Cover Story

The life and work of psychologist Harold Dickman, PhD, offers just one example of the dramatic impact the GI Bill and the Department of Veterans Affairs has had on psychology.

Dickman, who grew up on a rural Oregon farm, enlisted in the Marine Corps in March 1945 and reported for basic training that summer, just as the war against Japan in the Pacific was drawing to a close. He was scheduled to join a unit training for the invasion of Japan when the United States destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs, and the Japanese surrendered. He was discharged from the Marines in August 1946.

“At that time, my aspiration was to become an auto mechanic,” says Dickman, now 83. “I don’t think I’d even heard of psychology.”

But he had heard about the GI Bill and its offer of tuition, money for books and a stipend for living expenses for veterans who wanted to go to college, through a Veterans Administration program. Newly married with a child on the way, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I figured, here’s a chance to do something,” says Dickman.

He first planned on studying electrical engineering, but when he entered Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., a gifted professor named Robert Boyd sparked an intense interest in psychology. At Boyd’s urging, he earned a bachelors’ degree in psychology, sought a graduate psychology degree at the University of Kansas and joined the Veterans Administration’s clinical psychology training program, working at VA hospitals several days a week.

Dickman eventually became the chief of psychology services at the VA hospital in Roseburg, Ore., where in 1960 he co-wrote the first-ever treatment manual for group therapy, a guide that proved so popular it was distributed to VA hospitals nationwide. Later, as a VA psychologist in Palo Alto, Calif., Dickman developed groundbreaking approaches to help patients with schizophrenia leave inpatient care facilities to live more independent lives.

His work, and that of the thousands of other psychologists who got their start with the help of the GI Bill and the VA, forever altered the psychology profession, says Rodney R. Baker, PhD, co-author of “Psychology and the Department of Veterans Affairs” (APA, 2006).

“In that enterprise to help their fellow veterans, the psychologists themselves created an explosion of knowledge and services,” Baker says.

Among these psychologists’ contributions:

  • Enhancing psychopharmacology. Clinical psychologists helped to design and run the VA research studies that proved the efficacy of the first generation of psychotropic medications, making outpatient treatment possible for mental illness.

  • Pioneering group therapy. Although psychologists had been studying the theory of running therapy groups since the 1930s, VA psychologists put theory in practice and developed practical advice on how to work with these groups.

  • Promoting outpatient treatment. Through facilities called “mental hygiene clinics,” VA psychologists helped develop the practice of treating patients for mental health problems on an outpatient basis.

A sea change in psychology

An estimated 6 million of the 13 million veterans who served during World War II used the GI Bill to go to college, fundamentally changing access to U.S. higher education, says Paul Nelson, PhD, APA’s former deputy executive director for education.

Before the war, in 1940, only 6 percent of men and 4 percent of women had completed four years of college and more than half of the U.S. population had no more than an eighth-grade education, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Boosted initially by the GI Bill, the rate of college enrollment steadily rose in the postwar era. By the early 1990s, one-third of all 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in college. That increase — combined with the allocating of federal funds for graduate education — accelerated the nation’s postwar economic development by sparking technical and scientific innovation, Nelson says.

“It was a very significant piece of legislation for higher education and, really, for the development of the middle class in America,” he says.

The bill created a seismic shift in the field of psychology, as well. Before World War II, psychology had been primarily an academic discipline, with just a few thousand clinicians, industrial/organizational psychologists and testing experts. In the decades after the war, the clinical side of psychology exploded. Thousands of veterans with an interest in psychology went on to become practitioners, with paid training slots in graduate school and jobs waiting for them at VA hospitals.

Many of these psychologists pioneered new research in such areas as the psychological aspects of helping tuberculosis patients comply with drug treatment regimens and the coping styles of cancer patients, Baker says. They became the original primary-care psychologists by working closely with physicians in VA medical wards. “The early VA psychologists were primarily veterans themselves and had a strong commitment to helping their fellow veterans, including treating them in non-mental health programs in the VA hospitals,” Baker says.

Joseph Matarazzo, PhD, was one of them. He was just 17 when he enlisted in the Navy in 1943. He served in the Atlantic for six months before being chosen for a 28-month Navy-sponsored midshipman training program at Columbia and Brown universities in early 1944. He was commissioned as a Naval Reserve officer in June 1946 after finishing his bachelor’s degree in naval science at Brown University and spent a year on a Navy oil tanker making runs from Saudi Arabia to Japan and back.

While he served on the ship, the Navy offered Matarazzo a commission as a regular Navy officer — but he had decided that he wanted to go back to graduate school. A fellow officer — a recent medical school graduate serving as the ship’s physician — told him about his experiences during a three-month psychiatric clerkship. “He regaled me with wonderful stories about all these beautiful young women that he interviewed, and at every port that we hit, the stories became more and more magnified, so I decided I’d like to go into that field,” Matarazzo says.

His shipmate told him about training available for clinical psychology, and the GI Bill helped him go to Brown University and then Northwestern University for a doctorate in clinical psychology. “It was a wonderful, wonderful opportunity” he says.

APA’s Education Directorate Executive Director Cynthia D. Belar, PhD, describes Matarazzo as a founding leader in the areas of health psychology and neuropsychology. “In fact, the definition of health psychology today is rooted in his early definitions,” Belar says.

Matarazzo, who turns 85 this month, retired two years ago from Oregon Health Sciences University after a career that included chairing the nation’s first department of medical psychology at a medical school and educating several generations of psychologists and physicians on the links between a patient’s behavior and physical health. He also served as APA president in 1989.

“The GI Bill not only helped create today’s profession of clinical psychology, it also helped educate a whole generation of citizens and transformed us into the educated society we have today,” he says.

‘Very good training’

Another GI bill beneficiary, Charles Spielberger, PhD, earned psychology bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Iowa in 1954. Spielberger spent his academic career at Duke, Vanderbilt, Florida State and the University of South Florida. Spielberger, who served as APA president in 1991, is perhaps best known for developing the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, now a standard measure of anxiety used worldwide.

The GI Bill, he says, “simply made it possible for me to take advantage of opportunities that I might not have otherwise explored,” he says.

Spielberger, who enlisted in the Navy in 1945 and trained as an electronics technician, later earned an officer’s commission and rose to the rank of commander during 30 years of service in the Naval Reserve.

The career of Stanley Moldawsky, PhD, benefited from experiences he gained as a young clinician with the VA. After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science in 1942 and spending a year at the University of Wisconsin, Moldawsky enlisted in the Navy in early 1943, and was selected for the V-12 college program, a Navy-sponsored initiative that gave students a bachelor’s degree in 28 months and an officer’s commission. The Navy sent Moldawsky to Northwestern University, where his interest in psychology was first kindled. Commissioned as an ensign in 1945, he served on a patrol craft hunting for Japanese submarines off the islands of Saipan and Tinian in the Pacific.

Once the war ended and he was discharged in the summer of 1946, Moldawsky finished his senior year at Wisconsin and entered the psychology graduate program at the University of Iowa, where he earned his doctorate in 1951. Moldawsky then joined the VA, first serving as chief psychologist for the mental hygiene clinic in Omaha, Neb., and then at the VA hospital in East Orange, N.J.

“The VA was the largest employer of psychologists in the country, so when I joined it, I felt like I was joining a pretty strong club,” he says.

He worked with many veterans who were experiencing what today would be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. “War, even more so today, rocks a person down to their bottom,” he says. “They have to learn to live with their own anxieties, and they develop all kinds of symptoms associated with anxiety.”

Moldawsky knew that he wanted to go into private practice, but he also wanted to be thoroughly trained before striking out on his own. “I believe now, and I believed then, that you don’t go into private practice right out of graduate school, you get some experience in the trenches. And the VA was a very good training ground for me,” he says.

Moldawsky says his experiences in Nebraska helped “radicalize” him because a state law prevented psychologists from practicing psychotherapy. In response, he helped to found the Nebraska Psychological Association, served on its first board and lobbied the state legislature for laws allowing psychologists to practice as therapists.

That willingness to battle for psychology’s professional interests continued in New Jersey, where Moldawsky helped fight for a 1969 law giving patients the freedom to choose a licensed psychologist as a therapist at a time when patients only had the option of seeing a psychiatrist for mental health conditions covered by medical insurance.

These early applied psychologists had a dramatic impact on psychology. “They made a difference to the veteran, they made a difference to the profession, and they made a difference to the entire country,” Baker says.