Zangwill’s contribution

Frederic Stansfield with a response to Barbara Wilson's article.

Professor Oliver Zangwill was undoubtedly a major contributor to British psychology. In the January issue, Barbara Wilson highlighted his contribution to the study of brain injury and the rehabilitation of those suffering from its effects.

However, Zangwill’s legacy is much more controversial if one looks at the entire discipline of psychology rather than neuropsychology alone. In this respect, Wilson’s review is too narrow.

In the 1950s my father, Ronald Stansfield, was a scientific civil servant concerned with the research funding of psychology and other social sciences. He was a Cambridge graduate, arguably biased towards favourable treatment for his old university; but his opinion of Zangwill bordered on hatred.

Zangwill’s appointment as Professor of Experimental Psychology at University of Cambridge followed the retirement of Sir Frederic Bartlett, who was beyond doubt the leading British psychologist in the years leading up to, and including, the Second World War. The choice of Zangwill was difficult, as can be seen from papers deposited in the National Archives, now at Kew, by one of the selectors.
Bartlett specialised in social and industrial psychology, so Zangwill’s interests focussing on clinical psychology represented a major change of direction. As a result, after Zangwill arrived at Cambridge he caused major dissatisfaction amongst the academic staff in his department. In consequence, several Cambridge psychologists who went on to make notable contributions to our discipline moved elsewhere.

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. Whilst it is not well documented, because of the prestige of Cambridge University at a time of academic expansion Zangwill led psychologists across England to concentrate on the subject as an experimental science. However, in the 1960s psychology and sociology came to be seen as complementary social sciences. As a result, several of the 1960s generation of universities did not set up psychology departments in their earlier years.

Wilson points out that Zangwill died of a degenerative brain disease. It is possible that Zangwill’s performance was affected by this illness well before his retirement.

In recent years clinical psychology has been revolutionised by new techniques, notably magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and genetic analysis. This has enabled non-invasive investigation of the brains of living people. By contrast, Zangwill and others of his generation depended upon animal vivisection, which many people found ethically dubious, in addition to adventitious studies of serious brain injury. It is therefore an oversimplification to describe Zangwill as ‘the founder of British neuropsychology’.

Zangwill’s contribution to British psychology is likely to be controversial for the foreseeable future. I believe that re-evaluation could bring greater clarity to a subject which is of continuing relevance and importance today.

Frederic Stansfield

Barbara A. Wilson’s response:
I did not describe Oliver Zangwill as the ‘founder’ of British Neuropsychology; I chose the word ‘father’. However, I concede that this might still be too strong and the phrase ‘one of the forefathers’ could have been used instead, as this allows for other great personages to be considered for their illustrious contributions.

As for not talking about Zangwill’s contribution to psychology in general, I made it clear that I was specifically focusing on his contribution to neuropsychology.

I was somewhat offended by Stanfield’s suggestion that Zangwill’s degenerative brain disease may have affected his performance while at work. This is like suggesting that D.H. Lawrence’s writing of Lady Chatterley’s Lover would have been even better had he not been dying of consumption at the time of writing. Anyway, most of the contributions I mentioned were from Oliver as a younger man when he certainly did not have a degenerative disease.

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