Hebb was probably the most influential psychologist of the 20th
century. His great achievement was to persuade a generation of
psychologists that in order to understand the behaviour of living
organisms it made sense to study the neural machinery responsible
for that behaviour. He argued against the position of the
behaviourist establishment that observations of behaviour would
provide all the necessary data. In his 1949 monograph, The
Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory, Hebb proposed
that neural structures that he called ‘cell assemblies’ constituted
the material basis of mental concepts. Hebb’s ideas were
disseminated worldwide by his students who were in great demand to
establish laboratories for studying the physiological bases of
behaviour. These laboratories made many pioneering contributions to
the new field of physiological psychology.
D.O. Hebb was born
and raised in Chester, Nova Scotia and graduated from Dalhousie
(B.A., 1925) and McGill (M.A., 1932). His interest in psychology
stemmed from the writings of William James, Ivan Pavlov, John
Watson, and Karl Lashley. He studied under Lashley at Chicago and
Harvard, where he completed his Ph. D in 1936 on the effects of
early deprivation upon size and brightness perception in the rat.
Hebb then worked with Wilder Penfield at the Montreal Neurological
Institute (1937-1939), where he explored the effects of surgical
lesions of the temporal and frontal lobes on human intelligence and
behaviour. After teaching at Queen's (1941-1942), Lashley invited
Hebb to the Yerkes Laboratories of Primate Biology as a research
fellow (1942-1947). In 1947 he returned to McGill as Professor of
psychology, serving as chairman of the department (1948-1959),
Vice-Dean for biological sciences (1964-1966), and finally
Chancellor of the University (1970-1974).
Hebb’s seminal idea continues to exert an influence on all those
interested in mind and behaviour. He was a great down-to-earth
scholar who even encouraged and inspired social psychologists.
Besides his important monographs, The Organization of Behavior
(1949) and Essay on Mind (1980), he wrote A Textbook of Psychology
(1958) and more than 50 scholarly articles. He was a Fellow of the
Royal Society of Canada and of the Royal Society of London and was
president of the Canadian and American Psychological Associations.
He won the American Psychology Association Award for Distinguished
Scientific Contribution. Hebb was frequently involved in debates in
psychology because it was a subject of general interest. This
attracted the attention of the mass media and the general public.
The D.O. Hebb
Lecture Series was initiated in 1989 in memory of Hebb’s
contribution to the science of behaviour. Invited speakers of the
D.O. Lecture series are scientists who have made distinguished
empirical contributions to basic research in all areas of
psychology. It is currently made possible by the generous support of
the D.O. Hebb Endowment Memorial Fund.
Yogita Chudasama and Peter M. Milner
McGill University, Department of Psychology
Hebb, D. O. (1949) The Organization of
Behavior: A neuropsychological theory. New York: Wiley
D. O. (1959) A neuropsychological theory. In S. Koch (Ed),
Psychology: A Study of a Science. Vol 1. New York: McGraw-Hill
Hebb, D. O. (1980) Essay on Mind.
Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Glickman, S., (1996) Donald Olding Hebb: Returning the nervous
system to psychology. In G. Kimble, C. Boneau, and M. Wertheimer (Eds),
Portraits of pioneers in psychology. Vol 2. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Klein, R. M., (1980) D. O. Hebb: An appreciation. In P. W. Jusczyk
and R. M. Klein (Eds), The nature of thought: Essays in honor of D.
O. Hebb (pp. 1-18). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum
Milner, P. M., (1986) The Mind and Donald O. Hebb. Scientific
American, 268: 124-129