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Magda B. Arnold (1903-2002)

by Rona M. Fields, Associates in Community Psychology and Senior Research Professor, The George Washington University*

Biography of Magda B. Arnold

Born at the beginning of the 20th century, on December 22, 1903, in a central European province of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, Magda Arnold was an unlikely candidate for a  future career in psychology.  As a girl born to members of a traveling opera company and raised in a semi-rural corner of Moravia, her prospects for the education she craved were doubly limited by gender and poverty.  Arnold, then Magda Barta-Blondau, knew at age sixteen that she wanted to be a psychologist, but was not eligible to take the university preparatory course and instead became a bank clerk.  She was engaged to Robert Arnold, a student working on his doctorate in Slavic languages, and then did what generations of students’ wives have done: she worked as a secretary to support herself and her husband and put her secretarial skills to work preparing his doctoral thesis.  To satisfy her own intellectual interests, she attended lectures at Charles University to learn from visiting scholars about the new science of Psychology.  

When her husband emigrated to Canada in the late 1920s, Arnold joined him.  In 1935, seven years after her arrival and the mother of three small children, she began her studies in Psychology at the University of Toronto.  Against considerable odds, she completed her Bachelor’s degree in 1939, and the next autumn began graduate work.  Her Master’s thesis was a study of the measurement of tension in the working muscles compared with simultaneous tension in resting muscles.  She was ordered by the head of her department to use only one subject for this work, but as she later recalled in an unpublished autobiographical essay, “This would have made my project, which depended on individual differences, completely impossible.”  So she ran her project during the Christmas recess when the labs were empty.  As she later noted, “Since the data turned out well and indeed were plausible, my advisor persuaded the chairman to accept the thesis. I was awarded the M.A. in the spring of 1940.”  By 1942, after a summer as an intern at the Psychiatric Hospital in Hamilton, Ontario, Arnold received her doctorate and was invited to join the war-impoverished faculty at the University of Toronto.  Here, she decided on her particular specialization – emotion and the brain.  She took graduate courses n neurology while a Lecturer in Psychology and began correlating brain function with emotion.

Arnold’s pioneering work in personality measurement started in 1946 when she was invited to become Director of Research and Training in the newly established Psychological Services of the Canadian Veteran’s Affairs Department.  Convinced that personality measures were needed in addition to intelligence tests, she learned the Klopfer Rorschach technique and developed a system for analyzing the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT).  This work came to fruition nearly twenty years later with the publication of her book, Story Sequence Analysis: A New Method of Measuring Motivation and Predicting Achievement (1962).

The spring of 1947 marked a new phase in Arnold’s personal and professional development.  She was invited by Wellesley College to substitute for Edna Heidbreder for the academic year 1947/48. During this period, she visited Harvard and was invited by professor Robert White to teach a summer course.  Here, stimulated both by the students and her own lively challenges to theoretical assumptions, she experienced a personal epiphany.  With the support of Dr. J. A. Gasson, S. J., a student in her class, she began to evaluate and revitalize her knowledge of Catholicism—the religion in which she had been born and raised but had abandoned years before.  Arnold traced the significance of her Catholicism to her development as a psychologist, noting “my conversion brought with it such an expansion of my horizon that I do believe without it I could not have written the books I did.”

In 1952, after brief appointments at Bryn Mawr College and Barat College in Lake Forest, Illinois, Arnold moved to Loyola University in Chicago.  At the encouragement of Gordon Allport, she applied for and was awarded the Helen Putnam Advanced Research Fellowship at Radcliffe.  There she began work on the two-volume Emotion and Personality (1960), which she completed with a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1957.  This book established her position as a leader in North American research on emotion. For Arnold, it was a step on the path to understand the circuitry of the brain that mediated sensation, perception, motivation and emotion.

At Loyola, she was appointed Director of the Behavior Laboratory, and was invited by the Jung Institute to do a summer course on her system of TAT analysis.  She amazed the students by showing them how the problems they were dealing with in their therapy could show up in their TAT stories.  That year she received funding to continue her research in Europe where she lectured at the University of Munich and the Max Planck Institute.

Arnold then decided to move to Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. During a sabbatical year in the early 1970s, she had worked on her book Memory and the Brain and felt that teaching at Spring Hill would give her the opportunity to do more work on this project and also on the TAT studies.  She recalled the years at Spring Hill as the most difficult in her professional life.  She retired in 1975 and was able to complete her book by the summer of 1981, but it was not published until 1984.  In the meantime, she acquired a computer and was once again writing, publishing and presenting papers at professional meetings.

At age ninety, Arnold continued to read her former students’ research as well as anything published on emotion, the brain, and memory.  When she was well into her nineties, she was still climbing the hills of Arizona, where she had moved in 1989.  She was also an active church member and volunteer.  Having identified high achieving individuals as "plus 2," Magda Arnold had, in fact defined herself. She remained active, physically and spiritually for almost 99 years. Her longevity was matched or even surpassed by her productivity.  She died in Tucson on October 5, 2002.  As a psychologist, Magda Arnold demanded the best from herself.  Those who knew her as a teacher, as a colleague, and as a friend would hardly give her less. 


Arnold, M. B. (1960). Emotion and personality. New York: Columbia University Press.

Arnold, M. B. (1962). Story sequence analysis: A new method of measuring motivation and predicting achievement. New York: Columbia University Press.

Arnold, M. B. (1984). Memory and the brain. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.


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

Date created: 2010