JUNE ETTA DOWNEY (1875-1932)*
PSYCHOLOGIST, POET, PHILOSOPHER
John D. Hogan & Matthew S. Broudy
St. John’s University
June Etta Downey was one of the
original psychologists to study personality scientifically. Her research on handwriting
and other motor functions led to the development of the Downey Individual
Will-Temperament Test, an early personality inventory. She headed the combined Department of
Psychology and Philosophy at the University
of Wyoming, the first woman to hold
such a position at a state university.
From 1923 to 1925 she served on the Council of the American
Psychological Association, a rare appointment for a woman at that time. Although her contributions have become
obscure, her work was influential in creating a basis for the study of
personality and personality testing.
June Etta Downey was born on July 13, 1875 in Laramie,
She received her preparatory education in Laramie
and remained there to attend the University
of Wyoming. She graduated in 1895 with the degree in
Greek and Latin. Her interest in
aesthetics led her to the University
of Chicago, where she received an
A.M. degree in 1898. While in Chicago,
Downey published her first article,
A Musical Experiment, in the American
Journal of Psychology (1897). The
link between psychology and the arts was one of her lifelong interests.
graduation, Downey returned to the University
of Wyoming as an instructor of
English and Philosophy. In 1901, she
attended a summer session at Cornell University
where she studied under Edward B. Titchener, a student of Wundt,
and an important leader in early experimental psychology in America. Her strong interest in experimental
psychology was evident from that point onward.
1905, Downey was made a Professor
of Philosophy at the University of Wyoming,
but the following year she returned to the University
of Chicago to work towards a
doctoral degree. James Rowland Angell was her advisor, and
both Angell and John
B. Watson, were among the subjects for her dissertation. In her doctoral research, titled Control Processes in Modified Handwriting: An Experimental Study, she maintained that handwriting
gave clues to an individual’s temperament and personality. Downey
received her Ph.D. in psychology in 1907.
returned to Wyoming where she
became chair of the Department of Philosophy.
In 1915, she was made head of a newly combined Department of Psychology
and Philosophy, a position she held until her death. Despite limited resources, Downey
made important contributions to the experimental study of personality. She believed strongly in the mind–body
connection and identified motor processes as a way to express character
traits. She became an expert in
“muscle-reading,” the examination of involuntary movements as away to
was greatly interested in the creative arts.
She wrote poems, plays, and stories throughout her life. She even wrote the school song Alma Mater for the University
of Wyoming . In 1911, she published The Imaginal Reaction to Poetry, one of
her most important experiments involving the arts. This study examined the images people had in
response to reading poetry. Downey
believed that variation in such images revealed differences in character.
preliminary work on personality led her to the creation of the Downey
Individual Will-Temperament Test in 1919.
This test assessed personality primarily through the use of handwriting
analysis and simplified “muscle reading” of involuntary motor actions. It contained 10 subtests and the scores could
be added to obtain a total score representing the general level of
“will-capacity.” Downey believed
that the overall profile was the most important. She particularly encouraged examiners to look
at the intra-individual relationship of the subtest scores in order to obtain a
complete picture of the individual’s personality.
hypothesized that the subtests reflected three underlying personality types:
(1) the quick, by the seat of the pants, hairtrigger type; (2) the forceful, decisive, willful type; and (3) the slow, careful, accurate type. While she
believed that the profile would identify subjects as belonging to one of the
three personality types, she was open to the possibility that some individuals
would exhibit mixed traits.
importance of the Downey Individual Will-Temperament Test cannot be
underestimated. It was one of the first
tests to evaluate character traits separately from intellectual capacity. It was also one of the first to use psychographic
methods in its interpretation. Instead
of simply using a score, Downey
asked examiners to use a graph of the interrelated subtests to form a more
complete impression of the individual.
Some psychologists believed that the tests would be particularly useful
with people of different races and ethnicity.
Because of its emphasis on motor actions, it did not appear to favor any
particular group. In 1922, Downey
adapted the test to administer to groups, creating the Downey Group
highly valuable in intent and originality, the Downey
tests also possessed great weaknesses. Downey
continually pointed to the importance of the intra-individual relationship of
the subtests, but did not provide any norms for comparisons. The tests had poor reliability, the subtests
were very short and those subtests that supposedly measured similar traits did
not correlate highly with each other.
The tests also possessed poor validity, at least when the results were
compared to personality ratings. In
addition, there were complaints that the administration was complicated and the
scoring was too subjective. All of these
weaknesses prevented the tests from being more widely accepted, and Downey
was planning to revise the tests at the time of her death.
her visibility, Downey never craved
the spotlight. As she grew older, she
concentrated on her teaching and left Laramie
less often. In the last decade of her
life she received many forms of recognition, including appointment to APA Council,
membership in the Society of Experimentalists, and election as a Fellow of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science. In these later years, her
research focused on imagery and handedness.
In all, she wrote seven books and more than 70 articles.
ill while attending the Third International Congress on Eugenics in New
York City. She
died two months later of cancer at the home of her sister in Trenton,
She was 57 years old. The
University held a memorial service for her and a bronze plaque was unveiled in
*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
2, Spring, 2000. Appearing with
permission of the authors.