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Reflections on Early Days: The EPG and the EPS

John Brown

The EPG started as a discussion group for younger experimental psychologists. Membership was initially limited to 30, with members drawn mainly from Cambridge, Oxford and London. Sir Frederic Bartlett, although the most eminent experimental psychologist in the Cambridge Department and indeed in the U.K., was too elderly to join. In its early years the EPG was resented by some as an exclusive club. The fear was expressed that its existence would harm the development of experimental psychology within the British Psychological Society. Happily, this fear has proved groundless. From the inception of the EPG, many of its members participated in both EPG and BPS meetings.

Discussion was always a major feature of EPG meetings. Typically, 30 minutes were allowed for the presentation of a paper and a further 15 minutes for the discussion, which was often fierce and wide-ranging. The participants could have different specialities and yet feel they had some competence in almost any branch of experimental psychology (especially if they had read R. S. Woodworth's Experimental Psychology, 1938 edition). The enormous mushrooming of knowledge and the growth of ever narrower specializations were only just beginning. Another feature of EPG meetings was that members tended to stay for all papers rather than to cherry-pick: to do so was a necessary part of the ethos of a smallish group.

The EPG quite rapidly started to function more like a society than a discussion group. In 1948, thanks to a generous donation from one of its members, G. C. Grindley, it was able to start its own journal, The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. The limit on membership was raised to 40 and then to 50. Despite this, the post-war production of experimental psychologists was such that there were many worthy and desirable applicants who could not be admitted to membership. The decision was therefore taken to transform the EPG into a society, the EPS. The transformation was accomplished with little difficulty. Edmund Hick and I, as President and Honorary Secretary respectively, drew up a set of rules, based largely on those of the EPG. These were accepted at an AGM with minor amendments and we became a society. The rule for election to membership is of interest: an applicant had to be voted for by a majority of those members voting in the election. This rule made sense at a time when members knew most applicants either personally or by reputation. Given the origins of the EPG, the absence of any rule excluding elderly psychologists is also worthy of note.

The character of meetings did not change suddenly with the creation of the EPS. There was still a feeling that members ought to stay for the whole of every meeting. There was no question of parallel sessions. Papers for meetings were in short supply. Indeed, I used to visit the Department where the next meeting was to be held to ferret out members with interesting research to talk about. Papers were often about research in progress rather than research already written up and submitted to a journal. Discussions could thus influence on-going research. A nice illustration (from EPG days) of the potential shortage of papers is provided by a story Maggie Vernon relished telling about herself. Maggie was an outwardly formidable but in reality charming professor and head of the department at Reading. She was approached by my predecessor as Honorary Secretary with the words "I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel to get papers for the next meeting. Could you possibly give a paper?"

March, 1996