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Molly Harrower (1906-1999)

by Donald A. Dewsbury, Department of Psychology, University of Florida*

Biography of Molly Harrower

With the death of Molly Harrower, psychology lost a creative and highly original scientist-practitioner.  Molly had an intrepid nature; she simply would not let obstacles keep her from reaching her goals. Thus, she developed her own personal and professional trajectories, minimally influenced by the conventions of the time, and made unique contributions in several areas.  Molly (1978, 1991) tells the story of her diverse experiences in psychology better than any secondary writer can, but I can provide a brief summary that suggests the fullness of her career and life.

Molly was born of Scottish parents, traveling at the time of her birth in Johannesburg, South Africa, and grew up in the village of Cheam, 12 miles south of London.  After courses in journalism and psychology at Bedford College of the University of London, Molly worked as a Girl Friday for Cambridge scholar C. K. Ogden.  Wanting to move to the United States, she used Ogden’s recommendation to secure a position with Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka at Smith College.  Years later, she would publish a fascinating selection from the more than 2,000 letters the two later exchanged (Harrower, 1983).  She received a PhD from Smith, a college with no PhD program, in 1934 with a committee that included E. G. Boring, Arnold Gesell, and Koffka.

Molly’s professional direction shifted from an emphasis on scientific psychology to one in practice when a friend emerged from major surgery with a dramatically changed personality.  She obtained a post-doctoral fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation for 3 years — 6 months with Kurt Goldstein at the Montefiore Hospital in New York and the balance working with Wilder Penfield at the Montreal Neurological Institute.  In the latter position, she worked on the psychological effects of the famous electrical brain stimulation research conducted by Penfield.  There, she also began work developing a group Rorschach test.

She followed her first husband, neurosurgeon Theodore Erickson, to Madison, Wisconsin, but the two divorced and Molly moved to New York and undertook a personal analysis. In New York in 1945 she opened what she believed to be “the first full-time practice of psychodiagnostics and consulting, later to include psychotherapy” (Harrower, 1991, p. 149).  After 22 years, her private practice ended in 1966 with the illness of her second husband, businessman Mortimer Lahm.  During her time in private practice she did diagnostic work-ups of over 1600 patients and developed a method of poetry therapy (Harrower, 1972) using poems to show how poets cope with the experiences that clients find disturbing.  Molly wrote poetry through much of her life and published several books of poetry (e.g., Harrower, 1946).  She also consulted widely for groups as diverse as the United States Army and Air Force, the U. S. State Department, the Children’s Court of Manhattan, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and the Unitarian-Universalist Church.  She helped develop a program of certification for practicing psychologists in the State of New York.  Concerned with the effectiveness of her work, she combined her science and practice interests in a major study of the effectiveness of predictors of patient improvement with therapy (Harrower, 1965).

Molly experienced discrimination based on her sex but, with the aid of helpful mentors, was determined not to let it cause her to deviate from her professional goals.  She told me that she experienced differential treatment of women and men but regarded them as “superficial and interesting” and that “at no time ever was any obstacle put in front of me which prevented anything that I wanted to do in the field.”   She felt strongly about equality of the sexes but believed that the problems she faced as a woman could be “handled properly” in the context of “some of the archaic ideas which existed at that time,” and she was determined not to be deflected from her main goals(videotape interview, May 11, 1989).  In the process, she became the first woman permitted to use the doctors’ dining room at the Montefiore Hospital and one of the first permitted to set foot in the faculty club at McGill University.

Upon the death of her second husband, Molly moved to Gainesville, FL in 1967 and served on the University of Florida faculty until the age of 70, when she decided to “retire” to work full-time on writing, research, and practice.  She was a wonderful teacher who made clinical psychology come to life.  She swam daily and, even in her 60s she would go tubing down a local river with a group of students.  Molly was frequently seen on local golf courses well into her 80s. During her retirement she remained active in publishing and in university intellectual life.  In her late years, as she continued writing, preparing her papers for deposition in the Archives of the History of American Psychology in Akron, OH, and working in such programs as the American Civilization Program, the Psychology and Literature Series, and the Arts and Medicine Program, she was a stalwart in the intellectual life of the Gainesville community.

Molly Harrower died February 20, 1999 in Gainesville.  She was a vibrant person, beloved by those who knew and respected her.  At the same time, she was very much her own person, internally driven and directed, and thus capable of offending those of more conventional views.  Molly was a lover of animals and greatly concerned that they receive humane care.  She embraced life and all of the opportunities it offered.  Perhaps this is best expressed in what may have been her favorite poem, “Life, you will lose a lover when I die!” (in Harrower, 1946). 


Harrower, M. (1946). Time to squander, time to reap.  New Bedford, MA: Reynolds Publishing.

Harrower, M. (1965). Psychodiagnostic testing: An empirical approach. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Harrower, M. (1972). The therapy of poetry.  Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Harrower, M. (1978). Changing horses in mid-stream: An experimentalist becomes a clinician. In T. S. Krawiec (Ed.), The psychologists: Autobiographies of distinguished living psychologists Vol. 3(Pp. 85-104). Brandon, VT: Clinical Psychology Publishing.

Harrower, M. (1983). Kurt Koffka: an unwitting self-portrait. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press.

Harrower, M. (1991). Inkblots and poems. In C. E. Walker (Ed.) The history of clinical psychology in autobiography Vol. 1 (Pp. 125-169).  Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.


I thank Norman Holland. Deirdre Lovecky, and Kathy Milar for comments on an earlier draft of this piece.


*Originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, Volume 26, Number 3, Summer, 1999.  Appearing with permission of the author.

Date created: 2010