Here’s some background information for my project on the psychology of William Moulton Marston.
Who Was William Moulton Marston?
Little remembered today in the halls of psychology departments, William Moulton Marston (b. 1893 – d. 1947) was in his time very widely known to the American public. Marston was by turns an academic psychologist and psychological theorist, a popularizer, and a relentless self-promoter. He did much of the basic research on and was a proponent of the lie detector test, and he wrote novels and comic books. He is perhaps best-known today by comic book fans, for creating the iconic character Wonder Woman, and in management and human resources circles for pioneering the DISC theory of personality types. His life and work are of interest far beyond these groups, however.
Marston was trained in psychology and law at Harvard, receiving his B.A. in 1915, a law degree in 1918, and a Ph.D. in psychology in 1921, with a thesis entitled “Systolic blood pressure symptoms of deception and constituent mental states.” At Harvard, Marston worked in the laboratory set up by William James, where he was a pupil of Hugo Münsterberg (Daniels, 12; Rhodes 2000, 98; Benjamin 2006, 103n8). Münsterberg’s role as Marston’s mentor is quite helpful in understanding some of Marston’s abiding interests. Münsterberg was also quite interested in lie detection through physiological indicators as well as popularizing psychology (Bunn, 93). And like Marston, Münsterberg left few devotees in the academic community to carry on his legacy (ibid.).
Marston held a stunning array of academic and semi-professional positions. He taught at Radcliffe (1915), American University (1922-23), Tufts (1925-26), Columbia and NYU (1927-??), and the University of Southern California, though he never held tenure (Daniels, 17; AMoS). He also worked as a psychologist on the Staten Island School Survey, the Texas Penitentiaries Survey, and the National Committee for Mental Hygiene (1924) and worked in psychological division of the army during World War I , where he rose to the rank of Second lieutenant (1918-1919) (AMoS).
Marston produced a variety of articles in academic journals such as the Journal of Experimental Psychology and Psychological Review, and two volumes in the prestigious International Library of Psychology, Philosophy, and Scientific Method edited by C.K. Ogden. His main interests were lie detection and the physiological markers of deception, the emotions, especially the basic emotions and the neurological and physiological basis of emotions, abnormal psychology and psychological health, and consciousness. The culmination of his psychological theories are presented in two books, The Emotions of Normal People (1928) and Integrative Psychology (1931, with C. Daly King and Elizabeth Holloway Marston), which will be analyzed in detail in the following section. He even contributed to the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica an article on the “Analysis of Emotions.” (Marston 1929)
Marston’s experimental research largely consisted in attempting physiological measurements to mental and emotional states, especially though not exclusively systolic blood pressure measurements. This included research not only on lie detection (Marston 1917; 1920; 1921a; 1921b; 1924b; 1925), but also on sex characteristics (Marston 1923) and basic emotions (Marston 1924a). He also worked on the rehabilitation of combat veterans from World War I, and his work at Edith Spaulding’s Bedford Hills Clinic, a women’s mental hospital, helped form his progressive emphasis on gender, as did his teaching and research with students at Radcliffe, the women’s college associated with Harvard (Rhodes 2000, 98; AMoS).
Marston was a tireless popularizer of psychology. Not only did he write articles and letters promoting the use of the lie detector in criminal investigations and legal trials, but he also wrote two popular psychology texts, Try Living (1937) and March On! (1941) (Rhodes 2000, 99) and a voluminous quantity of articles for magazines like Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Reader’s Digest, and The Rotarian (see frontmatter of Marston 1937). In these works, Marston set out his vision of psychology as a progressive, liberating force that could teach us to “Live, Love, Laugh, and Be Happy” (1937, 1) and, as in the subtitle of March On! “Fac[e] Life With Courage” (1941).
Finally, Marston had a significant interest in popular culture and the popular arts. With Walter Pitkin, he wrote a text on writing “healthy and appealing screenplays” called The Art of Sound Pictures (1930) (Rhodes 2000, 99), and he did consulting work for Universal Pictures and for DC Comics and All American Comics. His last prose book was a biography, F.F. Proctor, Vaudeville Pioneer (1934). Marston also turned from analyst to creator, penning a novel called Venus With Us: A Tale of the Caesar (1932) and creating the iconic comic book superheroine, Wonder Woman. Marston wrote and had almost complete creative control over Wonder Woman from the character’s inception in 1941 until his death in 1947 (the final Marston stories appeared in early 1948).
Marston’s career may seem a strange and eclectic collection of pursuits, the work of a distracted dilettante or a Renaissance man of diverse interests, and we can see a bit of both in Marston. Part of my aim, however, is to argue that there is a greater unity to Marston’s diverse pursuits, derived from Marston’s vision of the aims and uses of psychology, the psychological theories and technologies which he was attempting to develop and promote. From this point of view, the popularizations, the novels, consulting jobs, and comic books all make sense as part of his scientific enterprise.
Next time I’ll write about Marston’s veryinteresting private life…