Lightner Witmer: Biography Of This American Psychologist

One of the main drivers of child care in psychotherapy in the United States.

Lightner witmer

Lightner Witmer (1867-1956) was an American psychologist, recognized to this day as the father of clinical psychology. This is so since he founded the first child psychology clinic in the United States, which began as a derivative of the psychology laboratory of the University of Pennsylvania and which especially provided child care.

In this article we will look at a biography of Lightner Witmer, as well as some of his main contributions to clinical psychology.

Lightner Witmer: biography of this clinical psychologist

Lightner Witmer, formerly David L. Witmer Jr., was born on June 28, 1867, in Philadelphia, United States. The son of David Lightner and Katherine Huchel, and the eldest of four siblings, Witmer earned a doctorate in psychology and soon became a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. Likewise, he had training in the arts, finance and economics, and political science.

As with other scientists and psychologists of the time, Witmer grew up in the context of the post-civil war in the United States, around an emotional atmosphere strongly charged with concern and at the same time fear and hope.

In addition, Witmer was born in Philadelphia, which in the same context had been characterized by different events that marked the history of the country, such as the Battle of Gettysburg and the various struggles for the prohibition of slavery. All of the above led Witmer to develop a special concern for using psychology as a tool for social improvement.

Training and academic career

After graduating in political science, and trying to continue studying law, Witmer met the experimental psychologist James McKeen Cattell, who was one of the most influential intellectuals of the time.

The latter motivated Witmer to begin his studies in psychology. Witmer soon became interested in the discipline, partly because he had previously served as a history and English teacher with children of different ages, and had noticed that many of them had various difficulties, for example, distinguishing sounds or letters. Far from being on the sidelines, Witmer had worked closely with these children, and his help had been instrumental in increasing their learning.

After meeting Cattell (who had also trained with another of the fathers of psychology, Wilhelm Wundt) and after agreeing to work as his assistant, Witmer and Cattell founded an experimental laboratory where the main objective was to study the differences in reaction times between different individuals.

Cattell soon leaves the university, and the laboratory, and Witmer begins working as Wundt’s assistant at the University of Leipzig in Germany. After obtaining his doctorate, Witmer returned to the University of Pennsylvania as director of the psychology laboratory, specializing in research and teaching in child psychology.

America’s First Psychology Clinic

As part of his work at the University of Pennsylvania psychology laboratory, Witmer founded America’s first child care psychology clinic.

Among other things, he was in charge of working with different children, with the aim of helping them overcome what he called “defects” in learning and socialization. Witmer argued that these defects were not diseases, and were not necessarily the result of a brain defect, but rather a mental state of the child’s development.

In fact, he said that these children should not be considered as “abnormal”, since if they deviated from the average, this happened because their development was at a stage before that of the majority. But, through adequate clinical support, supplemented by a training school that functioned as a hospital-school, their difficulties could be compensated.

Witmer and the beginnings of clinical psychology

In the debate on the hereditary or environmental determination of behavior, which dominated much of the psychology of the time, Witmer initially positioned himself as one of the defenders of hereditary factors. However, after starting the interventions as a clinical psychologist, Weimer argued that the development and capacities of the child were strongly conditioned by environmental elements and by the socioeconomic role.

From there, his clinic focused on expanding the study of educational psychology and what was previously called special education. In addition, he is credited with being the father of clinical psychology because he was the first to use the term “Clinical Psychology” in 1896, during a working session of the American Psychological Association (APA).

In the same context, Witmer defended the separation of psychology and philosophy, especially advocated dividing the APA from the American Philosophical Association. Since the latter generated different controversies, Witner and Edward Titchener founded an alternative society only for experimental psychologists.

Witmer strongly defended that research carried out in psychology, in laboratories, as well as the theories developed by great intellectuals, could have a practical and direct use to improve people’s quality of life. Likewise, at the base of the development of clinical psychology is the premise that practice and research are inseparable elements for this discipline.

Bibliographic references:

  • Lightner, Witmer (2018). Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 30, 2018.Available at
  • Ju├írez, AR (2016). Lightner Witmer and America’s First Psychological Clinic for Children. VIII International Congress of Research and Professional Practice in Psychology XXIII Research Conference XII Meeting of Researchers in Psychology of MERCOSUR. Faculty of Psychology – University of Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires.
  • Thomas, H. (2009). Discovering Lightner Witmer: A Forgotten Hero of Psychology. Journal of Scientific Psychology. pp. 3- 13. Retrieved August 30, 2018. Available at

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