Thelma Hunt (1903-1992)

by Nicole Brigandi, George Washington University*

Biography of Thelma Hunt

In 1920, Thelma Hunt received The George Washington University Board of Trustees Scholarship, opening a door that would lead to her pioneering work in the field of industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology, and a life spent inspiring women across generations.  Hunt was born in Aurora, Arkansas on November 30, 1903.  Her father’s job with the Veteran’s Administration settled the family in Berwyn, Maryland.  Hunt attended Central High School, reportedly one of the best public schools in Washington, D.C., then earned The George Washington University scholarship and began her college career with a focus in chemistry.  In 1922, Hunt met Dr. Fred Moss, who successfully persuaded the promising young scholar to pursue a career in psychology. 

By 1927, at age 23, Hunt had earned an A.B., M.A., and Ph.D. through George Washington’s psychology department, the youngest person ever awarded a Ph.D. at George Washington (GW).  Her dissertation was entitled “A Study of Social Intelligence of Ten Thousand Persons in Industry and in College Life,” a topic still relevant today.  Hunt took a job as a test specialist at the United States Civil Service Commission (USCSC) from 1923-1927 under the supervision of Dr. Lawrence O’Rourke, focusing on the construction of psychological tests. Seeing no opportunity for advancement as a woman, Hunt took the advice of her mentors, Moss and O’Rourke, and left the USCSC for a teaching position at Middle Tennessee State College in 1927.   The following year, a position opened up at GW and she returned to Washington.  Together, Moss, Hunt, and Katherine Omwake established the Center for Psychological Services, which Hunt later directed. The Center offered consulting in personnel management, personnel selection, and clinical consulting, with a strong focus on psychological testing.

Moss and Hunt also worked to develop the first Medical College Admissions Test for the Association of American Medical Colleges and Tests for Medical Professions for the War Department, two exams that became the forerunners of all subsequent medical school admissions tests. In 1930, Hunt decided to pursue a medical degree herself, with special permission to spread coursework out over five years to allow her to continue to teach at the university.  Because internships were not available for women in D.C., Hunt completed her internship at Englewood General Hospital in New Jersey.  In 1935, Hunt earned her M.D., graduating second in a class of 72 students.
                                  
Hunt chose to stay with GW’s Psychology Department, and in 1939 was elected Department Chair, a highly unusual position for a woman in the predominantly male environment of the time.  In 1942, Hunt married Ernest Healy, Jr., an educational-vocational counselor.  Remarkably, they found time to pursue their hobby of traveling and making 16-millimeter color movies, in addition to managing the Center for Psychological Services.  Hunt loved to entertain, and would throw dinner parties on the spur of the moment, going through the department and inviting people to her home that evening.  She chaired GW’s Psychology Department for 25 years.  After “retiring” in 1969, she continued to teach as Professor Emerita for over 20 years.  

During her 59 years in academia, Hunt established training programs in rehabilitation counseling, clinical psychology, and personnel psychology (later called I/O Psychology), while contributing to a women’s program developed by Dr. Ruth Osborn.  The I/O psychology program she initiated is among the oldest in the country.  In addition to her focus on personnel management and testing, Hunt’s wide-ranging contributions to psychology included work on marriage counseling, parenting, child issues, sleep deprivation, driver psychology, psychology and medicine, and, as she herself aged, geropsychology. 

Hunt received many awards throughout her long career.  In 1984, she was honored with the Stockberger Achievement Award from the International Personnel Management Association, the Association’s highest distinction.  In 1985, the American Psychological Association recognized Hunt as an Eminent Woman in Psychology.  Throughout her career, Hunt contributed to many publications, and touched the lives of over 20,000 students.  She once said, “My greatest satisfactions have come from close teaching contacts with my students and I look with great pride on the outstanding accomplishments of so many of them.”  Recognizing this commitment to students, her portrait graces the wall of the psychology department’s Thelma Hunt Student Lounge, named in her honor.

Professionally, Hunt was regarded as an authority on test construction and psychological testing. Yet she wore many hats over the course of her life: student, teacher, administrator, wife, innovator, and, most importantly, icon for women and the discipline of psychology as a whole. Not only did she play a role in developing I/O psychology, Thelma Hunt made huge strides for each generation of women who follow in her footsteps.  When asked if she faced any barriers, she remarked stoically, “No. I don’t think so. I just went ahead and did it.”

Sources

Thelma Hunt Papers. Acc. #356; George Washington University, University Archives: Washington, DC. 

Lindley, C. J. (1994). Obituary: Thelma Hunt (1903-1992).  American Psychologist, 49, 141.
 

* Originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, Volume 32, Number 3, Summer, 2005. Appearing with permission of the author