Paul Meehl (1920-2002)

Paul Meehl was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1920, was educated there from grade school through graduate school, and died there in 2002. Although he stayed close to his physical origins, Paul Meehl encompassed the world of thought. Arguably one of the most brilliant American psychologists of the twentieth century, Paul contributed ideas of substance to numerous domains of psychological theory, science, and practice.

By the time Paul entered university, he had already experienced much in life, including the death of both of his parents. But, he was intellectually precocious, as well. He read extensively in contemporary philosophy, for example, such books as Bertrand Russell’s, Our Knowledge of the External World. A book on psychology by the noted American psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, The Human Mind, was influential in turning Paul toward psychology instead of law as a career. As an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of Minnesota, Paul had such teachers and mentors as B. F. Skinner and Donald Paterson. He also was an assistant to Starke Hathaway, when Hathaway was refining the assessment instrument that became the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.

After he earned his doctorate at Minnesota, Paul was hired as a faculty member there and so was fortunate to be at one of America’s leading public universities during the great expansion of American psychology, both clinical and experimental, that occurred after World War II. He was often recruited to move to another university, at times the inducements were quite lucrative, but he chose to remain at the University of Minnesota. Paul developed an impressive reputation as both a classroom teacher and as a theoretician and practitioner of modern clinical psychology. He had a deep interest in philosophical issues and taught a legendary course in philosophical psychology. His great breadth and depth of knowledge also made it possible for him to contribute in an array of fields outside psychology, including law, education, and medicine. Paul’s commitment to improving the nascent field of clinical psychology led him to become of the early advocates for a professional degree in psychology, this at a time when such a suggestion was intensely controversial. Nevertheless, the first professional degree was initiated in 1968 at the University of Illinois, with Paul’s support.

Paul Meehl served as President of the American Psychological Association in 1962, the second youngest person to ever so serve (John Broadus Watson was five years younger). By the time of his election, Paul had already made major contributions, including perhaps his best known publication, Clinical Versus Statistical Prediction (1954). He was active in several key APA governance groups, including the Committee on Test Standards and the APA Task Force on Statistical Inference.

Paul received many awards for his contributions. In addition to his election as APA President, he received the Distinguished Scientific Contributor Award (1958); the Award for Distinguished Professional Contributions to Knowledge (1993); and, the Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology (1996). Many groups outside APA also honored Paul for his contributions, including the American Psychological Society (now Association for Psychological Science), who made him both a James McKeen Cattell Fellow and a William James Fellow. He was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

I had the honor to visit Paul and his wife, Leslie Yonce, in 2000. We talked in his office at the university for a few hours before dinner. One remarkable indication of the intellectual range of Paul Meehl was the presence in the room of a couch, with a chair at its head, where Paul practiced traditional Freudian psychoanalysis.

—Prepared by Wade E. Pickren, PhD, Consulting Association Historian