Monthly Archives: May 2015

Between text and object: psychological tests as scientific artefacts

Among the various species of objects in the University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection (, the historical psychological tests belonging to the Department of Psychology (few of which have yet been catalogued) are especially interesting as scientific objects. Psychological tests have a hybrid quality. Like published texts, they are authored by researchers and, when successful, are reissued in revised editions. More often than not, they also include various objects, from toys for observing children’s play, to cardboard figurines used in “projective” tests of emotional well-being, to puzzles or mazes testing spatial perception and manual dexterity, to phonograph records used to measure musical ability. The Ontario School Ability Examination Materials (as yet undated) contains the following items:

  • 29 cubes of painted wood
  • 1 “Healy Fernald Puzzle” of varnished wood
  • 1 paper envelope containing “1 Ring Design Card”, “2 Double Design Cards”, “1 Set Coloured Pattern Cards”, “2 Matching Design Cards”
  • 7 varying weights consisting of hollow wooded cylinders filled with led shot
  • 20 dominoes of painted wood

    Contents of the Ontario School Ability Test. Presumably it was fabricated in Toronto. The weighted cylinder at the bottom of the photo has come open revealing that it is filled with led shot and cotton padding,

    Contents of the Ontario School Ability Test. Presumably it was fabricated in Toronto. The weighted cylinder at the bottom of the photo has come open revealing that it is filled with led shot and cotton padding.

In the context of historical evidence, the distinction between “object” and “text” is somewhat artificial. As any historian of print culture will tell you, texts are embodied in complex material objects (most obviously books) whose design and construction is bound to the history of technology and culture.  Objects, for instance scientific instruments, are most often embedded in a web of texts such as research papers, purchasing catalogues, and instruction manuals.

Psychological testing material further obscures this distinction. A typical test might consist of a combination of documents and other standard objects packed together in a sturdy brown box made of wood and particle board. The tests in the UTSIC collection range from stacks of paper documents to puzzles and other artefacts that are, in principle, little different than common psychological apparatus meant to measure physiological characteristics such as memory or reaction time.

The distinction between text and object is a necessary heuristic that is reflected in the ways we care for historical evidence. Generally speaking, artefacts belong in museum collections, texts go in libraries and archives. Psychological tests tend to end up in the latter. The archives of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), for instance, has an extensive collection of psychological tests. The Center for the History of Psychology at the University of Akron also keeps its tests in a special collection.

The tests belonging to the University of Toronto Department of Psychology seem mostly to have come from a library collection—a number of instructional booklets have been bound with cardboard covers and given library cards. At some point, possibly in the mid-to-late 1950s, the material not already in boxes or cases was carefully bundled in butcher paper and string. It remained in a storage room until the UTSIC project began to examine it around 2009. The UTSIC project has catalogued parts of this collection over the past several years.

Testing material from the Department of Psychology collection. Many were sold in varnished boxes made of wood and particleboard. Others material has been bundled together using brown paper and string.

Testing material from the Department of Psychology collection. Many tests were sold in varnished boxes. Other material has been bundled together with brown paper and string. A number of bundles have not yet been opened.

Recently, I was given some money from the Hewton and Griffin Bursary for Archival Research, supported by the Friends of the Archives of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). This has allowed me to spend some time researching and cataloguing this material. The official purpose of my project is to discover the collection’s history, or “provenance”, for instance which library collection some of this material belonged to.  Much of what I write here comes from several weeks of initial research.

Drawing Boundaries

In trying to incorporate the psychological tests into a collection of objects, one runs into (what I have come to think of as) the “box of pulleys problem” following a long discussion that took place in the early stages of the UTSIC project: What do you do when faced with cataloguing a box of pulleys, or light bulbs, or weights, or some other assortment of (relatively) mundane objects? You could assign each item a separate accession number, filling a separate condition report, photographing each object and adding it separately to the catalogue. Alternately, you could simply catalogue and photograph a “box of pulleys” and put it back on the shelf until you get an email from some historian of technology collecting research for Lifting the burden of history: A cultural history of pulley manufacture in Lower Silesia.

Such compromises are especially important in a project which depends on temporary research assistant positions and volunteer labour. That labour is better spent adding significant objects to the catalogue than picking through boxes of pulleys. Moreover, numerous minor objects add clutter to an online catalogue and obscure more interesting items from the visitor. My current preference is to catalogue even significant items of identical type and make together while giving them separate accession numbers and condition reports.

This issue becomes especially apparent when cataloguing the psychological testing material. In some cases there are many examples of a single test. In others, a single kind of test has many components. The Dominion school test material, published by the Department of Educational Research at the University of Toronto over the first half of the 20th century, includes, among its many test booklets and instructional pamphlets, 93 examples of a practice test for Kindergarten and Grade 1 students and 146 examples of a Group Test of Learning Capacity for Grades 7, 8, and 9. All of this material is paper. Rather than adding these items to the catalogue, my preference would be to inventory such material in an online spreadsheet that is available through the catalogue website.

The frustrating ambiguity of this cataloguing process can be seen in our previous attempts to catalogue parts of this collection. For instance, someone has catalogued several bound instructional booklets that would have been associated with particular tests. While I understand the reasoning behind this, were I to catalogue this material now, I would likely consider these pamphlets simply as documentation associated with particular objects. We typically file instructional material with the objects rather than adding it to the catalogue.

My bias (and I think the nature of the collection in general) is to privileged objects over texts. The University of Toronto, after all, has a world-class library system and archive but few if any well-supported collections of local material culture. (The JCB Grant Anatomy Museum might count as an unusual exception, but it is not accessible to the public.) Given limited time and funding, my work with the collection will involve photographing and cataloguing the more “object-like” tests while creating an overall inventory of the collection for the use of researchers in this field.

Pathways to the past

Several times I’ve found myself groping unsuccessfully for metaphors to capture a quality that artefacts have of refocusing one’s attention on unfamiliar areas. If established sources or well-known narratives create a familiar topography of the past, then objects often provide shortcuts to new vantage points from which to survey a topic.

The psychological test collection, which contains material spanning the 1920s to the 1950s, is a pool of evidence opening onto a number of areas. One involves a recent past which University experts led the community in establishing rigid norms between insiders and outsiders—a fact reflected in the period’s harsh academic lexicon including terms such as “mental hygiene”, “feeblemindedness”, “subnormals”, and “defective children”. Faculty at the University of Toronto played a leading role in Canada’s adoption of the moral hygiene movement which embodied the xenophobic tendencies of mainstream Anglo-Saxon culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Form Boards

The four remaining Ferguson form boards.

Consider, for instance, the first psychological test that I have been able to examine in some detail: a small and incomplete collection of four “Ferguson Form Boards”. These are essentially wooden puzzles with irregular holes into which wooden pieces are fit.  A label at the bottom of several boards reveals that they were constructed in November of 1926. Pencil markings on underside of the boards are notes written by researchers to remind themselves about details of administering the tests. Such cryptic markings are fairly common on scientific objects. Two of the initial set of boards, and several pieces of the surviving boards, are missing.  The wood used in three of the boards has shrunk creating noticeable gaps in the surface and causing some pieces to bind. The University of Toronto President’s Report of that year reveals that the boards were created for the Master’s research of Miss J. A. Brown under supervision of Professor Earl Douglas MacPhee. It is unfortunate that no trace of this thesis survives since it might have given details on the boards’ construction, perhaps at a University workshop.

This test, in which subjects were timed in completing boards of varying complexity, were introduced by professor George Oscar Ferguson, Jr. of the University of Virginia in 1920. Ferguson maintained that the test provided an accurate measure of grade level achievement from Grade 1 to the 3rd year of University. [Ferguson 1920, 52] Brown and MacPhee sought to test this claim using a sounder methodology than Ferguson had employed. For instance, rather than choosing students by grade level (a typical Toronto classroom included students of various ages), they selected students based on birth date. Despite finding the tests reliable in the sense that individual subjects obtained similar results over several trials, they found no meaningful correlation between Ferguson test results and other measures of academic achievement. They concluded that the test was clinically useless. [MacPhee and Brown 1930, 34-36]

Brown and MacPhee investigated this test partly in the hope that it might provide a measure of student attainment that was as accurate as existing linguistic tests. This reflected a growing interest in child development and childhood education fueled, initially at least, by public concern over delinquency among public school children. In 1924, a new child study project, supported by the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial and the eugenicist Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene (CNCMH), was begun by Dr. William Blatz (1895-1964). The following year, the St. George’s School for Child Study (renamed the institute for Child Study in 1937) was founded at the University of Toronto in a project led by Blatz along with  Prof. Helen McMurchie Bott (b. 1886) , later to establish herself as an authority on child development, and Dr. Clarence. M. Hincks (1885-1964), a medical officer in the Toronto School System who had co-founded the CNCMH with C. K. Clarke, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto and superintendent of Toronto General Hospital.

The University of Toronto Ferguson Form Boards appeared at a time when the testing of schoolchildren had begun in earnest largely within a eugenic framework which sought to identify and isolate “subnormal” children based on the assumption that low intelligence was associated delinquency. Describing their testing methodology in 1930, Brown and MacPhee noted:

Two typical schools were selected. The basis of this judgement was the per cent of mental defect in these schools. The Mental Hygiene Division of the Toronto Public Health Department has made continuous surveys in the city schools for several years and data were available as to the incidence of mental defect in each of the city schools, and in the school population as a whole. It was assumed that differences in the per cents of subnormals was an adequate measure of difference in the general intellectual level of the school population and two average schools in different sections of the city were chosen. [MacPhee and Brown 1930, 25]

Professor MacPhee’s research projects over the 1920s and 1930s reveal an interest in the classification of schoolchildren. He notably studied “subnormals” in the now notorious asylum for mentally handicapped children in Orillia, Ontario. Brown’s small contribution to this broader project brought her professional success. By 1930, she was employed by the Mental Hygiene Division of the Toronto Department of Health.

The Ferguson Form Boards provide one example of the testing material related to the ongoing study of schoolchildren at the University of Toronto. Dr. William Blatz, the city’s most influential child psychologist who headed the St. George’s School for Child Study from 1925 to 1960, rejected the  association between low intelligence and delinquency even while serving as Research Director for the CNCMH from 1925 to 1935. [Raymond 1991, 37] Even so, rigorous testing remained the norm in child study. The Institute’s “Well Children” project report, published in 1956, lists a considerable battery of tests then in regular use, several of which may still be found in the collection.

The psychological tests used at the Institute of Child Study during the period 1953-1955. [Northway 1956, 85-86]

The psychological tests used, and records kept, at the Institute of Child Study during the period 1953-1955. [Northway 1956, 85-86]

Beyond the testing material used in childhood education, many other forms of research are represented in the testing collection. There is, for instance, a substantial number of tests related to vocational training, evidence of efforts by university researchers to assist industry in selecting and screening employees and in exploring the pathway from classroom to workplace. There is also material related to mental health research. Kira Lussier, currently a graduate student at the IHPST, has described a set of Rorschach testing slides that were likely used for training purposes at the Toronto General Hospital. Ultimately, each of the hundreds of items in the collection is a potential pathway to local meaning.

“Instruments” or “Material Culture”

When the UTSIC project began in 2008, the notion of developing a collection of “scientific instruments” seemed natural. The University had a wealth of  impressive nineteenth and early twentieth century objects that fit nicely into this category. Scientific instruments, particularly “charismatic” items of the brass and glass era like microscopes or orreries, have always lent themselves to collection and display. Moreover, within the field of history and philosophy of science (HPS), the theme of “scientific instruments” has provided a useful common point between the two disciplines.

The collection of psychological tests is an example of a type of instrument that does not  seem naturally suited to the category of scientific instrument. Whether or not this is true—whether a psychological test is a kind of measuring or mapping instrument like a seismometer or an ECG machine—is the sort of question that a philosopher of science would take on. Regardless, such incongruous objects recall others that cannot in any meaningful sense be called instruments but are relevant to an understanding of the changing culture of science and medicine. Textiles such as laboratory attire, the contents of natural history-type collections gathered by the 19th and early 20th century professors of botany, biology, histology or anatomy, or even collections of scientific data on slide film or videotape are a few examples.

Ultimately, one must reconcile competing goals and priorities. Coherence could be an important characteristic of a research collection. On the other hand, it would be unfortunate to ignore the broader material history of science beyond the limits of scientific instruments. In this sense, the psychological tests serve as a reminder of the ways in which scientific projects, and their relationship to cultural movements, may be studied a diverse range of material objects.

Thank you to the Friends of the CAMH archive for supporting this ongoing research.