Robert Yerkes

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Robert Mearns Yerkes (May 26, 1876 – February 3, 1956) was an American psychologist, ethologist, and primatologist best known for his work in intelligence testing and in the field of comparative psychology.

Yerkes was a pioneer in the study both of human and primate intelligence and of the social behavior of gorillas and chimpanzees. Along with John D. Dodson, Yerkes developed the Yerkes-Dodson law relating arousal to performance.

He also served on the board of trustees of Science Service, now known as Society for Science & the Public, from 1921-1925.


Education and early career

Robert Yerkes was born in Breadysville, Pennsylvania (near Ivyland, Pennsylvania). Growing up on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, Robert Yerkes wanted to leave the hard life of the rural farmer and become a physician. With the financial help of an uncle, Yerkes attended Ursinus College from 1892 to 1897. Upon graduating he received an offer from Harvard University to do graduate work in Biology. Faced with a choice of Harvard or medical training in Philadelphia, he chose to go to Harvard.

At Harvard, Yerkes became interested in animal behavior, so much so that he put off further medical training to study comparative psychology. He earned his Ph.D. in the Psychology Department in 1902.

His early career was strongly influenced by the debts Yerkes incurred paying for school. Upon his graduation from Harvard, he took up a position with the school as an instructor and Assistant Professor in Comparative Psychology. He had to supplement his income during the summer for several years by teaching general psychology at Radcliffe College. Another part-time job he took on was being the director of psychological research at the Boston Psychopathic Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts.

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