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Myrtle Byram McGraw (1899-1988)

by Katharine S. Milar, PhD, Earlham College*

Biography of Myrtle Byram McGraw

Myrtle McGraw was born August 1, 1899 to Riley McGraw, an Alabama farmer and his wife Mary Byram, a seamstress. Young Myrtle was the fifth of seven children born to the McGraws.  At the age of 12, she accompanied a neighbor to town and began taking a business course in typing and shorthand. After only a few months, she was hired by a local lawyer at the princely sum of $3.00 per week. Two years later her boss, obviously much impressed by McGraw,  announced that he had arranged for her to attend the Snead Seminary, a boarding school in Boaz, Alabama where she could act as secretary to the headmistress to pay for her tuition, room and board. As a 15-year-old student there McGraw was captivated by a magazine article about John Dewey, called a “Teacher of Teachers,” and began corresponding with him. She eventually characterized him as her “intellectual godfather” and he began signing his letters to her “GF” (McGraw, 1990).

After she graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1923, Dewey hired McGraw to type a book manuscript for him which provided her with the funds to begin graduate study in religious education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She earned a masters degree, but after a year’s sojourn in a mountain village in Puerto Rico, became convinced that religion was not her field and returned to Teachers College in 1925 to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology under the supervision of Helen Thompson Woolley. She completed the course work for her doctorate with the aid of a Laura Spelman Rockefeller fellowship, and in 1927 accepted a teaching position at Florida State College for Women and began her dissertation research. McGraw obtained the subjects for her dissertation comparing the performance of African American and Caucasian infants on a battery of standardized tests by driving around and looking for diapers hanging on clotheslines. She returned to New York in 1929 to work as an intern at the Institute for Child Guidance and to finish writing her dissertation. Her doctorate was awarded in 1931.

In the early 1930s, the psychology of infant development was dominated on the one hand by the views of behaviorist John Watson, who claimed that given a dozen healthy infants he could make of them anything he chose; and, on the other, by maturationist Arnold Gesell who insisted that no amount of training could influence the development of an infant until that infant’s nervous system had reached the appropriate growth stage. In this context, one in which the focus of infant and child research was the establishment of developmental norms through administration of standardized scales and tests, McGraw became the associate director of the Normal Child Development Study at Babies Hospital in New York City. Working with project director and neurologist Frederick Tilney and neuroembryologist, George Coghill, McGraw drew on a variety of disciplines to try to develop an understanding not of norms, but of the process of growth. As she said, it was these scientists “and John Dewey and the babies that got me thinking of process, not end result or achievement” (Bergenn, Dalton, & Lipsett, 1992, p.384).

McGraw’s work was notable for her emphasis on observation and the novelty of some of her methods. She looked for cues in the infant’s behavior to suggest environmental challenges that would promote optimal motor development. She was the first to demonstrate the swimming reflex in 2- and 4-month old infants.   In her research with the Woods twins, to challenge the development of equilibrium and stepping movements she put 13-month old Johnny on roller skates. To the surprise of the research team and the delight of the media, Johnny became a very skillful skater. In 1935 she published the results of her twin study, Growth: A Study of Johnny and Jimmy.

Due in part to the approaching war, the Normal Child Development Study ended in early 1940. McGraw remained at Babies Hospital through 1942 completing her second book The Neuromuscular Maturation of the Human Infant (1943). From this period to the early 1950s she characterized as her D-D decade, domesticity and diversity. She did some writing but, for the most part, lived quietly with her husband Rudolph Mallina, whom she married in 1936 and her daughter, Mitzi, using what she had learned from her subject babies to take care of her own.

In 1953, Briarcliff College offered a position in their psychology department and a work schedule which would permit her time with her daughter, so McGraw began training undergraduate women to work with infants and young children. In an article published after her death she argued that in an era featuring instability in the nuclear family and the disappearance of the extended family, methods needed to be developed to train young people to learn how to observe and understand the behavioral development of infants before they began having their own.

Myrtle McGraw retired in 1972 and died at her home in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York on September 6, 1988. She was clearly ahead of her time in her focus on the interdependence of structure and function in developing nervous systems. At her memorial service, her daughter, Mitzi Wertheim, probably captured her best, “My mother was born in the 19th century, lived in the 20th century and thought in the 21st century.” (in Lipsett, 1990, p. 977).


Bergenn, V. W., Dalton, T. C., & Lipsett, L. P. (1992). Myrtle B. McGraw: A growth scientist. Developmental Psychology, 28, 381-395.

Lipsett, L.P. (1990). Myrtle Byram McGraw. American Psychologist, 45, 977.

McGraw, M. B. (1990). Memories, deliberate recall, and speculations. American Psychologist, 45. 934-937.


This column was adapted from my entry on McGraw in J. A. Garraty & M. C. Carnes (Eds). American National Biography. Volume 15 (Pp. 71-72). New York:  Oxford University Press.


*Originally published in The Feminist Psychologist, Newsletter of the Society for the Psychology of Women, Division 35 of the American Psychological Association, Volume 27, Number 1, Winter, 2000. Appearing with permission of the author.

Date created: 2010