The History of Psychology

Although a relatively young practice in its own right humans have speculated over the nature of the mind for thousands of years. Here’s a timeline of some of the key developments which have brought psychology to where it is today:   

Edwin Smith Papyrus
Edwin Smith Papyrus

1500 BC

Ancient Egyptian medical text, Edwin Smith Papyrus, contains some speculation on the brain’s function.

550 BC

Ancient Greek philosophers develop theory termed the psuchẽ. From which the word psychology is derived.

323–30 BC

Later Greek philosophers differ from earlier ones in that they question the physiological basis of the mind.


Muslim physicians begin to recognise and discuss disorders related to the body and mind, Ahmed Ibn Salhl al Bakhi being the first of his tradition.


The term psychology is first used.
Rene Descartes develops psychology with Passions of the Soul and Treatise on Man which influence the philosophical form of psychology today.

19th century

No longer just a branch of philosophy, psychology becomes recognised as an independent scientific discipline.
Neurophysiology sees some its most significant discoveries; distinction between sensory and motor nerves; identification of areas of brain responsible for language comprehension; speed of neural transmission.


G. Stanley Hall becomes the first person to be awarded with a Ph.D in Psychology, at Harvard University.

Wundt Research Group
Wundt Research Group


The first ever dedicated psychology laboratory is opened at the University of Leipzig in Germany, establishing the topic as its own practice, separate from both philosophy and physiology. German doctor Wilhelm Wundt is the man responsible.


Experimental psychology labs make their way across the Atlantic Ocean with the US’ first lab established at John Hopkins University.


James Cattell becomes the first Professor of Psychology serving at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.


Sigmund Freud formulates his theory of psychoanalysis. 
Psychology is divided into three main schools:

  • Functionalism – focuses on the functions of the mind as oppose to its internal contents.
  • Psychoanalysis – Sigmund Freud coined the term. Asserts that a person’s personality is linked to events in childhood, human attitude influenced by irrational drives, awareness of such drives is met by psychological resistance, these conflicts form emotional disturbances which are treated by therapeutic intervention.
  • Structuralism – focuses on introspection in order to gain an understanding of conscious experience.


Ivan Pavlov develops his theory of classical conditioning.


Melanie Klein pioneers a method of child psychoanalysis.


Behaviourism established – asserts that humans have no free will and that a person’s environment determines their behaviour.


Carl Jung introduces the concepts of introversion and extraversion.


Gestalt psychology founded – asserts that the mind perceives objects as a whole before their individual parts. The whole is distinct from the parts.


Karen Horney publishes her theory of neurosis.


Solomon Asch conducts his famous conformity experiments.
Initial studies suggest the drug imipramine is able to lessen the effects of depression. Becomes FDA approved eight years later.


Stanley Milgram begins infamous obedience experiments.


Cognitive psychology established – focuses on the internal processes which control how people react to stimuli. By 1970 it became the dominant approach in experimental psychology.


Phillip Zimbardo conducts the hugely controversial Stanford Prison Experiment.


Jean Piaget develops a systematic study of cognitive development in children.


Dawkins publishes The Selfish Gene popularising evolutionary psychology — applies principles of evolution to function of the brain. Provides an alternative way of looking at certain human behaviours e.g. aggression and risk-taking.