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Myrtle Byram Mcgraw (1899-1988)

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1899, Myrtle McGraw was a pioneer in the study of child growth and development in the 1930s and 1940s. She is best known for her experimental study of twins Johnny and Jimmy Woods. Her studies demonstrated that early stimulation accelerates motor development, enabling infants to learn challenging skills, such as swimming and roller skating, and to solve problems that require judgment and deliberation. She also disputed Yale psychologist Arnold Gesell's maturation theory, which held that genetic processes within the brain determine infant behavior. McGraw found that early development is not preset or straightforward but involves frequent changes in the pace and complexity of interactions between brain growth and behavior.

McGraw briefly attended Sneed Junior College, a seminary, before transferring to Ohio Wesleyan University where she attained her bachelor's degree in 1923. She continued her graduate education at Columbia University and Teachers College in 1924 and was awarded her master's degree and doctorate in psychology in 1925 and 1931, respectively. McGraw was a recipient of a Laura Spelman Rockefeller Fellowship from 1927 through 1929. During this time, she was a research assistant with the Institute for Child Development and an intern for the Institute for Child Guidance. She was appointed and served from 1930 to 1942 as associate director of the Normal Child Development Study at Babies Hospital, Columbia University. McGraw was appointed professor of psychology at Briarcliff College in 1953, headed an innovative laboratory for the study of infants and toddlers, and served as the head of the department of developmental psychology until 1972. In 1976 the Society for Research in Child Development bestowed upon McGraw its first award for distinguished contribution to child development.

McGraw had an extraordinarily close personal and intellectual relationship with philosopher John Dewey, one of the founders of American pragmatism. She began exchanging letters with him as a teenager in 1916. McGraw considered Dewey to be her "intellectual godfather." He influenced her decision to attend graduate school and eventually advised and collaborated with her on studies of infant growth and development. Dewey urged McGraw to study how infants respond to uncertainty, because he believed that this would reveal how infants integrate their motor and cognitive abilities. Her studies supported Dewey's contention, outlined in his most important book, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (1938), that inquiry is governed by judgments grounded in experience.

McGraw worked with scientists who challenged the behaviorist orthodoxy of the era, which reduced mind to reflex and equated learning with conditioning. Frederick Tilney, a neurologist and director of the Neurological Institute of New York and head of McGraw's studies, contended that the brain evolved to enable humans to acquire the intelligence needed to respond to the increased demand for coordinated behavior. McGraw demonstrated experimentally that for babies learning to walk or perform other forms of locomotion, maintaining balance poses the biggest challenge and accounts for the largest differences among babies in the strategies that they employ. Thus, learning to walk never presents the same problem for each individual. Toddlers must resolve the challenge of balance encountered in previous stages, the circumstances of which vary considerably among infants. George Coghill, a neuroembryologist and a project consultant, discovered that neural growth anticipates the acquisition of function. He believed that prelocomotor stepping, kicking, and other seemingly transient reflex behaviors are instrumental in the proper sequencing and integration of complex behaviors. McGraw's research supported this theory by showing that babies can learn how to stay afloat by adapting the movements involved in their being startled. Harvard University neuroanatomist Leroy Conel also made an important contribution to McGraw's studies by revealing the sequence in which the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that coordinates sensory and motor information, becomes functional in early development. McGraw employed Conel's data to suggest how cortical control emerges gradually, affording infants increased awareness of and control over their actions.

McGraw's research remains controversial today because developmental psychologists disagree about how to interpret her work and often confuse it with Gesell's maturationism. Some scientists have incorrectly interpreted McGraw's assertion that infant behavior does not become fully integrated until after the onset of cortical control to mean that advanced brain Myrtle McGraw watching Johnny Woods, twenty-two months, ascending a wooden slide. McGraw was known for her experimental work with the Woods twins, in which she proved that early stimulation accelerates motor development. (Mitzi Wertheim) structures must be completely functional before behavior can occur. McGraw, however, explicitly acknowledged that "the problem of developmental or maturational relations between structure and function is more complex than the question of localization of function" (McGraw 1943, p. 4). McGraw never argued that the cortex caused or determined motor development. Nor did she ever find evidence of a oneto-one correspondence between a neural structure and a behavioral trait. Instead, she contended that a combination of cortical and subcortical structures support behavior during different periods of development. Moreover, Gilbert Gottlieb contended that McGraw can take credit for having first formulated a bidirectional theory, which holds that neural structures and processes not only support behavior but are changed as a result of novel experiences.

McGraw's research remains pertinent to contemporary developmental scientists who consider the nature-versus-nurture debate outmoded and who seek new methods to understand how the mind emerges from the integration of brain and behavior. McGraw focused on the processes of growth and learning and how infants respond differently to the competing and sometimes chaotic demands on motor and cognitive development. Her most important legacy was the belief that scientists and parents will fully grasp the lessons of development, if they just let babies be their teachers.


Coghill, George. Anatomy and the Problem of Behavior. New York:Cambridge University Press, 1929.

Conel, Leroy. The Post-Natal Development of the Human Cerebral Cortex, Vol. 1:Cortex of the Newborn. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1939.

Dalton, Thomas. "Was McGraw a Maturationist?" American Psychologist 51 (1996):551-552.

Dalton, Thomas, and Victor Bergenn, eds. Beyond Heredity and Environment: Myrtle McGraw and the Maturation Controversy. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.

Dalton, Thomas, and Victor Bergenn. "John Dewey, Myrtle McGraw, and Logic: An Unusual Collaboration in the 1930s." Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 27, no. 1 (1996):69-107.

Dalton, Thomas, and Victor Bergenn. "Myrtle McGraw: Pioneer in Neurobehavioral Development." In Gregory Kimble and Michael Wertheimer eds., Portraits of the Pioneers in Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1998.

Gottlieb, Gilbert. "Myrtle McGraw's Unrecognized Conceptual Contributions to Developmental Psychology." Developmental Review 18 (1998):437-448.

Tilney, Frederick. Master of Destiny. New York: Hoeber, 1929.

Publications by McGraw

Growth: A Study of Johnny and Jimmy. New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1935.

The Neuromuscular Maturation of the Human Infant. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943.

"Memories, Deliberate Recall and Speculations." American Psychologist 45 (1990):934-937.

Thomas C. Dalton

Victor W. Bergenn

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 5