Ellen P. Reese (1926-1997)

by Edward K. Morris, University of Kansas*

Biography of Ellen P. Reese

Ellen Hayward Pulford Reese was born in Hartford, CT on August 30, 1926. She received her primary education in the Hartford public schools and soon made her interests known: by the eighth grade, she had read every book on animals in West Hartford’s Children’s Library. On completing her secondary education at the Chaffee School in Windsor, CT, she matriculated into Mount Holyoke College, majored in psychology, and received honors for an independent study she presented at the 1948 meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association – “The Attitudes of White Children Toward Negroes in Social Situations.” She graduated magna cum laude.

Reese remained at Mount Holyoke College, working on military-funded research and as an assistant in psychology (1948-1956). In 1949, she married Thomas W. Reese, and was thereafter known as “Ellie” Reese. She earned a masters degree in experimental psychology in 1954 and was hired as the Assistant Director and later the Director of the Psychological Laboratories (1956-1969). She became a research associate and lecturer (1969-1980), and then an associate and full professor (1980-1988). After a half-century of extraordinary tenure at Mount Holyoke College, she retired in 1994 as the Norma Cutts Dafoe Professor of Psychology.

For Reese, research, service, and teaching were inseparable. She studied ethology and published work on comparative psychology. She designed and directed animal laboratories. She wrote formative manuals and produced widely used films. Of the latter, her 1965 Behavior Theory in Practice was translated into over 40 languages by the United States Information Agency, thereby introducing thousands of “students” to basic and applied behavioral research. And, her oft-reprinted 1966 book, The Analysis of Human Operant Behavior drew many psychology majors into the field of behavior analysis, where she was among the significant pioneers.

Reese was never the coolly, detached academic, but was passionate, especially about science and teaching, and about animal welfare in both. In particular, she contributed importantly to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Committee on Animal Research and Experimentation and its 1985 Guidelines for Ethical Conduct in the Care and Use of Animals. Reese had other passions, too, among them, German Shepherds. She bred them, trained them for shows, founded training clubs, and judged at American Kennel Club events. In other service, she was an editorial board member (e.g., The Behavior Analyst, 1980-1982), a member of the APA Committee on Women in Psychology (1979-1981), and served on the Executive Committees of APA Division 25 (Behavior Analysis, 1973-1990) and the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies (1982-1994). On the basis of her science and service, she was elected president of the Association for Behavior Analysis (1984) and APA Division 25 (1990), and a Fellow of three APA divisions: Division 2 (Teaching), Division 6 (Comparative), and Division 25. APA recognized her in 1992 as one of the 100 most important women in the history of psychology.

Reese was most renowned, of course, as a teacher, a mentor, and a model. In her values, she embodied the liberal arts ideal: “We want our students to know enough and to care enough to cherish all of the inhabitants of this planet. We want them to have the skills to use a microscope and the vision to use a telescope.” 1 Consistent with this ideal, she established the T. W. Reese Fund at Mount Holyoke to support independent student research. In her actions, Reese held to a basic premise: “Education is, by definition, successful; the only measure of a teacher’s success is the students’ success.”  As for the goals of teaching, she wrote, “Gardner Murphy said it best: ‘The teacher should so conduct himself [sic] that his [sic] students surpass him [sic] as rapidly as possible.’”2 Reese’s students were successful and, on some measures, surpassed her: through her nurturance and guidance, more than 35 of her advisees went on to earn doctorates.

For her contributions to teaching, APA selected Reese as a 1985 G. Stanley Hall Lecturer. In 1986, she received the American Psychological Foundation’s award for Distinguished Contributions to Education in Psychology. One of her greatest honors, though, came in 1996: Mount Holyoke College dedicated its Psychology and Education Building in the names of Ellen and Thomas Reese. Although Reese succumbed to pulmonary disease the next year — on April 2, 1997, in South Hadley, MA — she is alive today in the values and actions of the generations of students she taught so successfully at Mount Holyoke College.


1 Quoted from the program for Reese’s May 3, 1997 memorial service at Mount Holyoke College.

2 Quoted from the American Psychological Foundation’s citation for Reese’s award.


Reese, E. P. (1986). Learning about teaching from teaching about learning: Presenting behavioral analysis in an introductory survey course. In V. P. Makosky (Ed.), The G. Stanley Hall Lecture Series (Vol. 6, pp. 67-127). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.


* 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 4, Fall, 2003. Appearing with permission of the author.