Dorothy A. Rethlingshafer (1900-1969)

by Donald A. Dewsbury, University of Florida*

Biography of Dorothy A. Rethlingshafer

The name of Dorothy Rethlingshafer has virtually disappeared from the psychological literature and the historical record, yet she was a woman of achievement who deserves recognition.  Dorothy was the first woman hired to the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences of the University of Florida, joining the Psychology Department in 1947.  She was a member of Sigma Xi, the author of 28 articles including two in the Psychological Review, and author of one book and co-editor of two others.  At a time when it was difficult for a woman in the male-dominated field of experimental psychology to gain recognition, she was honored with fellow status in two divisions of the American Psychological Association (APA).

Dorothy Adelaide Rethlingshafer was born in Hamilton, Ohio, the daughter of Andreas and Alice (Van Gordon) Rethlingshafer, on April 15, 1900.  She received her BA degree from Miami University in Ohio in 1920.  Dorothy received a Master’s degree in library science from the University of Chicago with a thesis on State Aid for Rural School Libraries in 1924.  She did her doctoral work at the University of North Carolina, completing the PhD under John F. Dashiell in 1938 with a dissertation entitled Behavior of Feeble-Minded and Normal Subjects Following the Interruption of Activities.

Between 1920 and 1923, while working on her Master’s degree, Dorothy served in the public schools of Ohio.  Upon completion of her doctoral work, she served on the faculty at Davenport Junior College in North Carolina, a post she held between 1925-1933.  She was a research assistant at North Carolina during 1938-1942, and an assistant professor at Queen’s College in Charlotte during 1942-1944.  In 1944, she moved to The Women’s College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, where she stayed until 1947.  During World War II she worked on the construction of a personality inventory for civilian airplane pilots under a grant from the National Research Council.  On several occasions, she applied unsuccessfully for a position to conduct developmental research at the Yerkes Laboratories of Primate Biology.  In 1947 she joined the faculty of the Department of Psychology of the University of Florida as an Associate Professor.  Although at the time of her hiring she had published significantly more research than any other professor in the department, and was instrumental in developing the doctoral program in psychology, she was not promoted to the rank of Professor until her retirement in June, 1969.  She died in Gainesville, Florida shortly thereafter on July 25, 1969.

Dorothy Rethlingshafer was a fellow of Divisions 1 (General Psychology) and 6 (Developmental Psychology), and a member of Division 3 (Experimental Psychology) of the APA.  She was a member of the Southeastern Psychological Association, the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and the Florida Psychological Association, and served as the Secretary of the North Carolina Statistical Association during 1946-1947. She listed her interests variously as including test construction, motivation, learning, and comparative psychology.  As a faculty member at Florida, she taught a wide variety of courses, including Social Psychology, the Measurement of Intelligence, Developmental Psychology, Motivation, Learning, and Psychological Testing.  Among the student research projects that she chaired was Ellen Kimmel’s dissertation dealing with the galvanic skin response during classical conditioning.  In her spare time, she was a writer of fiction and an amateur painter.

Eight of Dorothy’s early papers dealt with various aspects of the tendency to continue interrupted tasks and were in the tradition of such workers as Lewin, Zeigarnik, and Ovsiankina.  She found, for example, that contrary to previous results, “feebleminded” subjects were no more likely to resume tasks than were those with higher levels of intelligence (e.g., Rethlingshafer, 1941).  In two articles she investigated Gordon Allport’s notion of functional autonomy of motives, concluding that the available evidence did not support the notion of functional autonomy, and proposing seven possible factors affecting previous results. In another series of articles, she examined the effects of set on human performance.  She also wrote on various issues in learning and motivation in rats (e.g., Rethlingshafer, Eschenbach, & Stone, 1951).  In other studies she explored such topics as adaptation level and judgement, the need for achievement, illusions, and EEGs in drive states. 

In addition to numerous articles, Dorothy published three textbooks: one on motivation (Rethlingshafer, 1963), and two edited textbooks in comparative psychology (Waters, Rethlingshafer, & Caldwell, 1960; Dewsbury & Rethlingshafer, 1973).  The latter were a continuation of the series of such books earlier edited by F. A. Moss and Calvin Stone.

The years were not kind to Dorothy.  In her later years disease left her with a hunched-over posture, and she was somewhat isolated from colleagues.  Several remember her dog Fluffy as her constant companion.  I recall her sitting in the front row down the first-base line at most Florida Gator baseball games.  At her death, she had begun work on a new textbook in comparative psychology.  I was asked to complete the book and did so (Dewsbury & Rethlingshafer, 1973); the book was later translated into Chinese.  A selection of her papers can be found at the Archives of the History of American Psychology in Akron, Ohio.


Dewsbury, D. A., & Rethlingshafer, D. A. (1973). Comparative psychology: A modern survey. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Rethlingshafer, D. (1941) Comparison of normal and feebleminded children with college adults in their tendency-to-continue interrupted activities.  Journal of Comparative Psychology, 32, 205-216.

Rethlingshafer, D., Eschenbach, A., & Stone, J. T. (1951). Combined drives in learning.  Journal of Experimental Psychology, 41, 226-231.

Rethlingshafer, D. A. (1963). Motivation as related to personality. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Waters, R. H., Rethlingshafer, D. A., & Caldwell, W. E. (1960). Principles of comparative psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.


* Originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, Volume 30, Number 3, Summer, 2003. Appearing with permission of the author.