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Angell, James Rowlandlocked

(08 May 1869–04 March 1949)
  • Dan A. Oren

Angell, James Rowland (08 May 1869–04 March 1949), academic psychologist and fourteenth president of Yale University, was born in Burlington, Vermont, the son of James Burrill Angell, president of the University of Vermont and later the president of the University of Michigan, and Sarah Swope Caswell, daughter of Alexis Caswell, president of Brown University. The youngest of three, Angell spent much of his childhood alone, mostly in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his father served the state university. Bouts with scarlet fever and malaria left him partially deaf and, he recalled, “somewhat timid and unassertive” as a child. Poor vision turned him away from medicine, though his hearing loss likely spurred his later interest in evaluation of biological aspects of psychology, particularly the body’s response to affective stimuli and the localization of sound.

Except for a year in Beijing at age eleven when his father was minister to China, Angell attended public schools in Ann Arbor. A distinct preference for athletics turned to an interest in intellectual pursuits after he read John Dewey’s textbook on psychology soon after its publication in 1886. Angell received an A.B. from Michigan in 1890 and an A.M. in 1891. A graduate seminar that he took with Dewey that year introduced him to William James’s Principles of Psychology, a book that he characterized as affecting his thinking “more profoundly than any other” for the next twenty years. After a year at Harvard studying philosophy and psychology with William James and Josiah Royce, Angell received a second master’s degree and ventured to Germany for further study. His doctoral thesis on freedom in Kant’s philosophy was never accepted by the university at Halle because of his difficulty with written German. Nevertheless, his academic reputation was sufficiently enhanced to result in an instructorship in philosophy at the University of Minnesota in 1893. By this time his father, jesting that Angell might follow in his footsteps, encouraged him to be cognizant of the ways of university administration. In 1894 he married Marion Isabel Watrous, a college classmate; they had two children.

Brought to the University of Chicago by Dewey, Angell was assistant professor of philosophy and director of the psychology laboratory there between 1894 and 1901. Angell achieved recognition through his advocacy of the Chicago movement of psychology, which was dubbed “functionalism.” Though it would not survive as a vital intellectual movement, functionalism marked a milestone in the history of American psychology by calling upon psychologists to look not just at the structure of constructs, but also at their purpose. Angell hoped to employ a biological viewpoint in order to characterize the process by which the mind aids in the adjustment of the psychophysical person to his or her environment. In so doing, he provided a rationale for the dominant American psychology of his era.

Angell received his first promotion at Chicago in 1901, when he began to get competing offers from other campuses. His popular textbook Psychology was published in 1904. That year he became a full professor, and the following year he became department chairman. As a professor he supervised fifty dissertations, thereby training many leaders in American psychology. In 1906 he was elected president of the American Psychological Association. Rejecting the presidency of Dartmouth College in 1908, Angell became dean of the Senior College at Chicago that year. In 1911 he was appointed dean of the university faculties—a position second only to that of the university president. Following service on two army committees during World War I, he became acting president at Chicago in 1918. His Congregationalist background conflicted with Chicago’s requirement for a Baptist president, however, and the return of university president Harry Pratt Judson interfered with any opportunity for him to continue to occupy the post. Angell accepted the chairmanship of the National Research Council in 1919–1920 and moved to New York City in 1920 to become president of the Carnegie Corporation.

In 1921 Angell was invited to become the president of Yale University. Pulled between the knowledge that he would be the first non-Yale graduate to lead the university in almost two centuries and the possible feeling of obligation to carry on his familial professional legacy, Angell was convinced to accept the Yale offer. The marriage between Angell and a community that was protective of tradition and sometimes wary of scholarship was polite, but cold. The generous donation by alumnus Edward S. Harkness that founded (along with those at Harvard) the first residential colleges among America’s great universities, and the unparalleled endowment left by John W. Sterling allowed Angell to remake Yale in mortar and in scholarship at the most impressive scale in its first three centuries. Under his stewardship a great college became a great university. His success, however, perhaps owed more to his good fortune in presiding over a period of unprecedented income than to his leadership. A reluctance to take a stand left him a bystander to many great educational issues of his campus and his day. Wry humor and mastery “of an easy, shimmering eloquence” (Pierson, p. 180) allowed him to express his mind, but he could rarely bring himself to challenge the status quo. His difficulty in forging a sense of collegiality with the Yale College faculty left him as much an outsider as a leader at Yale. In 1931 Angell’s first wife died, and he married Katharine Cramer Woodman the following year. Retiring as Yale’s president in 1937, Angell became a full-time educational consultant to the National Broadcasting Company. He died at home in the New Haven suburb of Hamden, Connecticut.

Angell’s stature in psychology remains undiminished seventy-five years after his contributions were made: he was an administrative hero who greatly encouraged growth of the field in America. The functionalism he advocated is now considered the bridge between mentalism and behavioralism in the history of American psychology. The accomplishments during his stewardship of Yale may never be equaled, but his contemporaries and biographers have asked if someone else might have marshaled the same resources and achieved more.


Angell’s extensive presidential papers are in the Yale Manuscripts and Archives Library. The influence of Angell’s father on his life may be gleaned from his father’s letters to him in the presidential papers. Personal papers may be found in his father’s papers at the University of Michigan, the President’s Papers at the University of Chicago, and in the William James Papers at Harvard. Angell’s The Relations of Structural and Functional Psychology to Philosophy (1903); “The Province of Functional Psychology,” Psychological Review 14 (1907): 61–91; and Chapters from Modern Psychology (1912) outline his program on functionalism. Essays on general issues in education appear in his American Education: Addresses and Articles (1937). The personal character and professional achievement of Angell as Yale president are the core of George Wilson Pierson, Yale: The University College 1921–1937 (1955). Also on his Yale years, see Maynard Mack, “James Rowland Angell,” Yale Literary Magazine 97 (1931): 38–46, and Archibald MacLeish, “New Yale,” Fortune 9 (1934): 70–81, 148–58.

A brief autobiography dwelling largely on Angell’s pre-Yale years appears in Carl Murchison, History of Psychology in Autobiography (1936). His earlier publications are listed in Carl Murchison, Psychological Register, vol. 3 (1932), pp. 11–12. His career in psychology is detailed in National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs 26 (1951): 191–208; Darnell Rucker, The Chicago Pragmatists (1991); Robert I. Watson and Rand B. Evans, The Great Psychologists (1991); David Hothersall, History of Psychology (1990); and Thomas Leahey, A History of Modern Psychology (1991). Obituaries are in the New York Times, 5 Mar. 1949, and the Yale Alumni Magazine, Apr. 1949. He was memorialized in Walter Miles, “James Rowland Angell, 1869–1949, Psychologist Educator,” Science 110 (1949): 1–4.