Lightner Witmer: Biography of this American psychologist

Lightner Witmer (1867-1956) was an American psychologist, recognized to this day as the father of clinical psychology. This is how he founded the first child psychology clinic in the United States, which he established as a derivative of the Psychology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania and which specifically provided care for children. children.

In this article we will see a biography of Lightner Witmer, As well as some of his major contributions to clinical psychology.

    Lightner Witmer: Biography of this clinical psychologist

    Lightner Witmer, formerly known as David L. Witmer Jr., was born on June 28, 1867 in Philadelphia, United States. Son of David Lightner and Katherine Huchel, and the eldest of four brothers, Witmer earned a doctorate in psychology and quickly developed as a fellow of the University of Pennsylvania. He has also trained in the arts, finance and economics and political science.

    As was the case with other scientists and psychologists of the time, Witmer growing up against the backdrop of the American Civil War, Around an emotional atmosphere loaded with worry and both fears and hopes.

    In addition, Witmer was born in Philadelphia, which, in the same context, had been characterized by different events that marked the history of the country, such as the Battle of Gettysburg and the various struggles for the prohibition of slavery. All of the above led Witmer to develop a particular concern for the use of psychology as a tool for social improvement.

    Education and academic career

    After graduating in political science and attempting to continue his law studies, Witmer meet experimental psychologist James McKeen Cattell, one of the most influential intellectuals time.

    The latter motivated Witmer to begin his studies in psychology. Witmer quickly became interested in this discipline, in part because he had previously worked as a history and English teacher with children of different ages, and had noticed that many of them had various difficulties, for example example to distinguish sounds or letters. Far from standing aside, Witmer had worked closely with these children, and their assistance had helped to increase their learning.

    After meeting Cattell (who had also trained with another of the psychology parents, Wilhelm Wundt) and agreeing to work as an assistant, Witmer and Cattell founded an experimental laboratory where the main objective was to study the differences in reaction times between different individuals.

    Cattell soon left the university and the laboratory, and Witmer began working as Wundt’s assistant at the University of Leipzig in Germany. After earning his doctorate, Witmer returned to the University of Pennsylvania as director of a psychology lab and majored in research and teaching in child psychology.

    The first psychology clinic in the United States

    As part of his work in the Psychology Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, Witmer founded the first early childhood psychology clinic in the United States.

    Among other things, he was responsible for working with different children, with the aim of helping them overcome what he called “defects” in learning and socialization. Witmer argued that these defects were not diseases, nor necessarily the result of a brain abnormality, but rather a mental state peculiar to the development of the child.

    In fact, he said these children should not be considered “abnormal” because if they were deviating from the average it was because their development was at an earlier stage than most. But with appropriate clinical support, supplemented by a training school functioning as a hospital-school, their difficulties could be compensated.

      Witmer and the beginnings of clinical psychology

      In the debate over the hereditary or environmental determination of behavior, which dominated much of psychology at the time, Witmer initially positioned himself as one of the proponents of hereditary factors. However, after starting interventions as a clinical psychologist, Weimer argued that the child’s development and abilities were strongly conditioned by environmental elements and for the socio-economic role.

      From there, his clinic focused on expanding the study of educational psychology and what was once called special education. Additionally, he is credited with being the father of clinical psychology because he was the first to use the term “clinical psychology” in 1896, during a session of the American Psychological Association (APA).

      In the same context, Witmer he advocated the separation of psychology and philosophy, In particular for the APA split from the American Philosophical Association. As the latter generated various controversies, Witner and Edward Titchener founded an alternative society only for experimental psychologists.

      Witmer strongly argued that research in psychology, in laboratories, as well as theories developed by great intellectuals, could have practical and direct use in improving the quality of people’s lives. Also, at the basis of the development of clinical psychology is the premise that practice and research are inseparable elements of this discipline.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Lightner, Witmer (2018). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved August 30, 2018. Available at
      • Juárez, AR (2016). Lightner Witmer and the first psychological clinic for children in the United States. VIII International Congress of Research and Professional Practice in Psychology XXIII Research Conference XII Meeting of MERCOSUR Psychological Researchers. Faculty of Psychology – University of Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires.
      • Thomas, H. (2009). Discovering Lightner Witmer: A Forgotten Hero of Psychology. Journal of Scientific Psychology. pp. 3- 13. Accessed August 30, 2018. Available at

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