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5 Facts About Hugo Munsterberg, the Father of Forensic Psychology

Thursday 08.25.2011 , Posted by
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Hugo Munsterberg Chain Reaction

All great and interesting sciences and scientific studies have come from equally great and interesting scientific minds and the field of forensic psychology is no exception. The man often credited with being the founding father of this field, Hugo Munsterberg (not to be confused with the little scene distant German cousin of Herman Munster on “The Munsters”), had some rather peculiar moments in his own life that may not have made him Ernest Hemingway, but at least it explains why he decided to study into psychology (possibly for the free treatments).

1. He was accused of being a German spy

By the time World War I rolled around, Munsterberg had made a very good name for himself in America as a psychological scientist and researcher, particularly in the field of the effectiveness of eyewitness testimony and the study of human behavior in crime and punishment. His German-ness, however, soon caught up to him.

Munsterberg never actually became an official U.S. citizen and as Germany and the U.S. prepared for war, he tried to unite both sides by strengthening their relationship to prevent war from breaking out. However, when the way got underway, Munsterberg refused to take a side in the struggle and given his popular status, rumors started surfacing that he was working as a spy for the other side. A Johns Hopkins University professor passed along alleged information from another witness who was conveniently dead by the time the rumors started so he couldn’t be cross-examined that Munsterberg had been ordered by the German government to become famous in order to facilitate the spread of propaganda against the other side. Munsterberg protested the horrendous accusation vowing that he had “never in my life received a single center from the German government”.

2. He used psychology to fight Prohibition

 Prohibition

The sudden depletion and illegality of the nation’s alcohol supply probably created more psychological disorders than the prohibitionists hoped to curb, assuming that they themselves didn’t already from some extreme form of psychosis in the first place.

Munsterberg saw this low point in American history as a perfect opportunity to apply his methods and discoveries to turn the tide on the growing support for the demonization of alcohol by publishing an article highlighting the possible pitfalls and experiences in a copy of McClure’s magazine. He used his German upbringing to talk about the positive affects normal alcohol consumption could have on a growing German boy or citizen to relate his experiences to people who were afraid that rampant access to hooch would turn their beloved country into an afterbirth of drunken debauchery. He then called the issue a “one-sided denunciation of alcohol, repeated a million times with louder and louder voice” and this was long before Fox News.

He weighed the psychological affects of such a ban and saw the key to maintain control under a free society meant using moderation to create beneficial effects, not just for the drinker but also for the brewer. He also suggested that imposing such a steep and broad law could create a greater disregard for it, an effect he dubbed “our greatest danger,” besides running out of brew.

3. His patients never paid him for his services

Hugo Munsterberg's Lab

These days, even asking someone to consider turning the health care industry into a business that isn’t driven by profits is pretty much the equivalent of asking someone if they think you’d look good with a Hitler mustache.

Munsterberg, however, was more interested in advancing his studies than his pocketbooks and the patients who saw him both for his clinical work and his scientific research didn’t pay a red (no pun intended) cent for his services. His lifelong interest in studying and researching mental illnesses and even when he started in private practice in Germany, he only focused on patients that could help him complete his scientific research and had them meet for their sessions in a laboratory instead of a clinic. For this, he refused to accept any payments from the patients he examined, diagnosed and treated.

4. He had a heated rivalry with Sigmund Freud

 Sigmund Freud

Every major industry and field of study such as sports, cooking and music have had their fair share of rivalries born out of disagreements over basic principals and forensic psychology is no exception. Of course, the heated battles over two renowned psychologists probably didn’t end in a bar fight or with guns fired from a moving vehicle, unless there is a drive-by carriage murder I haven’t heard of.

Since psychology was still in its infancy and differing schools of thought began to bump heads based on opposing theories, an interesting rivalry developed between Munsterberg and noted psychologist Sigmund Freud. Munsterberg never cared for Freud’s theories about the human mind having an subconscious and made his disdain for his theories clearly known in public circles until a feud developed between the two, even though they lived on the opposite sides of an ocean. When Freud came to America to give a lecture on his theories, Munsterberg actually fled the country to avoid having a one-on-one confrontation with the man.

5. He died at the lecture podium

The toll of being called a spy and a traitor had taken a great emotional and physical toll on Munsterberg as he tried to continue his research and teaching until it eventually caught up to him. Unfortunately, it didn’t catch up with him AFTER class.

Munsterberg was prepared to give a lecture at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study on Dec. 16, 1916 and just as he approached the podium and began his opening remarks, he suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and collapsed in front of a packed student body. The hemorrhage killed him instantly, leaving him dead at the very podium where he failed to even finish a single sentence of his lecture.

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