and received the D.Sc. from the University of Manchester in 1919.

In about 1898, McDougall participated in an anthropological expedition to Borneo and the Torres Strait. Unsatisfied with anthropology, he turned back to psychology and taught at University College, London, from 1900 to 1904. From 1904 to 1920, McDougall served as a Wilde reader in mental philosophy at Oxford University. During World War I, he also served as a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps. In 1920 he became a professor of psychology at Harvard. In 1927, he came to Duke University as a professor and chair of the new Department of Psychology, a position he held until his death in 1938. McDougall was also one of the organizers of the British Psychological Society; he was for a time president of the British Society for Psychical Research; and in 1912 became a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.

McDougall was perhaps best known as a vigorous opponent of behaviorism and materialism in psychology. He strongly believed that nature, not nurture, was responsible for a person's psychological composition. Through empirical, scientific study, McDougall attempted to demonstrate that his "hormic theory of psychology," which emphasized instinct, was superior to the prevailing behaviorist theory of psychology at the time. For many years, he conducted experiments on rats to determine if training could be inherited from one generation to the next. Although his prolific writings and speeches were often controversial and unpopular, McDougall was considered one of the most prominent psychologists of his time.

He also showed a strong interest in extrasensory perception and parapsychological phenomena from his time at Oxford onward. Like his opinions on behaviorism, his advocation of parapsychology was also criticized. McDougall was instrumental in bringing J.B. Rhine to Duke University, and helping to establish the well-known Parapsychology Laboratory at the school.

In 1899, McDougall married Anne Amelia Hickmore of Brighton, England. They had five children: Leslie (Mrs. Paul Brown); Duncan Shimwell (who died while serving in the R.A.F.); Angus Dougal (who died in 1978); Kenneth Dougal (who was killed in France in World War II); and Janet Aline (who died in childhood). William McDougall died on November 28, 1938, and his widow in 1964.

From the guide to the William McDougall Papers, ., 1892 - 1982, (University Archives, Duke University)


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  • Parapsychology--Research
  • Evolutionary genetics
  • Anthropology
  • Psychology
  • Rats as laboratory animals
  • Psychology--Study and teaching (Higher)
  • Psychology--Research


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  • Pacific Area (as recorded)