Burrhus Frederic Skinner, known as “Fred” to his friends and as “B. F.” to most others, was born in the railroad town of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania (population about 2,500) and lived there until leaving for college at eighteen. Skinner’s family was middle-class. His father, William Arthur Skinner, was a lawyer for the railroad and ran for political office several times without ever winning an election. Fred’s mother, Grace Madge Skinner, was a homemaker known for her beauty, her singing voice, and her community service. Burrhus was her maiden name.
Skinner’s mother nearly died in childbirth, a fact Fred was to be reminded of occasionally as he grew older. Skinner had one sibling, a younger brother named Ebbe who died tragically at sixteen of a brain hemorrhage. Fred Skinner was a college freshman when Ebbe died and never spoke much of the event.
Skinner attended the local high school, making good grades and graduating second in a class of seven. (His mother and father also graduated second in their classes.) He then attended Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, a small liberal arts school, where he majored in English. He took no psychology courses.
Although Will Skinner wanted his son to go into law, Fred had no taste for the field. He was interested in writing, and after graduating from Hamilton, Skinner proposed to his parents, who had relocated to Scranton, Pennsylvania, that he live back at home while writing a novel. Skinner’s father, who had himself tried unsuccessfully to write stories, agreed reluctantly to support Fred for a year. One year turned into two, although only the first was spent actually writing. Skinner had published poetry, essays, and news articles in local or college papers and even in some national magazines, and he had received encouragement from poet Robert Frost for his writing. However, he decided after what he later referred to as his “Dark Year” that he would never be a literary success. In fact, he began to doubt literature’s worth to anyone. According to Particulars of My Life, the first of Skinner’s autobiographical trilogy, this is when he began to consider science as a future.
Although Skinner had never taken psychology courses, he had always observed the behavior of humans and animals. He also realized that many of his stories had dealt with psychological issues. Perhaps the biggest catalyst for Skinner’s decision to focus on behavioral psychology came when he read Bertrand Russell’s An Outline of Philosophy (1927). From Russell he discovered the work of John Watson, the founder of the school of psychology called behaviorism. In the fall of 1928 Skinner started graduate school at Harvard University. There, he found kindred spirits in behaviorism, most notably Fred Keller, an early influence who also became Skinner’s lifelong friend.
Skinner obtained his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1931 and then stayed for five more years to study animal behavior. When his fellowships ended in 1936, he accepted a teaching job at the University of Minnesota. Although never having taught before, he was apparently a good teacher. In addition to accepting new job, in 1936 Skinner married Yvonne Blue (called Eve), who had also been an English major. They had two daughters, Julie and Deborah. A persistent myth concerning Skinner is that he raised his second daughter, Deborah, in a “Skinner box” and that she became psychotic and either committed suicide or was institutionalized. This is untrue. Skinner, a talented inventor since childhood, developed a specialized crib for Deborah, sometimes called an “Aircrib,” which had an enclosed space with a glass front in which the temperature and lighting could be carefully controlled. Toys were available to Deborah, and although she slept in the crib, she was taken out frequently during the day to be cuddled. It was not, as so often reported, a cold and unfeeling approach to child rearing. Skinner’s daughters both adored him and spoke of him as a...
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