We get off the train in London, where we meet
Beatrice Edgell at her desk in 1927
In Regent’s Park, London, the buildings of Regent’s University were originally built for the new Bedford College, after it moved from Bedford Square in 1874 and from York Place, Baker Street in 1913. Bedford College, the first institution of higher education for women in the United Kingdom, was founded in 1849 by Elizabeth Jesser Reid and in 1985 it merged with Royal Holloway College to form Royal Holloway, University of London.
At Bedford College, Beatrice Edgell established one of the first psychology laboratories in the United Kingdom, after having studied the new experimental psychology performed in Oswald Külpe’s laboratory at the University of Würzburg, where she was the first woman to receive a Ph.D.
Since 2006, the Faculty of Human Sciences at the University of Würzburg grants the “Beatrice Edgell Award” in memory of a pioneer of the women’s emancipation.
Beatrice Edgell was the first British woman to earn a doctorate in Psychology and later became the first female Professor of Psychology in the United Kingdom: “she was pioneering on entirely new academic ground… From that small beginning has grown the comprehensive psychology department, with its splendidly equipped laboratories and lecture rooms…” Westminster Gazette, February 11, 1927 (as quoted in Valentine, 2001).
Her first grant to set up a laboratory at Bedford College was ₤5, not much even for the early 1900s. Those were “the days of makeshift and poverty” in Edgell’s words.
A decade later, after moving to Regent’s Park, the laboratory was one of the best equipped and most productive in the whole University of London.
Diagram of a kymograph
From the beginning, in the room named the Physiological Laboratory of the University of London, there were a kymograph and a Time Marker. These instruments were used for the first study conducted by Edgell from May 1902 to March 1903 on the estimation of subjective duration of time. Three subjects took part in the series of experiments based on the method of Reproduction, with 290 to 440 experiments being performed for each subject . Each participant reproduced a sound for a duration that seemed to him or her equal to the sound being delivered just before. The results demonstrated that subjects tended to overestimate the duration of short sounds (1/5-1½ seconds) and to underestimate the duration of long periods (2-4 seconds). Based on these results, Edgell concluded that Weber’s Law does not apply to the estimation of the duration of time.
These conclusions, according to Edgell, demonstrated that Ebbinghaus’ estimations of the equality of differences in stimuli and sensations, reported in Grundzüge der Psychologie, were not valid: “it is in the Dynamic view of Consciousness that the explanation for the phenomenon of over and underestimation should be sought”.
Beatrice Edgell was particularly concerned with the precision of instruments used in experimental studies. From 1906 to 1908 she conducted, in collaboration with William Legge Symes, a series of calibrations “to determine the conditions and degree of accuracy in chronoscope readings”. As the authors reported, the history of the chronoscope in psychology began in 1874 with the first edition of Wundt’s Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie.
Previous authors have identified some factors influencing the precision of readings, among them, the intensity of the current used, the accuracy of the clockwork, the resistance, and the magnetism. This area of research was intended to provide a robust basis to develop a new science able to measure mental processes in an objective way.
For the calibration of the Wheatstone-Hipp chronoscope, Edgell and Symes tested and compared the graphic records and the chronographic control of four models of chronoscope.
The detailed results of the calibrations show the mechanical, electrical and timing errors and are accompanied by a list of adjustments needed to reduce the irregularities and the variability of measurements. They concluded that:
“The chronoscope, in accuracy and durability, is a thoroughly reliable instrument, having a range more than sufficient for reaction time measurements”.
The chronoscope readings were accurate for reaction times ranging from three milliseconds to one minute and the mean error was less than 1 millisecond.
As Valentine (2001) points out, the paper by Edgell and Symes was still cited 30 years after its publication. Mental chronometry had to wait 50 years to be further improved when a new generation of technological devices became available.
stimulus example from Edgell (1913)
The chronoscope was also used to determine the strength of associative learning by measuring the average time of response to different types of stimuli. This set of measurements, recorded on adult subjects, was just one contribution to “The experimental study of memory”, published by Edgell in 1913. The most substantial and innovative part of the study was conducted by Edgell on over 1000 children from 8 to 12 years old, in their schools, with the permission of the London County Council. She presented a series of five cards showing pairs of stimuli (objects, numbers, geometrical figures) for five seconds to each child. The stimuli were paired according to three conditions: a) diverse juxtaposition, where an object was associated with a number; b) artificial association, where children had to generate a connection between the object and the number; c) kindred juxtaposition, where two geometrical figures were associated. At the end of the presentation, each child had to recall the object previously associated with the one presented on a new series of cards.
In Table VII of the article, Edgell reported the results obtained in each condition by three groups of children of increasing age (8-10, 10-12, 12 years), each divided by gender (boys, girls). There was a clear increase in the percentage of correct associations with age. However, at the age of twelve, boys were reporting more correct associations than girls, and at that age there was also an advantage for artificial association, compared to diverse and kindred juxtaposition, conditions in which the younger children obtained the best results. These results have been represented in the following graph (courtesy of Elizabeth Valentine).
Edgell was also a pioneer in the classification of different types of memory as summarized in Imagery and memory. In her experimental studies, Edgell was interested in memory as “a much more restricted fact of conscious experience”, where “Experience is not merely retained, but reproduced with the consciousness that it belongs to the past”. The reference back to the past “may be an actual re-experiencing of the past as in reminiscence, or it may be the conscious interpretation of the present by the light of the past”. This system of memory, now called ‘explicit memory’, was distinguished from the now called ‘implicit memory’, defined by Edgell as “biological” and referred to the case in which “successive repetitions of an action should render this action so easy, its performance so mechanical whenever occasion arises, that often there is no conscious realization of it on the part of the agent, this would be impossible were it not that each occasion leaves what we call its “trace” behind, i.e. is retained”. And she added that “The form of memory which seems most closely to resemble the habit type, is the memory shown in Recognition”, where “there is no consciousness of imagery”.
In Edgell’s view, it was important to distinguish an Immediate Memory from a Mediate Memory or Suggested Recall. In Immediate Memory “a re-experiencing takes place immediately after the experiencing”, whereas in Mediate Memory “Something in the present suggests the past, either in that it serves as an incentive for re-experiencing or in that it requires a conscious recall of the past to enable us to deal with, to explain or act upon the given”. These two components were both different from Persistence in which, unlike Suggested Recall, “the reproduced ideas come unbidden, à propos of nothing in present consciousness”, and, unlike Immediate Memory “the ideas do not arise at once at the close of some experience, but some little time afterwards, usually when there is no special task or interest engaging consciousness…”. For Edgell, the characteristic feature of Persistence was imagery, like in Reminiscence, which reminds us of what we now know as ‘episodic memory’, where “more characteristic still is the reference back to the subject’s own past [autobiographical memory] and the adherence to a time scheme”. Finally, she defined Recollection, in which “the reference back to the recent past is direct” and voluntary, “a backward thrust of consciousness”. For Edgell,
“the experimental study of memory may be described as a study of the conditions of retention and reproduction of past experience in any of these forms”.
Edgell in 1930
Biography. Beatrice Edgell was born on October 26, 1871 in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, and she was the youngest of six children of Edward Higginson Edgell, a bank manager, and Sarah Ann Buckle. She learned how to read when she was nine years old and entered Tewkesbury High School for Girls. From 1886 to 1891 she attended Notting Hill High School for Girls. Her mother died when she was 11. Edgell studied at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth and in 1894 earned a Bachelor of Arts in Mental and Moral Science from the University of London. From 1894 to 1897 she taught in a high school in the North of England. In 1897, she returned to Aberystwyth for further studies and in 1899 she earned a Master of Arts degree. In 1898 she was appointed lecturer in philosophy and head of the department of mental and moral science at Bedford College, where she remained for 35 years until her retirement in 1933. From 1900 to 1901 she studied the new methods in experimental psychology developed at the University of Würzburg. These studies had been collected in the doctoral dissertation Die Grenzen des Experiments als einer psychologischen Methode, defended on July 30, 1901. Edgell became the first woman to earn a doctorate at the University of Würzburg and the first British woman to be awarded a PhD in psychology. When she returned to Bedford College, she established the first psychology laboratory in the UK and she began her experimental research and teaching. In 1927, she was the first British woman to be appointed as Professor of Psychology, at the University of London. She was active in theoretical discussions in philosophy and psychology. In 1930 she was the first female president of the Aristotelian Society, of which she had been a member since 1910. She was a founder of the British Psychological Society and the first female president of the Society from 1930 to 1932. In 1932 she was the first woman to be elected president of the Psychological Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
Before she retired at 62 years old, she used to drive from London to Gloucestershire, where she lived after her retirement with her unmarried sister and brother, Edith and Ernest. There she worked at a child guidance clinic and continued her active participation in professional associations.
She died of cancer in a nursing home in Cheltenham, on August 10, 1948. As Smith and colleagues reported in 1949,
“Her warmheartedness and willingness to help gained her many friends, and many a student was given an opportunity of entering upon, or continuing, a piece of research without ever knowing the source of the grant.”
We acknowledge the generous support of Elizabeth R. Valentine . Thanks to Harriet Costelloe, Royal Holloway Archives, University of London.
To cite this profile, please use the following format:
Metitieri, T., Mele, S. and Favero, M. (2017). Profile of Beatrice Edgell. In WiNEu, European Women in Neuroscience, Untold stories: the Women Pioneers of Neuroscience in Europe. Retrieved from https://wineurope.eu/edgell-2/
For a complete list, see Valentine E.R. (2001): Beatrice Edgell: An appreciation. British Journal of Psychology 92: 23-36.
- Edgell B. (1902): Die Grenzen des Experiments als Einer Psychologischen Methode [The limits of the experiment as a psychological method]. Würzburg: Bonitas-Bauer’schen.
- Edgell B. (1903): On time judgment. American Journal of Psychology 14: 418–438.
- Edgell B., Symes W.L. (1906): The Wheatstone–Hipp chronoscope. Its adjustments, accuracy and control. British Journal of Psychology 2: 58–88.
- Edgell B., Symes W.L. (1908): The Wheatstone–Hipp chronoscope.A second note. British Journal of Psychology 2: 281–283.
- Edgell B. (1911-12): Imagery and memory. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 12: 188-206, 212‒215.
- Edgell B. (1913): The experimental study of memory. Child Study V: 84–89, 118–125.
- Smith M., McFarlane M., Jenkin A.M. (1949): Obituary notice: Beatrice Edgell 1871-1948. British Journal of Psychology 39: 120-122.
- Valentine E.R. (2001): Beatrice Edgell: An appreciation. British Journal of Psychology 92: 23-36.
- Valentine E.R. (2006): Beatrice Edgell: Pioneer Woman Psychologist. Hauppage, New York: Nova Science.