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History of Psychology Centre

Victorian Mathematicians, War-time Psychologists and 70s Disco Dancers: Mary Boole Stott and Careers Advice in the BPS Archive

10 February 2020 | by History of Psychology Centre

For this instalment of the History of Psychology Centre blog, we’re exploring the life of an exceptional, but largely forgotten former BPS member, Mary Boole Stott (1893–1962).

Some readers may be familiar with the concept of ‘Boolean logic’. Boolean logic is a form of algebra which centres around three words: ‘Or’, ‘And’ and ‘Not’.

When applied, this concept allows us to determine if values are true or false. Today many search engines are built around this principle.

Mary Boole Stott was the granddaughter of George Boole (1815-1864), who laid down ‘Boolean Logic’.

The Boole family were not only highly intellectual but, unusually for the time, many of the women also pursued successful academic careers. For example, Mary’s grandmother Mary Everest Boole was a published mathematician, as was her mother Alicia Boole Stott, who contributed to the field of 4D geometry.

Despite this impressive lineage, Mary did not believe she had any great mathematical ability, writing that she was “hopeless at mathematics, but very good at summing people up”.[1]

Like her forebears, Mary also charted an unlikely and interesting career path during her life. Whilst their passion was mathematics however, hers was psychology, particularly in relation to careers guidance.

Mary began her studies in psychology whilst still at school, eventually choosing to study at Bedford College, graduating in 1916.  She reflected on her choice to pursue an arts education in a 1959  autobiographical essay published in Occupational Psychology[2] noting that initially she was “rather ashamed of being ‘merely an arts student” and regarded a B.A as something inferior to a B.Sc.[3]

One factor in her decision to study psychology was the chance to learn from Professor Beatrice Edgell[4]. Edgell was the first British woman to be awarded a PhD in Psychology and later became the first female President of the BPS.

She would later write that:

“Whether or not the choice of subject was right or wrong I can never regret a decision which brought me for two years into daily contact with that great personality and gave me… the inestimable privilege of her friendship.”[5]

During World War I Mary worked for the Ministry of Pensions, - supervising 13 others and earning 27 shillings 6d a week (of which 21 shillings went on her lodging).[6]

After the war she was appointed as a Research Assistant, and later a Vocational Advisor, at the National Institute of Industrial Psychology (NIIP), a position she held for over 30 years.

In this role she provided careers guidance to generations of people, helped to develop strategies around vocational advice and applied psychological principles to the working economy of her time.

Although the NIIP closed in 1976, in its heyday it was a well-known and influential occupational psychology centre. Founded in 1921 by Charles S Myers, Director of the Cambridge Psychological Laboratory, the NIIP was a non-profit scientific organisation which studied industry and commerce and promoted the application of psychology and physiology within these fields.[7]

Boole Stott also wrote a series of articles in Occupational Psychology, outlining her ideas around psychology and industry including; ‘Difficulties in the Validation of Vocational Guidance Procedures’ and ‘Follow-up problems in Vocational Guidance’.[8]

In these pieces, she forwarded her views on how to ensure people chose the correct pathway to suit their character and skills, drawing upon her understanding of human psychology. Fundamentally, she posited that decisions around forging careers were not “merely the choice of occupation at school leaving age” but instead an ongoing process, informed by careful research and consideration.[9]

The field of vocational guidance has changed significantly since Mary Boole Stott’s day. However she would be pleased to discover that there is now a greater appreciation of the impact that psychological concepts can have on an individual’s career choices.[10]

Ironically, given Boole Stott’s long standing membership of the BPS (she was a recorded member from 1921), she retired shortly before the society began a campaign to dispense careers advice to its members and the wider public in 1961, when publications from the BPS began to promote different routes into Clinical Psychology, Educational Psychology, Occupational Psychology and Social Psychology, amongst others disciplines.

Our History of Psychology Centre BPS Archive collections attest to the role of the BPS in guiding psychology students and the general public through this range of career choices.

Unfortunately we don’t have a copy of the very first careers pamphlets published in 1945 (Careers in Psychology and Certain Allied Fields by J C Flugel) but we do have a series of leaflets from the early 1980s – including a general guide entitled ‘Starting off in Psychology: An Introduction to Courses and Careers’ and several specific leaflets including ‘Careers in Occupational Psychology’ [11] - in which the BPS offered advice to psychology graduates.

It was during this period that the BPS began to promote different routes into Clinical Psychology, Educational Psychology, Occupational Psychology and Social Psychology, amongst others disciplines.

We are still providing careers advice and it is interesting to see the evolution of language in recent material compared to that of the past, reflecting ongoing changes in psychology and the society, the education system, and terminology.

The BPS has also carried out numerous careers campaigns, preserved in the archive through posters, leaflets and other promotional materials. These objects, examples of which you can find at the top of this page, give a distinct picture of the times in which they were created:

I particularly like the ‘Studying Psychology’ poster from the late 1970s featuring a figure that bears more than a passing resemblance to John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever!

Though informal, and certainly standing as a departure from the formal careers guidance that Mary Boole Stott would recognise, these items show the BPS’s commitment to engaging budding psychologists and promoting the profession.

In writing this blog I have discovered first-hand how the BPS Archive acts as a unique repository which contains the stories of fascinating individuals whilst also holding information on the broader changes in psychology over the last century.

I doubt another archive could lead you from George Boole to John Travolta in one fell swoop!

To find out more about the BPS and its history visit www.bps.org.uk./hopc.


Bibliography

Archive Material

  • BPS Archives, BPS Psychology Careers booklets and marketing, BPS/001/10/07/01

Journal Articles

  • Boole Stott, M., An Autobiographical Sketch, Occupational Psychology (1959), 33, pp.68-79
  • Raphael, Winifred, Mary Boole Stott (1893-1962), The Bulletin (1962), 49, pp.34-35

Websites


Footnotes

[1] Mary Boole Stott, ‘An Autobiographical Sketch’, Occupational Psychology (1959), 33, p.69

[2] Occupational Psychology is now known Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (JOOP).

[3]   Boole Stott, ‘An Autobiographical Sketch’, p.74

[4] Elizabeth Valentine, ‘A lady of unusual ability and force of character’, https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-32/february/lady-unusual-ability-and-force-character

[5] Boole Stott, ‘An Autobiographical Sketch’, p.74

[6] Winifred Raphael, ‘Mary Boole Stott 1893-1962’, The Bulletin (1962), 49, p.35

[7] Archives Hub, ‘National Institute of Industrial Psychology’, https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/search/archives/7b22d9f0-7767-3731-bab6-c975b58906e4

[8] Raphael, ‘Mary Boole Stott 1893-1962’, p.35.

[9] Boole Stott, ‘An Autobiographical Sketch’, p.78.

[10] Headstuck Blog, ‘5 Psychology Findings That Affect Career Decisions’, https://www.thecareerpsychologist.com/10-psychology-findings-that-affect-career-decisions-1-5/

[11] BPS Psychology Careers booklets and marketing, BPS/001/10/07/01.

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