A Brief Biographical Sketch of Harry Kirke Wolfe

Harry Kirke Wolfe (1858-1918) is arguably one of the most important psychologists and educators of the early 1900s. His impact on the education of a vast number of students is probably matched only by his unfortunate obscurity. Because he did not train graduate students, his legacy has been more indirect that than of some more famous psychologists. Throughout his professional career, he labored diligently to enhance the education of his students, working with them individually and campaigning for better laboratory facilities and equipment in his department at the University of Nebraska.

During Wolfe's own training, he was the second American to receive a doctorate in Wilhelm Wundt's lab in 1886, four months after James McKeen Cattell received the first. His interests revolved around mental measurements, developmental psychology, cognitive processes, and educational issues. When he returned to the United States, he assumed a position at the University of Nebraska, where he spent most of his career. There was a period of time, though, when he was released from his position there for political and bureaucratic reasons.

According to Ludy T. Benjamin's (1991) captivating biography of Wolfe, there are excellent reasons both for Wolfe's notable influence in the development of psychology and for his obscurity. Wolfe was a charter member of the American Psychological Association, although he held no offices in the organization. He also helped found The American Journal of Psychology, the first American journal in the discipline. He published a few articles in the journal, but devoted his academic life to teaching undergraduates so that, in a survey in the 1920s, his undergraduate laboratory ranked third in producing students who would later attain doctorates and exert influence in the field. Three of Wolfe's students eventually became presidents of the American Psychological Association.

There is clear evidence that Wolfe cared deeply for his students, inviting them into his home regularly, worked to get them jobs, and loaned them money. Two of his students who late became presidents of APA (Edwin Ray Guthrie and Madison Bentley) commented that they had been influenced by Wolfe more than by any other mentor; this is high praise considering that they later worked with E. B. Titchener and E. A. Singer.

Wolfe reported having 35 contact hours with students each week. As Benjamin (1993) noted, "he received no teaching credit for the laboratory hours he added to his courses. Perhaps more amazing was that the students received no credit for the extra laboratory hous either. Yet enrollments in those courses continued to mushroom" (p. 62).

He fought constant battles with the administrators at the Univeristy of Nebraska over laboratory space, funding, and equipment. He often spent his own money to furnish his lab, and was forcd by the University's new chancellor in 1897 to explain his budget deficit of $75.86.At one point, the Psychology Department was promised new facilities in the Physics Building planned for completion in 1905. Unfortunately, the University reneged on its pledge and Psychology was forced to return to its original space in the basement of the library. It was not until 1916 that the University agreed to provide laboratory space in the new social sciences building. Wolfe planned the labs but died 18 months before their completion.

One of the messages his students received was the importance of ethics in life. Wolfe had a very well-defined personal view of ethics that led to difficulties with others. Whereas some people thought of him as brave and courageous, others considered him merely difficult and self-righteous. Late in life, according to his daughter, he softened his perspective, but his high level of ethics still posed problems. During the first world war, his patriotism was questioned and he underwent a difficult period of scrutiny. Some University faculty were forced to resign, but Wolfe was not among them. Still, the process seems to have taken a toll; Wolfe died of a heart attack shortly thereafter.


Benjamin, L. T., jr. (1991). Harry Kirke Wolfe: Pioneer in Psychology. New York and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Benjamin, L. T., jr. (1993). A History of Psychology in Letters. Dubuque: Brown & Benchmark.

Sokal, M. M. (1988). Jame McKeen Cattell and the failure of anthropometric testing, 1890-1901. In L. T. Benjamin, jr. (Ed.), A History of Psychology: Original sources and contemporary research (pp. 310-319). New York: McGraw-Hill. (Reprinted from The problematic science: psychology in nineteenth-century thought pp. 322-345, by W. R. Woodward & M. G. Ash (Eds.), New York: Praeger, .)

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