Shaping the Sydney School

Psychology was first formally taught at The University of Sydney from the 1880s as part of Philosophy, and from 1921 in a semi-autonomous department of Psychology, at that time the only one in Australia. With the creation of its first chair (the McCaughey Chair), Psychology became a fully autonomous department in 1929. For the first 70 years, five figures stand out as having exercised a major shaping influence on the direction of the Department, each of them, as the dates below indicate, serving on the staff for at least 20 years. For nearly a quarter of a century H. T. Lovell and A. H. Martin were the only permanent members of the Psychology staff. Lovell was succeeded to the Chair in 1945 by his student W. M. O’Neil, who was in turn succeeded by his student, R. A. Champion, in 1965. With the expansion of the Department a second Chair was created and taken up by another of O’Neil’s students, J. P. Sutcliffe, in 1966. While these five men were all Sydney graduates, three of them took higher degrees overseas as well. A pervasive influence upon all five men was the direct realist approach of Scottish-born John Anderson, Professor of Philosophy at Sydney from 1927-1958. Direct Realism asserts that knowledge of the world is direct and not mediated by any form of mental representation, and its influence came to be associated with a hyper-critical attitude toward psychological theorising.

Cartoon, Punch, Feb 16, 1921

Henry Tasman (Tassie) Lovell, MA (Syd.), dr Phil (Jena) 1921-1945
Lovell was the first Professor of Psychology in the Department (from 1929) and in Australia. He masterminded the establishment of the first full teaching curriculum at Sydney, ensuring that experimental psychology and laboratory techniques were there from the start. His own particular interests included general theoretical psychology, abnormal psychology and personality dynamics, and he was an Australian pioneer in the study of psychoanalysis.

Photo left; Professor Lovell with son Bruce. Courtesy of University of Sydney Archives


Cartoon, Puch, Aug 18, 1948

Alfred Horatio (Piggy) Martin, MA (Syd.), PhD (Columbia), 1921-1948 Photo Courtesy of University of Sydney Archives
Martin was the first Australian to receive an overseas PhD in psychology. His special teaching areas were psychometrics and experimental psychology. Australian psychology’s first venture into private enterprise was initiated by Martin in the form of The Australian Institute of Industrial Psychology, a non-profit body set up in Sydney in 1927 to provide vocational selection and guidance for the benefit of individuals and organizations.

Cartoon right; “According to the Industrial Psychiatrist’s report, you’re better fitted temperamentally to swing a pick than to wield a shovel.” Punch, August 18, 1948.


William Matthew (Bill) O’Neil, MA (Syd.), 1945-1965 Photo Courtesy of University of Sydney Archives
O’Neil succeeded his teacher Lovell in the chair, becoming the second Professor of Psychology at Sydney and in 1945 still the only one in the country. In the post-war era O’Neil moved swiftly to restructure and expand the Department and a range of specialists was appointed to teach the subjects previously covered just by Lovell and Martin. His personal interests were diverse - individual differences, perception, methodology, conceptual analysis and, increasingly, the history of psychology. Bill’s qualities of leadership were remarkable at many levels. His influence on course structure and content at Sydney was to manifest itself for at least half a century, and many of his students went on to occupy chairs in the new psychology departments springing up across the country. He played a major role in the establishment of the professional society (now the Australian Psychological Society) and made Australian psychology much more visible on the international stage.

Cartoon, Punch, Nov 12, 1980

Richard Annells (Dick) Champion, BA (Syd.), MA (Iowa), 1947 - 1987 Photo Courtesy of Mary-Ann McGill
Champion became McCaughey Professor of Psychology in 1965, having taught learning theory since his first appointment. A staunch behaviorist totally opposed to all and any forms of mentalism, Dick kept this materialist and determinist tradition alive at Sydney in its strictest form until his retirement, building up large animal laboratories and encouraging the teaching of rigorous standards of experimental methodology and interpretation. In 1965 he became the first chairman of the newly independent Australian Psychological Society.

Cartoon right; “Sorry, I’m a stranger here myself.” Punch, November 12, 1980.

Cartoon, Punch, May 13, 1964

John Philip (Phil) Sutcliffe, MA, PhD, DSc (Syd.), 1950-1991 Photo Courtesy of University of Sydney Archives
In 1966 Phil Sutcliffe became first occupant of the newly created second chair of Psychology and alternated with Champion as departmental head for the next two decades, building up strengths in complementary areas. In 1959 Phil was awarded the first PhD in the Sydney Faculty of Arts. Like O’Neil, his interests were diverse, moving over time across the experimental study of personality, social psychology (he held MAs in both psychology and anthropology), statistical analysis, scaling and cognitive psychology. From the late 1960s he began to introduce courses on cognitive processes at all levels and was responsible for laying the foundation for the use of computers in the department.

Cartoon; Punch, May 13, 1964.