Influential People

Page by Sarah Dye

The first recorded murder was that of Abel. Since then we are all aware of increasing crime rates, and that the world we live in is becoming a more dangerous place every day.  Luckily for us there is forensic psychology. According to the American Board of Forensic Psychology, Forensic Psychology today can be defined as “Forensic Psychology is the application of the science and profession of psychology to questions and issues relating to law and the legal system. The word “forensic” comes from the Latin word “forensis,” meaning “of the forum,” where the law courts of ancient Rome were held. Today forensic refers to the application of scientific principles and practices to the adversary process where specially knowledgeable scientists play a role.”  Of course like all things, Forensic psychology has a history of development.  One aspect of its development is how it has become an increasingly integrated part of the American Judiciary system. The following people are part of the reason as to why psychology working within the legal system became a viable and accepted field.

Hugo Munsterburg

Hugo Munsterburg

One of the first people in America to recognize and publish concerning the application of psychology to the justice system was Hugo Munsterburg (1863-1916). Munsterburg was an immigrant to America from Germany. Before he moved though he attended a lecture by Wundt at the University of Leipzig. This lecture by Wundt sparked in him an intrigue with psychology. From there he became a professor at Harvard in the United States having been invited to lead a laboratory by William James. Munsterburg had a large range of interests in psychology. This large range of interests lead him to write On the Witness Stand, an essay about how our memories are not always as accurate as we may think (Domingue&Rardon, 2002).  On the witness stand the first published essay that involved an application of psychology to the courtroom. To read Munsterburg’s essay click here (Green).

Of course the development of an interest in the application of psychology to law cannot be completely granted to Munsterberg. Binet, Stern and Cattell were all interested in the accuracy of memory and each did research on it (Bartol&Bartol 1999).


Cattell did a study in 1893 in which he asked 56 college students these four questions:

  1. Do chestnut or oak trees lose their leaves earlier in autumn?
  2. Do horses in the field stand with head or tail to the wind?
  3. In which direction doe the seeds of an apple point?
  4. What was the weather one week ago today?

Cattell at the age of 15

Even though Cattell was simply looking into memory, and did not make the connection of how his study might be used in a court of law, he still had an impact on future of forensic psychology. It was through these four simple questions that Cattell and the rest of the world began to understand the reliability of memory. It was already established that eyewitness testimony were not consistently reliable, yet little was known about the specifics. This study began to look at the specific circumstances of when memory is more or less reliable, and how to distinguish this.

Donald Slesinger

The first psychologist to be hired as a professor in a law school was Donald Slesinger. In 1929 he was hired by Yale Law School as an associate professor. Slesinger taught the psychology of evidence. Later in 1930 he became the dean of the University of Chicago’s Law School.

William Marston

The development of the polygraph can be traced back to a laboratory assistant at Radcliffe. William Marston a former student of the previously mentioned Munsterburg, found a correlation between lying and systolic blood pressure. This, however, is the least of Marston’s contribution to the creation of forensic psychology. Marston is thought to be the first real consultant of the United States justice system. Marston often spoke with attorneys and police officers about psychology. He also conducted the first research on juries. In his research he found out several important things for example women tend to analysis evidence more than men, a witness allowed to state information freely will be more accurate than a witness that is cross examined. He was involved in the case of Frye Vs. the United States as well.

Howard Brutt

The first text book in the field was titled “Legal Psychology”. It was published in 1931 and written by Howard Brutt (another former student of Munsterburg). The test book did not have much of impact however since Brutt had not done a lot of research on the intersection of psychology and law, and he was personally more geared towards industrial psychology.

It is important to note that from about 1925 through the 1930’s the ideal of psychology working in the Justice system really began to take hold. Numerous articles were being published on the topic, and the day when psychology and law merged into forensic psychology was very feasible. Unfortunately, this progress came to almost a complete halt for about ten year between 1940 and 1950, the cause being World War II.


Bartol, A. M., & Bartol, C. R. (1999). History of forensic psychology. In Handbook of forensic psychology 2nd ed. (pp. 452-470). New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Domingue, E., & Rardon, J. (2002, January 15). Hugo Munsterberg. Retrieved October 15, 2010, from History of Psychology 2002:

Green, C. D. (n.d.). Classics in the History of Psychology. Retrieved November 16, 2010, from Classics in the History of Psychology:

Webb, D. (n.d.). A Free And Comprehensive Guide To The World Of Forensic Psychology. Retrieved October 15, 2010, from All About Forensic Psychology:

Weiner, I. B., & Hess, A. K. (2006). The Handbook of Forensic Psychology Third Edition. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Comments are closed.