Joseph McVicker Hunt, PhD

1952 APA President

Joseph Hunt, PhDJoseph "Joe" McVicker Hunt joined the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois in 1951. Hunt was already a productive contributor to American psychology by this time, but the years at Illinois were the peak years of his intellectual and professional life. Just one year after arriving at Illinois, he served as APA President (1952) and by the end of his first decade there had authored one of the most important volumes on child development, "Intelligence and Experience" (1961). 

Hunt joined the faculty at Illinois at the beginning of what one scholar has called the “Golden Age” of American psychology (Rice, 2005). His colleagues there included such luminaries as Raymond Cattell, Lyle Lanier, Paul T. Young and Charles Osgood. Into this favorable atmosphere, Joe Hunt brought a solid record of achievement and the honor of having been elected as the president of the American Psychological Association. He had built this stellar professional life on a foundation of education and training in Nebraska and New York. Hunt was born in Nebraska, a state that also produced such important American psychologists as Harry Hollingworth (APA President, 1927), Leta Stetter Hollingworth and Harry Kirke Wolfe. As an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska, Hunt was influenced toward psychology by his professor, J. Paul Guilford, who later became an APA President (1950). At this time, Hunt had interests in both clinical and experimental psychology, but chose to complete his doctorate in experimental psychology at Cornell in 1933. 

Hunt was a member of what surely was one of the greatest cohorts of individuals to ever earn their doctorates in psychology. Among his cohort — those who earned their degrees in the period between the World Wars — were Theodora Abel, Donald Adams, C.R. Carpenter, Ward Halstead, Molly Harrower, E.R. Hilgard, Carlyle Jacobsen, Elaine Kinder, Otto Klineberg, Carney Landis, Donald Lindsley, Abraham Maslow, Neal Miller, O.H. Mowrer, Carl Rogers, T.C. Schneirla, David Shakow, B.F. Skinner and Robert White, to name a small number. Given the size of the field at the time, this proved to be a rich period for the training of psychological scientists and clinicians. It was this group that led psychology into its Golden Age of the 1950s and 1960s (Rice, 2005).  

Hunt pursued his clinical interests after his graduation. He held a post-doctoral fellowship with David Shakow at Worcester State Hospital and held an internship at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Hunt then spent ten years at Brown University where he did extensive studies testing clinical hypotheses through analog studies with rats. His signal accomplishment during his time at Brown was the production of "Personality and the Behavior Disorders" (Hunt, 1944). The two volumes summarized extant work relevant to personality and mental disorders and provided a template for future research. They stand as a landmark of mid-century American psychology. Hunt left Brown for a position in New York City, where he directed evaluation research on clinical services for the Institute of Welfare Research. More importantly, perhaps, were the many personal and professional connections he made in New York with other clinical researchers. These connections served him well when he left New York for the position of coordinator of training in clinical and counseling psychology at the University of Illinois.

Hunt became interested in the complex questions about the origin and development of human intelligence. He was one of the first American psychologists to thoroughly explore Jean Piaget’s research on the development of human reasoning abilities and he examined the extant psychological literature on human intelligence, most of which argued for a strong genetic basis for intelligence. Hunt, however, concluded that experience played a pivotal role in the development of intelligence and provided a full explanation in his book, "Intelligence and Experience" (1961). The book not only caught the attention of his fellow psychologists, it also came to the attention of policy makers in Washington. As a result, Hunt was one of the key consultants on the development of the Head Start program in the mid-1960s. He went on to serve on several important government commissions, including the leader of President Johnson’s White House Task Force on Early Childhood Development.  Their report, “A Bill of Rights for Children” became the policy basis for several programs meant to improve the lives of children. Hunt was tapped, as well, to serve on the advisory board of the then new Children’s Television Workshop in 1968. While on the board, he played an advisory role in the development of the popular children’s television show Sesame Street.

Hunt retired from the University of Illinois in 1974. However, he led an active and engaged life in retirement. During his career he received many honors, including an NIMH Research Career Award. Just as importantly, he also helped create several of psychology’s most prestigious awards, including the Distinguished Contribution Awards. He was also instrumental in establishing the charitable arm of the APA in 1953, which became known as the American Psychological Foundation. As first president of the Foundation, Joe initiated the Gold Medal Award to recognize those who had made important lifelong contributions to psychology.