Indiana University Bloomington

Bust of Herman B Wells with James H. Capshew

About Author James H. Capshew

James H. Capshew serves on the faculty of Indiana University in Bloomington, in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. In addition to Herman B Wells: The Promise of the American University, he is author of Psychologists on the March: Science, Practice, and Professional Identity in America, 1929–1969 as well as numerous scholarly articles. The Society for Advanced Study at IU selected him for the 2010 Herman B Wells Distinguished Lecture. He has served as editor of the international journal History of Psychology and as editor for psychology of the New Dictionary of Scientific Biography.

Spending his youth practically in the shadow of the campus, within earshot of the Student Building bells chiming each quarter-hour, Capshew attended Elm Heights Elementary School and Binford Junior High School before graduating from Bloomington High School. In the 1970s he studied psychology as his major and philosophy as his minor at Indiana University, and was employed as a residential houseman by Chancellor Herman B Wells during his junior and senior years. A pair of courses and instructors proved pivotal: the history of psychology with Eliot Hearst and the sociology of science with Thomas Gieryn. Capshew graduated in 1979 with honors in psychology and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. His first publication, “Psychology at Indiana University: From Bryan to Skinner,” in The Psychological Record (1980), derived from his senior honors thesis.

After working for a year at the local community mental health center as a psychiatric aide, Capshew won a three-year National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship in 1980 and enrolled as a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of History and Sociology of Science. He earned an A.M. (1982) and was awarded a Mellon Graduate Fellowship and an Aerospace History Dissertation Fellowship from the Office of Air Force History before completing his Ph.D. in 1986, with a dissertation examining the discipline of American psychology during World War II.


IU Press's Laura Baich speaks with IU faculty member James Capshew about his new biography. They discuss Capshew's experience writing the book and Dr. Wells's legacy to IU and higher education.

In 1985, Capshew moved from West Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., and lived in the Capital Hill neighborhood. Between 1986 and 1989, he was employed as a Research Associate in the History Department at the University of Maryland, working under contract with the NASA History Office. The project researched the institutional history of Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland, a major hub of near-Earth satellite technology and scientific research. During this period, he also took part in the centennial of the psychology lab at Indiana, producing “The Legacy of the Laboratory (1888-1988): A History of the Department of Psychology at Indiana University” (1988).

Capshew returned to Bloomington at the start of 1990 to take up duties as an assistant professor in IU’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science. Through exposure to NASA-style “big science,” Capshew continued to investigate the history of that appellation and wrote an article, “Big Science: From Price to the Present,” in Osiris (1992), with his doctoral student Karen Rader. Revising an award-winning conference paper (Robinson Prize, Society for the History of Technology), he authored “Engineering Behavior: Project Pigeon, World War II, and the Conditioning of B. F. Skinner,” in Technology & Culture (1993). In lab history, Capshew expanded his research beyond Indiana by penning “Psychologists on Site: A Reconnaissance of the Historiography of the Laboratory,” in The American Psychologist (1992).

By this time, Capshew had decided to expand his dissertation into a book. The original four years of the Second World War ballooned into coverage of the 40-year period before, during, and after the war. In the book, Capshew traces the fate of groups of psychologists as well as individuals as the profession faced the challenges and opportunities provided by the conflict, and reflects on psychology’s tremendous postwar growth in America. Parts of this research were placed in various scholarly venues before the book was published in 1999 by Cambridge University Press in their prestigious Studies in the History of Psychology series. Psychologists on the March: Science, Practice, and Professional Identity in America, 1929-1969 has been widely reviewed.

The Wells biography project was launched in the summer of 1999 with the hiring of archival librarian Faye Mark as Capshew’s research assistant. Her job was to probe various parts of the voluminous Wells materials held at the IU Archives. The following year Wells died and a memorial academic symposium was held in his honor. Capshew contributed an article to the published monograph, The Wells Archive: Exploring the World of Higher Education (2000), as well as co-editing the publication with Philip Bantin.James Capshew, his children Samantha, Bryna, and Andrew,  and Dr. Wells

The pedagogical role of the campus environment emerged as a major research theme. Wells operated as a cultural entrepreneur, bringing faculty and facilities to campus so it became a noted center for the arts and humanities. He was alive to the value of beautiful surroundings, and lavished care on the physical plant, with its verdant landscape and distinguished limestone architecture. Among the publications tracing this theme are “Home Design for Indiana University: Herman B Wells and the Furnishing of the Campus,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History (2002) and “The Campus as a Pedagogical Agent: Herman Wells, Cultural Entrepreneurship, and the Benton Murals,” Indiana Magazine of History (2009).

The working title of the Wells biography was For the Love of Learning: Herman B Wells and Indiana University. When the writing was complete, the overarching theme emerged: Wells ineffable harmony with the animating energies of this special place, its people, and its ethos, expressed by the term genius loci. Capshew explored this theme in a long essay, “Encounters with Genius Loci: Herman Wells at/and/of Indiana University,” in Perspectives on the History of Higher Education (2011). Under a revised title, Herman B Wells: The Promise of the American University, Indiana University Press published his book in 2012. Capshew’s analysis of Wells’s childhood and youth, “Making Herman B Wells: Moral Development and Emotional Trauma in a Boone County Boyhood,” Indiana Magazine of History (2011), can function as a prequel to the book. A related work that examined patterns of presidential leadership at IU, with a focus on Wells, was given by Capshew as the Herman B Wells Distinguished Lecture and published as “Indiana University as the ‘Mother of College Presidents’: Herman B Wells as Inheritor, Exemplar, and Agent” (2011).