4 Influential Figures in the History of Forensic Psychology


Photo courtesy of jjay.cuny.edu.

Forensic psychology is a fascinating specialty that focuses on researching human behavior, as it relates to the law.  To that end, forensic psychologists utilize their research, experience and skills to consult within the legal system – in both civil and criminal law matters.

This branch of psychology has evolved significantly over the past 150 years. Here are four individuals who were instrumental in such evolution, and who have helped shape forensic psychology into its modern-day form.

Wilhelm Wundt (1832 – 1920)

Wilhelm Wundt was a German physiologist and psychologist, who is widely recognized as the founder of experimental psychology. In short, experimental psychology is the process by which scientific methods are used to collect relevant data that allows psychologists to perform research on both human and animal test subjects.

Prior to Wundt, psychology was generally considered a branch of philosophy. This meant, that most theories and determinations were made by rational analysis as opposed to any sort of scientific method. Wundt’s advancements in this field had a profound impact on the future of psychology, and its eventual acceptance into the world of science.

Wundt’s further significant contributions include establishing the world’s first psychological laboratory, and psychology journal. His impact on forensic psychology is monumental. Wundt’s methodology provided the framework for the modern-day study of trial testimony, criminal behavior and motives, and jury selection techniques.

Hugo Munsterberg (1863-1916)

Hugo Munsterberg was a German-American psychologist, who had a medical degree and a doctorate, which he earned under the tutelage of Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig. Considered to be a pioneer in the field of applied psychology, Munsterberg was recruited by Harvard University to run the learning institution’s experimental psychology lab.

Utilizing the experimental techniques developed by his mentor, Munsterberg pushed forward the field of applied psychology – which uses psychological theories and principles to resolve practical, real world issues.

Munsterberg was also an avid supporter of psychological parallelism, which holds that a body’s physical processes and brain processes always act in tandem. His greatest work focused on applying his research to questions that addressed industry, education and law. With respect to legal issues, Munsterberg delved into psychological factors affecting trial outcomes and the viewpoints of jury members.

Munsterberg’s most impactful book in the field of forensic psychology is “On the Witness Stand,” which contains a collection of essays on psychology and crime.

Harry Hollingworth (1880 – 1956)

Also a pioneer in applied psychology, Harry Hollingworth was used as an expert witness in a famous legal action brought by the U.S. government against Coca-Cola.

In 1909, federal agents set up a stakeout in Tennessee, right near the state’s border with Georgia. The agents wound up intercepting a delivery from Coca-Cola’s Atlanta plant on route to the bottling plant in Chattanooga. The government’s seizure (40 barrels of Coke and 20 kegs of syrup) was made under the authority of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

The theory? The government alleged that Coca-Cola was selling a product that was injurious to health because it contained a harmful ingredient – namely, caffeine.

Desperate to defend its product and in effort to disprove the government’s position, Coca-Cola hired Hollingworth to conduct experiments on caffeine and its impact on humans. Up until that point, Coca-Cola had only experimented the effects of caffeine on animals.

Hollingworth completed the experiments in 40 days. His masterful execution of the studies is used today as a teaching tool to illustrate how one should conduct forensic experiments.

The conclusions reached by Hollingworth’s experiments were quite favorable to Coca-Cola. He testified that the soft drink was merely a mild stimulant for both motor and cognitive performance. Most importantly, Hollingworth’s testimony revealed that there was no evidence of any injurious effect on people’s physical and mental capacity,  as alleged by the government.

Prior to reaching the jury, the judge dismissed the government’s case against Coca-Cola.


Photo courtesy of discinsights.com.

William Marston (1893 – 1947)

An American psychologist and attorney, William Marston made an impact in both forensic psychology and pop culture. Although he is often wrongly credited with inventing the polygraph machine (which was invented by John Larson), Marston did have a significant impact on the machine’s genesis.

Specifically, Marston was the creator of the systolic blood pressure test. His research into this area led him to the conclusion that one’s blood pressure rises when that person is telling a lie. Utilizing Marston’s research, Larson developed the polygraph machine that would eventually become the modern day lie detector test. Marston’s research was so influential, that the U.S. government requested his assistance with lie detection during their investigation into the infamous 1930s Lindbergh kidnapping.

Marston’s other notable impact on forensic psychology was his findings on how a person’s will and sense of power has an effect on that person’s personality and behavior. His theories and principles on these topics led to the future study of personality traits and behaviors of criminals.

On a different note, Marston led a somewhat unorthodox life (especially for his time period). Marston fathered 4 children, two with his wife and two with his live-in mistress. His wife worked to support the family financially, while his mistress stayed at home to raise all four children.

Marston’s unconventional lifestyle led him to another interesting creation, namely – Wonder Woman. In a world dominated by male superheroes, Marston believed that women needed their own superhero, who exuded independence and power. Wonder Woman was created by Marston under the pen name Charles Moulton.

Are there any other historical figures that you believe should be included on this list?


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About jchasenovelist

Published thriller author, criminologist, and blogger.
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2 Responses to 4 Influential Figures in the History of Forensic Psychology

  1. As always, Jennifer, well written and thought-provoking

    Liked by 1 person

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