Zangwill’s legacy

A response to Frederic Stansfield's recent letter.

I was frankly astonished and quite saddened to read the opinions voiced by Frederic Stansfield in his letter (March issue) concerning the life and work of Professor Oliver Zangwill. It is now over 30 years since Professor Zangwill’s death in October 1987 and it is therefore somewhat surprising to learn that his legacy is now considered to be ‘controversial’, though it is unclear what controversies have been identified by Stansfield. Of course, work in psychology has moved on, and earlier contributions which appeared ground-breaking at the time, may no longer have the same currency. However, Professor Zangwill’s contribution was of such long duration and wide-ranging influence that I am sure his achievements will continue to be recognised.

Most friends and colleagues of Professor Zangwill had a high regard for his scientific and scholarly achievements, and many benefited from his influence, which was exercised skillfully, both in the part he played in the development of psychology in general, and neuropsychology in particular, over the course of more than 30 years as Professor at Cambridge. In my own case, it was through a shared interest in developmental dyslexia that I was fortunate enough to be taken on as a postgraduate student, a position in which I benefited from his constant support and encouragement. I also witnessed how effective he was in conducting affairs across many different scholarly arenas.

At one point in his letter Stansfield asserts that: ‘Zangwill and others of his generation depended upon animal vivisection... in addition to adventitious studies of serious brain injury. It is therefore an oversimplification to describe Zangwill as “the founder of British neuropsychology”.’ Zangwill had an interest in animal behaviour but as far as I am aware he never carried out any animal vivisections. However, leaving that aside, his long-time friend and colleague, Professor Richard Gregory, in paying tribute to his achievements in a Biographical Memoir of the Royal Society in 2001, considered it not inappropriate to describe Zangwill as the founder of the science of neuropsychology: ‘Zangwill continued his Edinburgh-inspired work on brain injury effectively founding the science of neuropsychology—at the National Institute of Neurology, at Queen Square.’

And, while many cases of brain injury itself could be described as adventitious, it would be ill-considered to apply the same adjective to the studies investigating them which Zangwill carried out.

Stansfield suggests that, following Bartlett’s retirement in 1952, Zangwill’s appointment as Head of the Psychological Laboratory ‘represented a major change in direction’, but this reflects a lack of familiarity with the work of these two men in the pre-war period. Zangwill graduated in 1935 and stayed on as a research student in the Psychological Laboratory under Bartlett until 1940. Referring to the publication of Bartlett’s Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology in 1932 Zangwill recalls: ‘I myself was an undergraduate in his Department not long after the book appeared and remember vividly the lively discussions it provoked.’ (Zangwill, 1972)

During this period, probably influenced by Bartlett’s work on memory, Zangwill undertook experimental studies with normal subjects on the topic of the recognition and reproduction of both prose material and simple figures. It was also during this period that he undertook, in collaboration with R. C. Oldfield, a detailed study of the concept of schema, looking at Head’s original formulation, as well as the later versions developed by Bartlett and Wolters. Their extensive review was published in a series of four papers in The British Journal of Psychology between 1942 and 1943. By that time both authors had moved on – Zangwill to the Brain Injuries Unit in Edinburgh and Oldfield to the Nuffield Department of Surgery in Oxford. Bartlett’s work was reviewed in the third of these papers and it is evident from some of the footnotes that he had been consulted about certain points during the writing.

At another point in his letter Stansfield states: ‘Throughout his tenure of the Chair at Cambridge, Zangwill and his staff concentrated on experimental psychology as a pure science to the exclusion of social scientific aspects of the subject.’

It will therefore probably come as a surprise to Stansfield that Zangwill was instrumental in finding accommodation and funding for what started life in 1966 as the Unit for Research on Medical Applications of Psychology, but later underwent two name changes, first to the Child Care and Development Group and then to the Centre for Family Research. Zangwill’s support in the early days of the Unit enabled it to acquire funding from the Nuffield Foundation which supported an observational study of mother-infant relations, language and sociality in learning-disabled children, and other aspects of child development and family life.

Lastly, I share Barbara Wilson’s offence on reading Stansfield’s suggestion that Professor Zangwill’s performance was affected by degenerative brain disease ‘well before his retirement’. I received supervision from Professor Zangwill during the late 1970s and I last saw him at his retirement dinner which took place in 1981, when he was in completely lucid form. I subsequently moved abroad, but corresponded with him until early 1985 and never detected any decline in the quality of his written communications. It may also be noted that he continued to publish the occasional paper until well after he had retired, in 1982, 1983 and 1984.

For a balanced and well-informed account of Professor Zangwill’s achievements I would refer readers to Professor Barbara Wilson’s article in the October 2020 issue of The Neuropsychologist, and the January 2021 version in these pages.

Graham Richardson
Boulogne sur Mer, France

Key sources

Gregory, R.L. (2001). Oliver Louis Zangwill. Biographical Memoir Fellow of the Royal Society London, 47, 515-524.

Oldfield, R.C. & Zangwill O.L. Head's concept of the schema and its application in contemporary British psychology. Part III. Bartlett's theory of memory. British Journal of Psychology. General Section, 33, 113-129.

Wilson, B.A. (2020). Oliver Zangwill (1913–1987): The father of British neuropsychology. The Neuropsychologist, 10, 65-72.

Zangwill, O.L. (1972). Remembering revisited. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 24, 123-138.

Zangwill, O.L. (1982). Deep dyslexia. Journal of the Neurological Sciences, 54, 459-460.

Zangwill, O.L. (1983). [Review of the book Disorders of Space Exploration and Cognition]. British Journal of Psychiatry, 142, 106-106.

Zangwill, O.L. (1984). Henry Hecaen and the origins of the International Neuropsychological Symposium. Neuropsychologia, 22, 813-815.

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