Edward L. Thorndike Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

0111200397-Thorndike.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Often referred to as the “Father of Modern Educational Psychology,” Thorndike incorporated measurement into education and psychology, as well as developing testing of animals and studies of learning in humans.

Early Life

Edward Lee Thorndike was born August 31, 1874, in Williamsburg, Massachusetts. Thorndike was the second son and the second of four children of Edward Roberts Thorndike and Abigail Brewster (Ladd) Thorndike. His father had first practiced law and later became a Methodist clergyman. Reared in a clergyman’s home, Thorndike and his siblings were expected to be models for the congregation and to strive for excellence.

The religious environment of the Thorndike home has been described as austere, and the children constantly participated in church activities. As an adult, Edward Thorndike financially supported the local Methodist church, but he did not attend or require attendance of his children. Thorndike guided his later life by nonsectarian ethical precepts, rather than by the religious precepts of his upbringing.

Intellectual pursuits were important in the home. Thorndike’s mother, Abigail, was a highly intelligent woman, and the children were stimulated by their home environment as well as by contact with the sophisticated congregations of the Boston-Cambridge area. The four children all went on to earn excellent grades and scholarships, and all established academic careers. Ashley, the eldest son, became a professor of English; Lynn, the third son, a historian; and Mildred, the youngest child, a high school English teacher. All three of the Thorndike brothers were professors at Columbia University.

The elder Thorndike, as a minister, was forced to move his family frequently, and the disruption left young Thorndike with pronounced shyness and social uneasiness. This discontinuity of social contacts also may have contributed to his adult preference for the lonely privacy of research. His social contacts were with small groups of friends, and he disliked such routine gatherings as faculty meetings and national scientific conventions. Thorndike’s work consumed his time and attention, and he found competition and the effort to influence others distasteful. To him, learning was essentially a private undertaking, something which happened under one’s skin, in the nervous system.

Life’s Work

Thorndike attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut from 1891 to 1895 earning the B.A. degree, with honors, in the traditional classical curriculum, but had no firm career plans. While at Wesleyan, he held membership in Phi Beta Kappa. Thorndike stated in an autobiographical sketch that he had neither heard nor seen the word “psychology” until his junior year at Wesleyan. A required course taught by Andrew Armstrong in the subject and the text Elements of Psychology (1886) by James Sully did little to pique Thorndike’s interest in psychology. While a senior, however, Thorndike studied parts of William James’s The Principles of Psychology (1890) in connection with a prize examination and found them stimulating and interesting. An opportunity to study with James came the following year with a scholarship to Harvard. Study under James strengthened Thorndike’s interest in psychology, and as he later wrote, “by the fall of 1897, I thought of myself as a student of psychology and a candidate for the Ph.D. degree.”

Pioneering in the use of animals for psychological research, Thorndike, while studying with James, conducted several experiments on the instinctive and intelligent behavior of chickens. In 1897-1898, a substantial fellowship brought Thorndike to Columbia University in New York City to complete his doctoral study. While at Columbia, he received additional training in biology and statistics and worked primarily under James McKeen Cattell, who provided him with laboratory space. He completed his doctoral dissertation, “Animal...

(The entire section is 1642 words.)