John C. Flanagan and the Development of Psychological Surveys: The U.S. Aviation Psychology Program

By Pearson, Roger | Mankind Quarterly, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

John C. Flanagan and the Development of Psychological Surveys: The U.S. Aviation Psychology Program


Pearson, Roger, Mankind Quarterly


An account is given of how John C. Flanagan became a major pioneer of psychological testing field research as a result of survey he conducted into factors affecting family size amongst U.S. Army Air Corps officers. Carried out on the initiative of a small New York nonprofit organization, this led to a massive government-sponsored psychological program covering U.S. Army pilots throughout World War II.

KEY WORDS: John C. Flanagan, History of Psychological Surveys, Family Size, U.S. Army Air Corps, Dysgenics and War, Pioneer Fund.

John C. Flanagan is a major name in the history of American psychology, having gained wide recognition for his pioneering role in the organization and supervision of extensive field surveys. The best known of these studies involved the psychological testing of U.S. Army pilots during World War II. This was a task he was asked to accomplish following his successful management of a 1938 U.S. Army Air Corps survey which sought to identify the factors responsible for decisions regarding family size made by Army Air Corps officers and their wives. Privately financed, but personally approved by General "Hap" Arnold and confirmed by the War Department, this study opened the door for Flanagan's massive World War II psychological surveys and subsequent research achievements. It was funded by a small New York foundation financed by Colonel Wickliffe Preston Draper, a textile heir who was himself a pilot and a decorated World War I combat hero. While representing the "window of opportunity" that served Flanagan so well in his career as a psychologist, the 1938 study is of intrinsic interest in itself.

John C. Flanagan

Born in 1906 in Armour, South Dakota, John C. Flanagan was the son of a Baptist minister who had graduated at the University of the son of a Baptist minister who had graduated at the University of Minnesota, and of a mother who had graduated from Cornell and had taught school before her marriage. At the age of eighteen, the young Flanagan was an enthusiastic football player who enrolled in the engineering school of the University of Washington, where he played as a quarterback on the college team. However, with only a few credits still required to earn a degree in electrical engineering, Flanagan transferred to the college of education when he found his studies interfering with his football practice. After graduating with a major in physics, he enrolled in graduate school at the University of Washington where he continued to take courses on a part-time basis while launching into a career as a High School science and mathematics teacher and football coach.

Finding himself becoming interested in psychology, Flanagan enrolled in a summer program at Yale University in order to take courses in psychology under E. L. Thorndike, as well as Truman Lee Kelley and other notable scholars. Under their inspiration he decided - in the midst of the Great Depression - to leave his secure teaching position in Seattle to accept a fellowship in psychology at Harvard University where he earned a Ph.D. in mental measurement under the renowned Professor Kelley in 1934.

Flanagan remained at Harvard to work for Walter F. Dearborn, who was collecting data in local schools for the twelve-year Harvard Growth Study. He also worked with Benjamin D. Wood, director of the Cooperative Test Service of the American Council on Education at Columbia University, where he was in charge of the annual achievement test program which collaborated with many leaders in the field of testing and measurement. Here he showed that teacher evaluations in fields such as mathematics and English were too often based on only very general assumptions, and that many teachers failed to evaluate student ability accurately.

As a result, Flanagan's first major academic publication appeared as early as 1935: namely Factor Analysis in the Study of Personality, published by Stanford University Press. …

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