The study of psychology, as something other than a branch of philosophy (albeit still under the wing of the Philosophy Department), began at Harvard in the late 1800's. The "new" psychology was pioneered by William James, who offered his first formal course in physiological psychology in 1875-76, the same year in which he established a laboratory devoted to that subject. The first doctoral degree including "psychology" in its title (i.e., philosophy and psychology), was awarded to G. Stanley Hall in 1878. By 1892, Hugo Munsterberg had been appointed professor of experimental psychology and director of the psychological laboratory.

The discipline remained linked to Philosophy throughout the early years of the century, during which its range expanded, as indicated by the formation in 1927 of the Psychological Clinic, under the direction of Morton Prince. (He was succeeded by Henry A. Murray in 1928.) The vigorous leadership of E. G. Boring brought status as a separate department in 1934, though Psychology remained linked to Philosophy through a divisional structure until 1936 when it finally was allowed to stand alone.

Gordon Allport then assumed the chairmanship, holding it until 1946 when the Faculty of Arts and Sciences acceded to a new organization that left experimental alone in the Department of Psychology while social, developmental and personality (including clinical) combined with sociology and social anthropology to form the Department of Social Relations. That division persisted for twenty-five years, during which time (1967) the training program in clinical psychology was abandoned. The demise of Social Relations as a separate entity was heralded by the decision of the sociologists to withdraw into their own Department of Sociology in 1970. Shortly thereafter (1972) the branches of psychology recombined as the Department of Psychology and Social Relations, soon after which the social anthropologists retreated to their (never abandoned) association with the Anthropology Department. The circle was completed in the spring of 1986 when, just fifty years after an independent department under that name first appeared at Harvard, the name was shortened and the present Department of Psychology emerged.

by E. L. Pattullo, former Associate Chair of this Department